Nota Bene: This post is about the realities of what a zombie apocalypse would entail, and how someone like me represents those realities in his fiction. This subject was inspired by a negative review of Know When to Run, but it is only tangentially related to that review.
The (awesome) book in question.
Gentle Reader, I have received my first really negative review. It was from another writer, and someone I respect, and it was shared in the most thoughtful and anonymous way possible. This reviewer is NOT a hater; please don’t harass him. It was mentioned briefly in his (very entertaining) roundup of CthulhuCon PDX:
I also met another author, who was inspiring as well — sadly, while I loved a short story of his, I read one of his novels and wow, not good. While I suppose it serves the greater good to provide a bad review, he was kind enough to give me e-copies for free and since I’m not a professional reviewer, I’d feel terrible saying the truth of the awfulness in return. So, I’ll select to say nothing at all. But even so, he seemed like a great guy personally and I can take a lesson from him in regards to self-publishing.
“Wow, not good.” Shielding me from hearing “the truth of its awfulness.” These are heart-rending, bowel-twisting things for an author to hear. The reviewer in question is also a wonderful guy and his honest opinion is appreciated, but fuck me sideways. The things is, when I read this in his roundup, I wasn’t sure he was referring to me, although (a) I did give a reading of an awesome story; and (2) I did send him eBook versions of several of my novels for review.
So I wrote him after I read this and asked him, “Is this about me? This is me, isn’t it?” Now, considering my unique psychological mix of magical thinking, complete paranoia, and narcissism, this is what I often think about “anonymous” comments, but this time I hit it right on the nose. He wrote back:
I truly wanted to like Know When to Run, but I just didn’t. 😦 I do appreciate your sending me a copy, and I don’t want to be ungrateful. I do wish you success!
Is that not a gentlemanly way to say it? My first truly bad review could not have been tempered by more graciousness and kindness. In fact, I have heard some comments from different people that they “loved Reviva but wow, was it dark!” Or “This isn’t as funny as your other stuff.” Or “It was great, but that one part made me really uncomfortable.” These were all positive reviews, mind you.
What’s the problem here, exactly?
So I think I have worked out what is rubbing people the wrong way or challenging them in ways that they neither expected not welcomed. (That sounds snotty, but I frequently don’t want to have my assumptions about life challenged when reading what I consider “escapist” fiction. So this is in no way saying anything bad about these readers and reviewers.) I believe it is this:
The end of humankind is not going to be “fun.”
It’s not going to be funny. It’s not going to be zany. It’s not going to leave the final survivors psychologically or morally unaffected. The Zombie Apocalypse is going to suck.
That said, I think there is plenty of room for hilarity in zombie stories (in books, for example, Jesse Petersen’s Living With The Dead series and many others; in movies, Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, and many others). The idea of the dead walking and eating the living and turning them into zombies is prima facie absurd. When something is absurd, it’s just one more step into comical.
A zombocalypse is always a metaphor. For war, for fear of contagion, for being stuck inside with your hateful family on a rainy holiday. Metaphors can, and often are, quite funny; but I’m a philosopher of zombiism, if you will. I get paid (or, more accurately, do not get paid) to study the ideas and realities of zombies and their cultural impact. I see the darkness. I like jokes (a little too much, according to the Spousal Unit), but in Know When To Run, the jokes are asides made on the way to the gallows.
The death of almost every human can change a person. Except on The Walking Dead.
People who know me know that I hate the TV show The Walking Dead. (Except for the zombie effects, which are the best of any medium EVAR.) Other than the flat dialogue, the horrid pacing, and the almost complete lack of zombies in too many of its episodes (if I want to watch people fighting over who does the laundry, I’ll just live it in life), the biggest problem with The Walking Dead is that, aside from shell-shock and such, they are essentially unchanged on the inside.
Sure, this one will go have sex with that one, or this one will protect what’s his with violence, if necessary. But Carl (Corrrrralllll) is still minding his manners and being taught not to do this and do that as if the world is not at an end. People do things that are not quite morally acceptable (to the viewer on his or her ass on the couch), but there’s no real transgression among those who (I’m looking at you, Merle and Daryl) weren’t already pretty transgressive in the first place.
In Know When to Run (ironically), all bets are off. People take what they want, and damn the consequences because the fucking world is at an end. There would be a tipping point in any zombie infestation in which the humans mathematically cannot win. Even if every zombie dropped (re)dead at or after this point, there won’t be enough humans to get an industrial society going again, in one year or in five hundred years.
Bad news, kids: The ship of civilization has sailed … and sunk. Point is, it ain’t comin’ back.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Naw, it would take a long time, but repopulating and such will get humanity back up to speed eventually.” If by “up to speed” you mean a kind of medieval city-state existence that, admittedly, lasted for almost 1,500 years, then yeah, sure, maybe. But if you mean anything past the very first breath of the industrial revolution, then no, you are wrong. We have done used up a lot, maybe most, of the resources needed to start from scratch.
Think I’m just being pessimistic? Tell me: Do most of the people you know have any experience or knowledge about farming? Not gardening—farming. Forget factory farms and Monsanto-sized superfarms; I mean a farm that produces not only the food you need, but also a surplus that can be bartered or (if currency still exists) sold? Somebody surely knows how to do this, but the Internet and the postal system ain’t working—how are you going to get that information? (Answer: You’re not.)
How about electricity? Do you know anyone who might know how to get a power plant up and running once its run down because all of its people are undead or regular dead? Before you get the local station going, you need to get the larger stations online, which means you have to get the plant itself online. Somebody knows how to do it, you can be sure. Or, well, did know it, before they joined the ranks of the undead.
See, there’s the rub: Let’s say fully one billion people remain human and are in possession of their faculties for the most part. IF the zombies have all gone away (which would be unlikely to the point of absurdity, but just stay with me here), how would these people or their children, or their great-great-great grandchildren for that matter, get anything restarted, let alone anything past a pre-Constantinople walled city completely incommunicado with other such city-states? (Again, answer: They couldn’t and wouldn’t.)
Everything old (and shitty) is new again
Think of the medieval walled city as the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead; the mall in Dawn of the Dead; the military compound in Day of the Dead; the cabin in Evil Dead; and the million other enclosed spaces where living humans barricade themselves against the undead onslaught. The zombies cease to be the immediate problem. No, guys and gals, the immediate problem is those other goddamned humans.
See, let’s say someone in the post-zomboc city-state says, “Hey, I was a solar engineer—let’s have electricity and all that comes with it by doing solar! We’d only have to send a party out into the nearby former city and take the panels and batteries and wiring from (wherever), bring ’em back here, and voila! All the electricity we can use!”
Sounds great, right? Except that the no-man’s land between the city-state and the former big city is, if not chock-full of the undead, then definitely home to marauders and rapists and just general psychopaths formed by the fall of civilization. How many volunteers will there be to go on this very dangerous mission? Remember, inside the walls feels safe, something the survivors haven’t felt in a long time, if they even were born before everything went to hell.
Know When to Run is not for the squeamish about violence, death, or sex
The world after a zombie apocalypse is dark and horrifying. Know When to Run takes place just 8 years after the dead rise, and there’s still at least one city remaining (guess which) that is zombie-free, so it’s not even as bad (yet) as the above scenarios.
But that isn’t where the problem lies for some readers with my novel. Taboos are broken—in fact, cease to exist almost entirely—when most people just want to survive and fulfill their immediate needs. And yes, that includes sex.
And this sexual component, which appears only twice in the book, is what I think some readers find unacceptable. Not because of the fiction, but because of the truth within that fiction that no one wants to think about in this “escapist” entertainment. So … “not good”? In that way, I guess not. But it is a hell of a story that doesn’t pull its punches, that’s for sure.
But what is this terrible sexual element that would pervade every survivor’s mind and that readers may not be prepared for? Stay tuned.
Both of my blog followers may recall that yesterday I came to the conclusion that a bad review—as well as some mitigating comments in some good reviews—of my new novel, Know When to Run, may have been caused by the extremely dark view of mankind (not to mention zombiekind) in the face of a true zombie apocalypse.
To be more specific, I believe the “not good” and “awfulness” comments are reactions to the extremely pessimistic view of what humans may do sexually when everything is lost. But let’s start with the idea of an actual zombie apocalypse. Not an outbreak, not even a war that we’re winning, but the scenario that civilization has ground to a halt and probably even taken steps backward when 9 out of 10 people on the planet are dead or undead.
A reader in Virginia writes:
Your latest blog post contradicts [the novel World War Z, for which I had earlier professed my love, and which (SPOILER ALERT) shows mankind winning the war against the undead, at least for the present]. It was always one of my faves because it convinced me humanity might have a chance [in a Class 3 zombie outbreak, if not a Class 4.]
He asked me first if I liked the novel, which of course I said no BECAUSE I LOVE THAT BOOK. (Ahem. Excuse me.) It is really grand and the plotting (along with everything else) is perfect. But recall that it is subtitled “An Oral History of the Zombie War.” By definition, an oral history of a war must be given (and collected) by survivors. And if there are actual survivors after a long and drawn-out zombie conflict, it means that the zombies didn’t win. (At least, not yet. And if they do try again, we’ll know how to fight them.) So the very title and subtitle of the book give readers a bit of what to expect.
If you have not read World War Z, go right now and get it and read it. I’ll wait.
Okay, good job. Now, by definition, the zombie infestation in WWZ is a Class 3 outbreak—humans are right on the cusp of extinction, but mathematically (if adopting the right tactics and understanding of the enemy, as in the book) it’s still possible for humans to defeat the zombies.
Spoiler alert: We may win a “Zombie War.” But not in my novel.
In Know When to Run, this is not the situation. Because of what would be an almost immediate breakdown of infrastructure, most human survivors have no idea what’s going on in the rest of the country, let alone the world. All they know is that there has been no word from anyone traveling through that humans are still in charge. It is Class 4, an undead world, even though pockets of humanity still live in isolated packs, if you will.
This is the situation in The Walking Dead, for example. There are isolated communities of humans who have so far survived due to luck or pluck, but the planet is lost. (There is no “cure” for zombiism because there is no cure for death, by definition. Ending the virus’s control of the dead body is the only “cure,” and that simply means the walking dead go back to being the lying-down-and-not-moving-anymore dead. A best-case scenario, but NOT a cure.)
Anyway, whether people enjoy it or not, some stories about worldwide zombie outbreaks are going to be quite dark even if their treatments offer a bit of levity on the way to the hangman’s noose. Know When to Run is such a book. And now we come to the sex part of the discussion.
Ever heard of PTSD? Ever heard of “life in wartime”?
At the end of the world, when seriously all hope is gone and you’re just trying to survive long enough to … well, hell, you don’t even really know why you’re trying to survive, since all you’re doing is living hardscrabble while you wait to die or be turned undead; at this point in history, you are not following the rules of civilization. You follow only the dictates of your own conscience—and herein is the rub:
You’re not going to be the same person you were before 8 years of hunger; 8 years of almost constant fear and often panic; 8 years of sleeping with one eye open so you aren’t killed or your sack of necessities taken from you, which amounts to the same thing. The people you loved are gone, maybe dead, maybe worse. You have probably killed other people out of necessity, or out of the anticipation of necessity. Or out of fear, or hunger, or need. That is to say:
You will follow the dictates of your own conscience, but that conscience and those dictates are NOT going to be the same as they were before the dead rose.
And that is especially true when it comes to sex. Women, men, makes no difference—if you see an advantage, a way of getting something you want or need in a world that has denied it for almost a decade, you take it. If the partner is underaged by our human-world standards, that probably isn’t going to make a bit of difference in the zombocalypse.
Let me make it clear that there is no rape in Know When to Run, and perhaps this is implausible in the big picture. But this novel is the story of one person, the vagabond poker player trying to come live in a zombie-free paradise. And his conscience stops short of any kind of forcible sexual encounter, whether mental or physical. Others aren’t better or worse in the post-zomboc world, at least not by our comfortable standards, because there are no normative standards in this world. No laws, not even enough people to form a posse and hang a bad person.
There can be more to a zombie novel than FUNTIME WHEEEE. You may find it horrifying. That is the idea.
So Reviva‘s sexual portrayals of teenagers having sex is maybe distasteful to us sitting back and wanting a wacky, Zombieland-style, we’re-all-in-this-together flavor of apocalypse, and that’s fine … but that isn’t what Know When to Run is. A world where zombies are the dominant species is a world of Hell, worse than you may think, especially when a key to zom-free Heaven is dangled right in front of your nose, as it is to our hero in the novel.
If you want to know exactly what happens, please do buy the book, read it, and leave a review somewhere. I want to know what you think of a “zombie expert’s” take on a Class 4 Zombie Outbreak once you’ve read it.
And to my very conscientious and honorable reviewer who didn’t want to write a bad review and seem ungrateful, I truly appreciate you. You have made me think of not only my book, but the entire concept of an undead world, in a deeper, more rigorous way.