The Problem with Zombies

Put the shotguns and the crowbars down, zombie lovers. Like you, I love the genre, and have spent many a beer-fueled evening arguing over the plausibility of retrofitting a bus with chain-saw slots and snow plows in order to escape a press of rotting, stinking, writhing undead. My problem is not with the zombies or those brave souls who battle them. It’s not even with the writers of zombie stories and movies, who produce some of my favorite entertainment. It’s with those writers who occasionally mistake the narrative purpose and utility of their brain-dead creations.

Before we get going, a clarification: I’m going to be using the term “zombie” in its broadest possible sense. (This will irritate the purists, to whom I say: too bad, it’s my blog.) In this post, “zombie” will indicate any creature that is both mindless and malevolent. In this sense, we loop in the “forged” of Robin Hobb, the Vord and the “taken” of Jim Butcher, the Others of George R.R. Martin, and the generic storm troopers from Star Wars. We can debate until the cows come home about whether these various groups are actually as mindless as literal zombies, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to point out that they are 1) pretty bad and 2) entirely monochromatic in terms of their motivations and emotional range.

So what’s the trouble? Well, in the hands of skilled writers, nothing. Zombies can be tremendously useful and unsettling. I love Star Wars and Dawn of the Dead, Assassin’s Apprentice and Game of Thrones. It’s vital, however, to understand what zombies are good for, and to do that, we need to take a look at the main instance in which they are useless.

To wit: zombies make shitty principal villains. Any movie or book in which a zombie is the main bad guy is in serious trouble from the get-go. Consider this simple thought experiment: replace Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine with anonymous storm troopers and see what happens to Star Wars. Replace Joffrey and Cersei Lanniser with “Others.” Either revision would geld the story. Good villains have to be able to think and feel. If it can’t think and feel, it can’t win or lose, and if it can’t win or lose, there’s no real satisfaction in hacking off its head and mounting it on a pitchfork over the mailbox, no matter how much ichor drips onto the junk mailings from Publisher’s Weekly.

Yes, smallpox was “defeated,” but as far as I know, the World Health Organization didn’t stand over the final virus, fists clenched, teeth bared, like Muhammad Ali over Sonny Liston.

“Aha!” the zombie-fanatic exclaims. “But what about zombie movies, asshole? You know – the ones with actual shambling, brain-eating zombies? Zombies are the antagonists in those movies, and those movies ROCK!”

Yes and no. Yes, Dawn of the Dead rocks, but no, zombies are not the antagonists. The zombies are not characters at all. They are the weather.

They are the weather in exactly the same way the storm in The Perfect Storm is the weather, and they serve an identical function: they make life harder for the cast of human characters, and in so doing they force all manner of interesting conflicts and compromises, fuck-ups and epiphanies to the surface. This is the first good use to which zombies can be put.

And we need not limit ourselves to storms and zombies. The weather could be comprised of deadly trees (The Happening, Day of the Triffids), deadly blobs (The Blob), deadly birds (The Birds), deadly trans-dimensional insects (The Mist), deadly dinosaurs (Jurassic Park), deadly cold (The Day after Tomorrow), deadly freaky underground worm things (Tremors), deadly water pressure (all submarine movies ever made), deadly viruses (Contagion, et. al.), deadly genetically-modified hyper-intelligent sharks (that movie where Samuel Jackson gets chomped in half).

I could go on, but I think the theme is clear: it’s the “deadly” that matters, not the noun that follows it. Yes, of course, the strategy and tactics differ; you don’t use the same tricks to survive a vengeful fungus that you might when trying to endure the precipitous onset of an ice age. When I say that the type of adversity doesn’t matter, what I really mean is that the sort of drama that ensues in this type of plot is fundamentally the same: people struggle with each other and themselves in order to overcome or survive “the weather.” This type of story (when told well) generally doesn’t culminate with the defeat of the tree/worm thing/hyper-intelligent shark but with human endurance (or, in the case of several of these stories) the failure to endure. In Twenty-Eight Days Later, the point isn’t to beat the zombies – you can’t defeat them any more than you could defeat The Perfect Storm – it is to weather them. The struggle happens between the human beings.

The second use of zombies (again, in my broad sense) is as a weapon. This is what happens in Star Wars, where the Emperor wields his imperial minions, or The Lord of the Rings, where Sauron and Saruman wield their orcs. In this case, we don’t need intelligence or emotional range out of the zombies any more than we need intellectual subtlety out of the Kurgan’s sword (although the Kurgan’s sword does kick some serious ass) or Voldemort’s wand. What matters is the villain wielding the weapon and the way in which he/she/it wields it.

To come full circle, a story runs into trouble when a zombie or group of zombies is treated as the antagonist. “Good Guys and Gals Versus Zombies” tends to fail, plot-wise, because it’s the equivalent of “Good Guys and Gals Versus Lightning.” If the guys and gals are all truly good, if they have no psychological demons or bad eggs mixed into the group, then there’s not much to write about. They do their best and either the lightning gets them or it doesn’t.

Almost all writers understand this at some level, and so it’s rare to see a story without a viable antagonist at the outset. In zombie stories, there’s always a megalomaniac or sociopath mixed into the group, a petty tyrant or at least a garden-variety asshole (Garden-Variety Asshole would be a good name for something. Not, like, a child, but a band or an album.) against whom the protagonists must struggle while they’re trying to endure the zombies. So far, so good.

What often happens, however, is that the writer mistakes the zombies for the true antagonist. As a result, the humans start out with their real and interesting problems, problems that emotionally animate the story, that keep us reading, but then those problems are resolved prematurely. For the final pages/minutes we’re left with what can only be a cooking-cutter climax between good and zombie. The special effects people will do their damndest to keep us engaged, and I like seeing a field of zombies decimated by a helicopter blade as much as the next guy, but if that’s the final conflict, it’s just a matter of hacking up meat – and there’s a reason we don’t have a thriving market for stories about people in the chicken plants chopping up the dead birds.

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In Praise of Doing Actual Shit

Sometimes, in my weaker moments, it strikes me as a good idea to avoid doing actual shit.

To clarify, some terminology and context:

By “doing actual shit,” I mean doing something out in the world – splitting wood, playing the banjo, moving my friend’s girlfriend’s mattress and box spring out the window of a third-story garret, trying to build a bobsled run on the heavily wooded, very steep ridgeline we happen to live beneath  – as opposed to doing something in my head or on my computer.

I understand that people will resist this definition; “Inventing names for orphaned orcs is actual shit!” they will shout. And I get it. I’m sympathetic to this argument – after all, I write fantasy – but one of the pleasures of having a blog is in defining your own terms, and I’m sticking with my definition. For the purposes of this post, “actual shit” is not writing, or tweeting, or plotting, or revising, or counting your friends on facebook and trying to figure out how you came to know this one dude who’s wearing the full walrus costume in all his photos.

The reason it’s tempting to avoid doing actual shit is not that I don’t like doing actual shit, but that my job as a writer is to do things in my head or on my computer. The devious thinking runs as follows: for every mile I bike, for every hour I spend learning about edible mushrooms (but not actually eating them because those little fuckers can kill you), for every afternoon I go swimming in the pond with my son, I’ve failed to write a certain number of words. And I’m supposed to be writing words. That’s why the nice people at Tor pay me.

So, given all this, it seemed stupid to bring home a three-year-old rescue dog, a treeing coonhound with a huge scar across his back and a nick out of one ear. In fact, left to my own devices, I would have tallied up the costs – taking him for runs, taking him to the vet, putting out dinner for him, cleaning up the dog hair – converted the accumulated time into words not written (several hundred thousand, by my calculation), and decided to leave him at the shelter. One of the many wonderful things about my wife, however, is that she does not leave me to my own devices. And so we have the hound.

I like the hound for all the normal reasons that people like dogs. More than that, however, the hound has reminded me of something crucial that I’m always in danger of forgetting: Failing to do actual shit can turn a person into a shitty writer. The widest lexicon, most supple syntactical control, and the most inventive imagination can’t save a novelist from a lack of actual shit done.

Take the hound. I grew up with dogs, but I’d forgotten that quiet clicking of claws on the floor that brings movement and life to an otherwise empty house. I’d forgotten the way the soft flesh of a dog’s nose quivers when it half-sniffs, and the clink of a collar against a water bowl. I’d forgotten that pungent smell when you nuzzle close and realize your dog just ate a steaming pile of fox shit. Dogs don’t figure prominently in my books, but when they do appear, those moments will be richer and more nuanced for having a hound in my house.

And the thing is, you never know what you might need when you’re writing a book, or how the actual shit you’ve done on a given day (or month or year) might bring an otherwise generic scene into sharp focus.

Take, for instance, this little bit of description from J.V. Jones’s Cavern of Black Ice:

“Raif looked over the windblown flats of the badlands. Panes of ice already lay thick over melt ponds. In the flattened colt grass beneath Raif’s feet hoarfrost grew silently and insidiously as mold on second-day bread.”

Think what these lines might have been:

“Raif looked over the windblown flats of the badlands. Ice already slicked the ponds, and frost grew on the grass beneath Raif’s feet.”

There’s nothing wrong with this modified description, but compared with the original it seems anemic, attenuated. And here’s the thing, while it might be possible to Google your way into something like original (Image search: frost. Oh! Hoarfrost. Ok. Now, what are those little boggy pond things you see on the tundra called? Google “pondy bog”…), the process would be excruciating and the result less than ideal. Clearly, Jones has seen moldy bread, has enough first-hand experience with it that, when it came time to describe the hoarfrost here, her mind reached (a little inside joke, for those who know the book) for the bread image immediately. At the time, however, I suspect she wasn’t thinking, “Thank god I forgot this bread in the way, way back of the cupboard. This is really going to kick my writing up a notch.” I don’t know Jones (though I wish I did), but I suspect she was thinking something like what I would be thinking: “Well, fuck.”

And there’s just no way to know what actual shit might come in handy when writing a book: raking the leaves, sharpening knives, scrubbing out the tub, shooting cans of Budweiser with a pellet gun and then, when they rupture, racing to the cans and drinking the beer as it fountains forth in a frothy spray… (I highly recommend this last activity, a game we have dubbed “Shotgun Shotgun.”) In fact, I’ve found myself writing entire scenes based on experiences I’ve had doing actual shit, experiences that seemed, at the time they were happening, utterly useless, a complete waste of time, a distraction from writing.

Of course, when deadlines are looming, it’s hard to convince yourself that what your book needs is an entire day spent lashing together a raft of wooden logs, then floating said raft down the West River while drinking gin and tonics, trying to keep it from disintegrating beneath you all while preserving the precious gin in a little floating cooler that keeps capsizing every time you hit a tiny rapid. Then again, as I often tell my wife, “What I’m doing may look pointless, but it’s all work, baby. It’s all part of the work.”

Why My Penis?: Fantasy Worlds, Coherent and In-

Remember that time in grade school when you thought it would be awesome if all the mosquitoes in the world would just die, en masse? It was a childhood utopian dream – long summer days and no bug bites, no maddening whine in the ear, no itching all night long…

But then some smug prick said something like, “If the mosquitoes all died, then the frogs would die of starvation, and if the frogs died, then the black flies would thrive, and they would bite the shit out of you.” To which you sensibly retorted that the black flies could die along with the mosquitoes, because while we’re wishing, why not wipe out all the little bastards? But then, because of this irritating thing called the food web, it turned out that if you wiped out the black flies and mosquitoes both, you’d also wipe out cows, or turn Iowa into a dust bowl, or create a famine that would allow Nazis would take over the world, or some sort of horrible thing that seemed utterly unrelated to biting insects. But there were graphs and flow charts, studies of population density, and so eventually you just had to say, “Fine, I’ll deal with the fucking mosquitoes,” because you didn’t want to be the asshole who wished for a hamburgerless world of sand dunes and dust bowls run by the Nazis.

Writing fantasy is like that.

After all, the point of fantasy is to create a world that is, in some fundamental way, different from ours. Perhaps there are no mosquitoes. More likely, there are invisible swords, unbreakable swords, glowing swords, swords that are portals to another dimension, swords that talk, swords that think, swords that carry inside themselves the souls of the gods. And that’s just the swords. Don’t get me going about the talking animals, and wizards, and immortal elves.

This is, of course, the awesome thing about fantasy. For instance, there is a remarkable scene early in Elizabeth Bear’s outstanding novel Range of Ghosts. A character is flying on a bird “east, into the setting sun of the Uthman Caliphate, until they crossed the broad but bounded waters of the White Sea, and the sun was abruptly behind them, setting in the west.” When you read this, you either say, “Holy shit!” or you didn’t read it right. The sky itself is different in different parts of the world she has created: different sun, different planets, different constellations. It’s a stunning, brilliant idea, exactly the kind of thing that draws us to fantasy, but Bear has, as all fantasy writers must, killed off the metaphorical mosquitoes. She has changed a fundamental aspect of the world.

For some readers, perhaps most, this is fine. They are happy to luxuriate in a slightly foreign world sans bug bites. They know that the cover to a fantasy novel is a door to a different world, and they check their questions and their disbelief at that door. There are other readers, however, who like to ask questions, the most dangerous of which are: How? And Why? And But If… Then…?

Consider the handling of seasons in A Song of Ice and Fire: they are unpredictable and decoupled from the passage of years. For most readers: great. But if you think there aren’t people kept awake gnawing on the physics behind this, take a look here.

A writer of fantasy can’t avoid these questions – it’s built into the job description. But how to handle them? I can think of four basic approaches.

Just Smile and Pretend it’s Normal: This is more or less the method used by Martin with his seasons, or by Tolkien with his magic. There’s no explanation at all. The characters accept the changes to the world as normal. The narrator doesn’t dwell on them. The reader isn’t invited to speculate on them. It’s sort of like being at a dinner party where your host announces, in all seriousness, that he is the latest incarnation of Lao Tzu. You smile, have another three or four drinks, and pretend like it’s normal, in the hope that, with enough pretending, everyone will forget that it’s not normal.

Talk Louder and Faster: You may recognize this approach from the your yearly motor vehicle inspection. You take your car in for an inspection and the mechanic comes out to tell you it needs three thousand dollars worth of work. Alarmed, you ask what’s wrong, and you get something like, “Well, your IAC motor’s just been grinding the hill holder but the thing is… well, you’ve only got the four cotter pins, and shit… that tappet head might as well be a gnarled piston.” Whatever the hell that means. This goal of this kind of language isn’t really to explain anything – after all, if you understood all this, you’d hardly be bringing the car to a mechanic in the first place. The goal is to convince you that the mechanic knows what’s up, and to get you to fork over the three grand already. Fantasy writers can use the same trick, except substituting “old power” for “tappet head” and “ancient evil” for “IAC motor.”

Acknowledge the Unknowable: There’s a great moment in Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World. Having intuited early on that giving the Aes Sedai the power to fly will really screw up his plotting in the early books, Jordan moves decisively to squash the idea. Moraine just says it: Aes Sedai can’t fly. Someone (citation here, anyone?) asks why not, and she just sorta shrugs: no idea. Just can’t. In some ways, I think this is the most effective approach to the Whys and the Hows, circumventing, as it does, all further questioning. The trouble is, it’s not always entirely satisfying. Which leaves…

Explain: This is the bravest and most dangerous approach. Brave, because the writer must imagine levels of depth in her created world that are not necessary to the immediate function of the story. Brave, because every answer will spawn a dozen new questions. Brave because making shit up is, after all, what fantasy writers do. And dangerous? Well, have you ever talked with a two-year-old?

“Why my penis?”

“Because you have a Y chromosome.”

“Why Y chrome zome?”

“Because [mumble mumble] meiosis [mumble] gametes.”

“Why my o sis?”

Etc…

Infinite regress is, unfortunately, an invincible rhetorical strategy.

So, what’s the best approach? I suppose it will depend on the work in question, or the particular moment in the work. It will probably vary from reader to reader, and even from mood to mood. What have I missed here? How else can we murder the mosquitoes without destroying the world?

Pompous Cocks; Idiom in Fantasy

Joe Abercrombie knows how to start a novel. Here’s the beginning of Best Served Cold (reproduced more fully on his website):

“‘You look especially beautiful this morning, Monza.’

“She sighed, as if that was an accident. As if she hadn’t spent an hour preening herself before the mirror. ‘Facts are facts. Stating them isn’t a gift. You only prove you’re not blind.’ She yawned, stretched in her saddle, made him wait a moment longer. ‘But I’ll hear more.’

“He noisily cleared his throat and held up one hand, a bad actor preparing for his grand speech. ‘Your hair is like to . . . a veil of shimmering sable!’

“‘You pompous cock. What was it yesterday? A curtain of midnight. I liked that better, it had some poetry to it. Bad poetry, but still.’

“‘Shit.’ He squinted up at the clouds. ‘Your eyes, then, gleam like piercing sapphires, beyond price!’

“‘I’ve got stones in my face, now?’

“‘Lips like rose petals?’

“She spat at him, but he was ready and dodged it, the phlegm clearing his horse and falling on the dry stones beside the track. ‘That’s to make your roses grow, arsehole. You can do better.’”

Abercrombie is a smart writer, and this opening shows him playing with the linguistic ground of fantasy. Monza, of course, speaks contemporary English, while Benna, the purveyor of compliments here, is working in what we might call a classic fantasy idiom – a sort of bastard hodge-podge of what could pass (if we don’t listen very closely) as early modern English (half-remembered from a play we dozed through in eighth grade), complete with the overblown sensibility that afflicts poets in nearly every era.

Consider the following syntax: “Your hair is like to a veil…”

Like to…  It’s straight out of Shakespeare (“Wishing me like to one more rich in hope…”) or Spenser (“My love is like to ice…”) or Wyatt (“Like to these unmeasurable mountains…”) Abercrombie is winking at us here, right at the novel’s outset. “Hey!” he seems to say. “Isn’t this how characters in fantasy novels are supposed to talk?”

Well, maybe.

If we go back (again) to Tolkien, we find a number of the characters employing a slightly elevated idiom. Aragorn, for instance: “Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay.” The inverted syntax is, of course, archaic.  We do not say, “Many bills there are that you have not paid.” Or, “Many beers I drank last night.” We tend to lead with the subject rather than the direct object. Other characters in Middle Earth, notably the dwarves and elves, also employ syntax that sounds unusual to our modern ears.

And yet, it is crucial to note that Tolkien isn’t just tossing around haphazard archaisms to give his tale a patina of age. In fact, plenty of his characters, especially the hobbits, speak perfectly contemporary English. Here’s Bilbo: “Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story.” Or Frodo: “It is no good trying to escape you. But I’m glad, Sam. I cannot tell you how glad.”

Tolkien, as his fans know, was an Oxford professor of English Language and Literature. He was more than at home in English philology, and he uses the different linguistic registers in the Lord of the Rings intentionally, to suggest to the reader differences in culture, history, and character.

Of course, most fantasy novelists in the latter half of the twentieth century cut their teeth on Tolkien. Unfortunately, many of them paid more attention to the occasional archaic idiom of Aragorn or Galadriel, and brushed aside the plain-spoken modern English of Sam and Frodo. It makes a sort of sense, after all. Epic fantasy (traditionally) was set in a quasi-European medieval world (though we are, thank god, moving away from that as a given), the characters fought with quasi-European medieval weapons, and they spoke (what was supposed to be) a sort of quasi-European (meaning English for those of us who speak English) medieval language.

Thankfully, plenty of writers have eschewed this practice, aiming for a dusted-off and updated vernacular that allows their characters a little more convincing griminess.  Much as we love Aragorn, it’s tough to imagine him ever taking a shit. A major character in A Song of Ice and Fire, on the other hand, is killed while doing exactly that. Syntax and word choice, in other words, aren’t just an aesthetic matter; they impinge directly on the development of character, something at the heart of epic fantasy.

Of course, there are challenges involved in updating the idiom. Most of us read fantasy because we want something larger than life. The “larger” refers to swords and castles, of course, but also to the prose. There’s something wonderful in the alien majesty of Beowulf, or the Mahabharata, or the Sundiata, and it would be a shame to lose it entirely. The question is when to let it run, and when to rein it in. Thoughts?

Napoleon Versus Fantasy; The Role of the Map

Napleon is rumored to have declared, “Geography is destiny.”

Of course, Napoleon was dumb enough to invade Russia and spent the last six years of his life in prison, so it’s not as though he had everything figured out, but still, if he’s right on this score, then fantasy novelists are wrong.

After all, fantasy novels are supposed to be books about people (or demons, or trolls, or dragons, or whatever). The unspoken premise from Tolkien and Lewis right on down is that what matters is human character and the decisions that unfold from character in conflict. No one advises Aragorn not to worry about Sauron because the trade routes, dominant weather patterns, and resource distribution of Middle Earth won’t support a long-term orcish presence outside of Mordor.

For the past ten years I’ve been teaching history (mostly world, some ancient and medieval European), and there is a school of thought (out of fashion at the moment) that accords with the fantasy mindset: the Great Man approach.

As you might infer, the Great Man approach, championed by Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Carlyle, and other major 19th century figures, suggests that history is more or less the story of the great men (and, despite the shitty name of the theory, women), individuals of genius, daring, charisma, and insight who more or less single-handedly wrench the course of history in a direction of their choosing.

One thinks of Shi Huangdi, the first Qin emperor of China, or Genghis Khan, or Joan of Arc. Jesus springs to mind, and Mohammad. Cleopatra. Queen Elizabeth. Had these folks never been born, the argument goes, or had they died in infancy, the great sweep of human history might have been fundamentally altered.

We don’t need to make much of a jump to see that this is the fundamental assumption behind almost all epic fantasy. It matters what Raistlin and Shea Ohmsford do. Had our fantasy heroes made different choices, different shit would have happened, usually some very bad shit. Want to give Boromir that ring, Frodo?

Interestingly, as I mentioned above, the “Great Man” theory has largely fallen from grace in historical circles. Many historians now see different factors as formative and transformational: climate (Jared Diamond in Collapse), trade patterns (Cunliffe in Europe Between the Oceans), indigenous plants and animals (Diamond again, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, along with plenty of others), and, you guessed it: geography. Unfortunately, these elements don’t lend themselves to story:

In the third age of An’Abar, when the Leper King ruled from his blighted throne, a new strain of wheat was introduced, the cross-pollination of which allowed the formerly sterile maize…

The importance of this boring stuff is, however, hard to dispute. I used to begin every class on a new civilization with a full day or two studying the relevant maps. It was amazing what conclusions my students were able to draw simply from the geography without so much as a glance at political or cultural history. Ancient Egypt, for instance, sheltered from foreign influences and invaders by the Sahara to the west, the cataracts of the Nile to the south, the sprawling Nile delta to the north, and the deserts of Sinai to the east, was predictably insular for thousands of years, its government remarkably stable. Or Greece: just take a glance at those islands, peninsulae, and mountains and you know that it’s going to be a land of city states, autonomous units that will resist all attempts at unification or central control.

But Alexander the Great was so… great! He kept Greece unified! He swept through Persia and brought the Hellenistic culture to the east! Well, yeah. I hear that. On the other hand, you don’t see Macedonians running Iran these days. (Although, to be fair, you don’t see Zoroastrian Achaemenids running it either.)

The point is, there aren’t too many fantasy readers out there who want to read a six-book series about the effects of river-silting on the rise and fall of a civilization (although I’d be curious to see some insane writer take up that gauntlet). We want to read about people doing stuff and we want that stuff, at least in epic fantasy, to matter. So what about geography?

I’d argue there’s still an important role for geography to play, and here we come to the map. I’m not sure how most writers work, but my impression is that sometimes the map evolves hand-in-hand with the story while other times a writer lays out the plot then drafts up a map as a sort of background against which the events can play out. By now it’s probably clear that I prefer the former approach (although I’ve read and loved plenty of books in which I’ll bet the writer employed the latter). It’s not so much that it’s bad to use the map-as-backdrop strategy, but I find that the map can be a priceless source of inspiration. A plausible harbor might suggest a merchant oligarchy; scant forests, a lumber monopoly.

I know, I know. No one wants to read about tariffs or fiat currency, and I’m not suggesting they should be the extent of the novel’s scope, merely that these factors can help enrich a world, can make for plausible and exciting politics, trade, and migration against which the human drama that we’re all excited for can unfold. Most importantly, they all spring from the map.

In some novels, the interplay between map and plot strikes me as plausible. In others… not so much. I’m curious to hear from readers here: does geography matter in fantasy, or have my long years teaching history infected my brain?