Review 160: The Day After and Other Stories

The Day After and Other Stories by Wil Wheaton

If you had asked me, back in 1988 or so, – when I was a Trek fan who hadn’t quite figured out the real reason I liked seeing Wesley Crusher on screen – what Wil Wheaton was doing at any given time, it would have sounded like a completely irrational question. How should I know? He’s probably doing whatever it is actors do in their free time, which my mind generally rendered as some sort of eternal cocktail party where all the famous people knew each other and none of them would be caught dead with a prole such as myself.

And this isn’t just Wheaton – the idea that I could know what any of my favorite creative people were up to at any given moment was just impossible back then. It was just a fact of life. I am over here, and they are over there, and the chances of our two spheres of reality intersecting were precisely nil. They were members of America’s elect, and I was, well, me.

Absolutely true. (image from Zazzle.com)

Now it’s the future, and we have connected our lives online to an extent that would have been almost unfathomable twenty years ago. Wheaton has greatly expanded his creative repertoire, and I am an Internationally Famous Podcaster and Book Reviewer. [1] For those who have access to it, the internet has democratized creativity in many ways. People who otherwise might have gone unnoticed in the world now have a chance to shine, and the daily workings of the famous are laid bare to everyone with a Twitter account.

Suddenly we can see that these people aren’t as special as we thought they were – they’re not living the eternal cocktail party of the gods. They’re working and juggling their careers and their families. They’re getting upset about politics and worrying about paying the bills. They’re having great ideas that never quite work out and massaging small ideas until they bloom. The creative process is now open to everyone, and the potential for your work to be noticed is that much greater.

Of course, the caveat is that your creative work has to be that much better. If you’re a short fiction writer, for example, you no longer have to shop around for agents and wait for the big publishing companies to take on your book. You can publish it by yourself and see what happens. But if that’s the route you’ve chosen to take, then you’d better be damn good. There are a whole lot of fish in that pond, and you’re only going to end up on the internet’s dinner table if you are big, juicy and succulent.

And then this fish is me... (photo by Corey Johnson)

Okay, I don’t know where that particular metaphor came from. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Wil Wheaton is definitely one of those big, succulent fish. He’s got his years of work in film and TV to support him, and he has become one of the stars of the 21st-century internet. As of this writing, he has over 1.9 million Twitter followers and runs a very successful blog. He’s a darling of the summer convention season and probably the TV guest star that I most look forward to seeing. He makes a living writing and blogging and acting, has a gorgeous wife and two sons that have turned out to be fine young men.

So, with all that, why should he be scared to publish this book, his first collection of short fiction? After all, it’s a limited print run, and if it fails then so what? It’s not like this will be the end of the Vast Wheaton Empire, right? Why should this be so important to him?

There are also things he wishes the world never saw, but that clown left the clown car years ago...

It’s because he understands the new dynamic between the creator and the consumer. He understands that his creative work must live or die on its own merits, and not just because it’s Wil Wheaton putting his name on the cover. He knows that he’s no better than anyone else who loves his craft and puts it out for the world to see.

The Day After and Other Stories is a very short collection of four stories that Wheaton has written – his first published collection of fiction. The title story takes its name from the movie of the same title, and is an exploration into what it might be like to be a survivor of the end of the world. Tim, a young man just out of high school, is living among the dead. The walking dead, that is. Zombies have taken over everything, and he and a few people from his town are holed up in a high school gym in the hopes that things might someday get better soon. Of course, they won’t. Tim knows that, the girl he loves, Erica, knows that – everybody knows that. But they have to try and hold on anyway, because there’s nothing else they can do.

“Room 302” is a bit of flash fiction, inspired by a photograph. Most of it is a pretty straightforward analysis of a mediocre photo, and an explanation of why it can’t be used in a news paper. Fine, a nice scene and some good dialogue – with a creepy twist at the end that, much like “The Day After,” makes me wish there was more story to read.

Wheaton tells us that “The Language Barrier” was inspired by a real event – overhearing a couple of ladies having a heated conversation in a mixture of Russian and English. In the story, the conversation is exactly that, but the eavesdropper, Mike, does what we wish we all might be able to do – he steps in and says what most needs to be said. It’s one of those moments where l’esprit d’escalier is beaten to the punch.

It turns out that Wil is actually the monkey's lucky charm.

Finally, “Poor Places” rose from Wheaton’s love of poker. I never was able to get into poker, probably because I am really risk-averse when it comes to money, but there was a time in the mid-Aughts where poker was the trendiest game to be had. In this story, a couple of players in their local Hollywood bar proceed to fleece some tourists in a back-room poker parlor. It’s probably the weakest of the four stories, but I grant that not knowing poker lingo really doesn’t help.

All in all, they’re four good stories. Wheaton has a good ear for dialogue and a way of making characters sound believable, even if the plot structure is a little weak in points, or the narration tries to carry more weight than it can bear.

Probably because it is the longest of the stories, “The Day After” is the most guilty of this – Tim is described by other characters as “kind of an asshole,” but his actions don’t really match that so much. He complains a lot, sure, but who wouldn’t be a bit bitchy after human civilization has gone to the zombies? When he’s told it’s his time to fill the generator, he goes. When the girl he’s crushing on offers a bit of apocalypse-sex, he considers turning it down, the way he did when they were in high school to protect her reputation. We don’t see the guy that the other characters do, which makes me wonder what else we’re not seeing. Internal conflict is a great hook upon which to hang a story, but the conflict between others’ view of him and his view of himself isn’t developed nearly as well as it should be.

In addition, his internal narrative tells us things that would be better shown, and overall the whole thing could stand to be tightened up. I also have some questions regarding the gas can (a full one left next to the generator? Who would have left that there?) and their discovery of Alvin (the guy camped out only about twenty feet from the school gym and never noticed that there were survivors living in there?) While interesting, adding a mini-quest to the story – get gas, then fill the generator – would have been fun, and the dead guy just served to heighten the sense of loneliness that was already there. A sense that was about to be mitigated once they got back into the gym with the other survivors. It’s nitpicking, but sometimes that just has to be done….

Maybe the lives of the Famous really are different after all...

All that said, it looks like the beginning of a much longer story, albeit a bleak one, which I hope he works on more. [2]

If you haven’t bought this, you’re probably out of luck – the print run lasted for a very brief window of time, but I reckon an electronic version of it will be up at some point. If it is, scrape a few bucks together and pick it up. It’s a quick read, and I feel like it’ll be something to hold on to if Wheaton decides to pursue more fiction. If he does, I’m sure he will approach it with the same honesty and humility that he had when he released this book, which means that I’ll certainly be willing to pick it up.

—————————————————————
“I’m terrified that nobody’s going to like it, but the goal isn’t to be perfect; the goal is to be creative. I’m going to keep saying that until I don’t feel like I’m going to throw up.”
– Wil Wheaton, from his blog
—————————————————————

[1] Source: Me

[2] When I was in college, my creative writing teacher told me exactly that – the short story I had written was actually the beginning of a novel. The whole thing immediately dried up under my fingers and turned to dust, and the novel he thought I was writing never came to be. I hope Mr. Wheaton is made of sterner stuff than I was.

Wil Wheaton on Wikipedia
The Day After on Amazon.com (Kindle only)
Wil Wheaton’s blog
Wil Wheaton on Twitter

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Filed under anthology, fiction, short stories, Wil Wheaton, zombies

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