Don’t let the cover fool you, Choose Your Own Apocalypse won’t leave you flipping back and forth based on choices you make. Presented by The Space Balrogs, a collective of science-fiction authors who pool their writing talents and marketing savvy, this book feels more like a sampler platter than a meal, and that’s not a criticism. As a low-cost investment, both in terms of price and time, Choose Your Own Apocalypse does exactly what it should – it gives readers a chance to take eight very different authors for a test-drive, and it helps the readers find more works by those same authors.
As a whole, the collection is a mixed bag. The tone of the stories ranges from firmly tongue in cheek to deadly earnest, and the transition can be a bit jarring. Given the subject matter, end of the world stories requires a deft touch. You can’t just explain that the stakes are the world and expect readers to invest in the stakes. Our earth might be where the Arby’s lives, and therefore worth saving, but you need to convey a sense of the world within the story as well. Is it worth saving? More importantly, the main character has to be presented with care, whether fighting to end the world or fighting to preserve it. Some of these stories succeed better than others, but which Armageddon is right for you…is up to you.
Holli Henderson brings us an alien invasion from the alien’s point of view, in They All Must Die. Her use of a surviving toddler with a speech impediment to serve as the emotional focus feels a little too on the nose and transparently manipulative for my tastes, and the rather creative alien race (races?) suffers (suffer?) from internal monologues and inter-personal relationships that lack the alien psychology necessary to feel like anything other than humans in rubber suits. Despite these flaws, or perhaps because of them, Henderson manages to present the instruments of humanity’s doom as imminently sympathetic and relatable. While the aliens win out in the end – no spoilers, every story ends with the end of the world just like it says on the tin – their attempts to bridge the alien-human divide make for an ending both poignant and thought provoking.
J. Butler presents a secret history tale. Or is it an alternate earth? Or maybe time travel? It’s hard to say what In A Secret Room genre fits into because it straddles the weird fiction genre-boundary with aplomb. Unravelling the mystery of whether the Washington D.C. based wizard jumping across etheric barriers to try and save his world leaves the reader uncertain as to who he should be rooting for in the story until it’s almost too late. A classic example of “show don’t tell” storytelling, coupled with a Star Wars reference as a jokey B-plot, leaves the whole story empty. Things happen. Clever and interesting things, but there’s no reason to for the reader to invest in the story, particularly given the dark tone mixed with one too many light-hearted gags.
The Eighth Day, by Robert J. Defendi packs a massive action-oriented punch. This near-future cyberpunk dystopian thriller leaves the world in better shape than the rest of the stories in the collection, with the protagonist fighting to introduce a super-virus into the machine network that will bring the computer age to an end. Like Zorg from the classic sci-fi film The Fifth Element, the man’s motivations for great mountains of money made worthless by his own actions sucks some of the life from the story, but at least this story acknowledges that quirk. And if you ignore that slight blemish, the story becomes an excellent cyberpunk infiltration mission well worth a read.
My least favorite of the stories, Jason King’s Object of Affection brings the world to an end via a demonic sort of Screwtape Solution. It’s a joke story that never really commits to the bit. It wants to be dark and moody and light and goofy all at once. More time needed to be spent showing the reader why this particular world needed to die so that the inevitable end would feel like poetic justice. The narrator hovers between presenting the main character in the story as both pathetic and sympathetic, and the clash between those moods impinges on the stakes of the story.
Craig Nybo shakes things up with his poem, I’m No Martyr. Told from the point of view of a reluctant leader of men, it’s a lyrical piece that does a great job conveying the struggle of survival in a post-collapse environment. It leaves most of the wreckage up to the reader to focus on the internal struggle of one of those few who remain.
Daniel Swenson delivers death in the form of dragons in Dark Wings From Above. One of the last human holdouts hides from a leather-winged apocalypse in the ruins of a sport stadium. When their refuge draws the notice of the storm of dragons who have already destroyed organized human resistance, the ending is as predictable as it is tragic. A straight action piece, Swenson brings the heavy weight of the doomed last stand to the page and delivers the goods. The humanity trampled underfoot are shown with a vividness that gives the action real stakes and gives the inevitable conclusion the needed tragedy.
David J. West, one of the best of the new crop of self-made authors, brings his experience with weird westerns to the table in Dog Will Hunt. Once again, aliens cause humanity’s downfall, but West takes the “enlightened and advanced culture” trope of sci-fi, turns it on its head, and presents a story where cowboy grit and determination to do what’s right goes a lot farther to produce good works than all of the well-meaning intellectual blindness of a Federation-style empire among the stars. The world still ends, but the hero of the piece does his level best and succeeds in a way that satisfies, even if the world is still doomed in the end.
The book ends with 01101001, one of the best accidental AI-awakening stories I’ve ever read. James Wymore, the editor of the collection, writes a genocidal AI that dances along a fine line between romantic foolishness and remorseless world killer. Told from the point of view of said AI, it features everything from romance to mil-sf to hard sci-fi technological thrills, and includes more twists and turns than should really fit inside so short of a story. The titular AI has motivations that feel real, and Wymore invests her personality with so much character its hard not to root for her even as she sets about wiping humanity from the earth.
The Choose Your Own Apocalypse collection takes ok a lot of risks, and not all of them pay off for every reader. The collected authors have a wide variety of voices, and the resultant hodge-podge doesn’t quite gel into a unified whole. Which is not to say this collection isn’t worth reading. While you might not appreciate like every story in this anthology, you’re almost certain to find at least a couple of stories that tickle your fancy. And if you’ve never read anything by the Space Balrogs, it’s a great way to take a chance on a string of authors all of whom are worth a shot. You’ll probably come away with at least one new author with a backlog of titles you’ll want to delve into for more, and maybe even eight of them.