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Twenty years after it was released, a collection of post-apocalyptic stories remains relevant today.

Book Review: Beyond Armageddon, edited by Walter M. Miller Jr. and Martin Greenberg

In reprinting Beyond Armageddon, a 1985 anthology of stories focusing on nuclear holocaust, Bison Books validated an enigma. Undoubtedly, the world was different 20 years ago. But equally true is the diametric adage that the more things change the more they remain the same.

Although the 21 stories compiled by Hugo Award-winning author Walter M. Miller Jr. and master anthologist Martin H. Greenberg cover decades of writing, they also reflect the world at the time Beyond Armageddon was originally released. Ronald Reagan had been sworn in for a second term and Mikhail Gorbachev assumed had leadership in the Soviet Union. Only two years had passed since Reagan, discussing proposals for a nuclear weapons freeze, called the U.S.S.R. "an evil empire." The world was on its way to record number of nuclear weapons and the doomsday clock was almost the closest it has ever been to a nuclear midnight.

Today, the number of nuclear weapons has diminished and the Cold War has ended. But in the same time we have seen the disintegration of controls over the Soviet stockpile, the efforts of North Korea and Iran to obtain such weapons, Pakistan joining its neighbor and foe India in the nuclear club and the increased threat of terrorism. As a result, while the hands of the nuclear clock have retreated, they today are they closest to midnight in more than a decade. Sadly, Beyond Armageddon is not an interesting historical artifact. It remains relevant today.

The release of this edition is part of a continuing effort by Bison, a paperback imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, to reprint classic books in a variety of genres. Thus, with the exception of Greenberg's new postscript to Miller's original introduction, the reprint seeks to remain true to the original, even matching the pagination. Among science fiction aficionados, Miller's introductions to the anthology and each story are themselves notable.

Miller won the 1961 Hugo Award for best novel for A Canticle for Leibowitz. First published in 1959, Canticle is a classic post-apocalyptic novel, one in which a Catholic abbey struggles to preserve bits and pieces of pre-war knowledge it does not understand. Not only was that Miller's only novel (although a sequel Miller started was completed by another writer and published posthumously), it was his last original fiction. Thus, his introductions here may be the last in an SF work by Miller, who committed suicide in 1996.

Yet perhaps reflective of Miller's personal struggles, the basic introduction tends to be a somewhat rambling, politically oriented discourse. He, in fact, even suggests nuclear proliferation may ultimately be the key to nuclear disarmament. His introductions to individual stories serve more as transition pieces, providing limited details about the timeframe in which the stories appeared, something the reader might find useful in analyzing the works.

Still, he and Greenberg undoubtedly compiled an eclectic collection. Few of the stories talk about the act or war giving rise to the destruction of society. Instead, the focus is on "life after" and human efforts to cope with it. As Miller says in the introduction, the topic here is what he calls the "Megawar," which need not necessarily be nuclear cataclysms.

One of the stories was actually published eight years before the first atomic bomb test. Stephen Vincent Benet's "By the Waters of Babylon" originally appeared in 1937, but fits perfectly in the anthology. Said to be a reaction to the bombing of Guernica, it is an exploration of life years after "the Great Burning and the Destruction" that occurred when there was "fire falling out of the sky and a mist that poisoned." That is just one example of how Greenberg and Miller plumb the genre in their effort to explore a variety of explicit and implicit themes.

Some stories, such as Ward Moore's "Lot" and Carol Emshwiller's "Day at the Beach," look at family. The former is patterned on the Old Testament story of Lot's wife while the latter is a family trying to have what previously would have been a normal day at the beach. The best exploration of efforts to find post-cataclysm normality, though, may be Robert Sheckley's "The Store of the Worlds," which is based on priniciples of quantum physics, not atomic physics. Another aspect of family — the genetic effect of nuclear war — is explored in several stories, including Edward Bryant's "Jody After the War" and Poul Anderson's "Tomorrow's Children."

Music also occasionally appears as a core element. Norman Spinrad's Nebula Award-nominated "The Big Flash" makes rock music a prelude to nuclear devastation while in Michael Swanwick's "The Feast of Saint Janis," also Nebula-nominated, Janis Joplin's music becomes a centerpiece of post-holocaust society. Finally, music is an effort at communication in Edgar Pangborn's "The Master of Babylon."

A few classic SF stories also are included, such as Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains" (in which an automated house has outlived its human occupants) and Arthur C. Clarke's "If I Forget Thee O Earth" (pondering the total destruction of the human population of Earth). Yet only one of the collection's stories received one of SF's most notable awards. Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog," a story selected to explore a theme predicated on ancient myths of the underworld, won the Nebula for best novellete in 1970.

But Beyond Armageddon wasn't intended to assemble award winners and classics. Instead, as Miller says in the introduction, "This is a book about people." It is simply unfortunate that works about people facing the end of civilization and history via man's own hand have lasting relevancy.

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.

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