One of my favourite talks at this year’s Nine Worlds was Ric Crossman’s presentation on the mathematical modelling of a zombie apocalypse. It’s sadly not a talk I can do justice to. I’m not enough of a mathematician to coherently explain the models, and half the joy of the talk was Ric’s entertaining delivery. That said, here are three points I thought were worth sharing for zombie fans out there:
If you get a chance to hear Ric’s talk, go to it. It’s very entertaining.
If you’re interested in accurately modelling a zombie apocalypse (and who isn’t?) there’s a whole book on that out there. It turns out that quite a few serious statisticians are also the sort of geeks who like zombies (surprise surprise), and Robert Smith? (the question mark is part of his name) edited a book of essays on the subject. If you’re researching for your planned book on the zombie apocalypse, or you like to be able to bring pedantic details to pop culture conversations, this is one for you.
If human beings survive a zombie apocalypse, there’ll be two phases – one where things are changing and one where we reach an equilibrium, a balance between the zombies and humans that is self-sustaining. A stable place, if you will. So as a writer, you can focus on the period of collapse or the period of stability and rebuilding, or one after the other. But be aware, not all equilibriums are stable. In an unstable equilibrium, if something disrupts the equilibrium then that same balance can’t be achieved again. And how people cope with that, as they frantically try to restore something forever lost, could be a story in itself…
Postapocalyptic fiction is pretty big at the moment. And by ‘pretty big’ I mean among the best-selling books and movies out there in the form of The Hunger Games. Of course there’s grittier stuff as well, scavengers looking to get by in the devastated future of Mad Max or prepper fiction.
Harry Manners, author of the postapocalyptic Ruin Saga, made a good point about this when he said on Twitter that postapocalyptic fiction is a great arena to discuss the underlying fragility of civilisation. In a world where we have become so detached from the basics of survival, it can be terrifying to consider how easily our comfortable lives could be undermined. Postapocalyptic fiction is a way of addressing that terror, of venting and exploring modern fears. Perhaps it also lets us get a taste of the barbaric, as we increasingly come to understand that the rest of the world isn’t populated by backwards primitives, as everyone from the Romans to the Victorians believed.
I find it fascinating that we can see the same themes – the fragility of civilisation, difficult choices between morals and pragmatism – in stories about the rise of civilisation. Rome and Deadwood both brought this to our TV screens, deliberately exploring how civilisation emerges while showing that as a difficult struggle of faltering steps. In both, the path to safety and security was spattered with blood, and the survival of something that might be called civilised always seemed under threat.
As writers, it gives us two ways to explore these themes – with the birth and the death of civilisations. And as readers it provides something familiar and intriguing in wildly different settings.
What do you think? What’s the appeal of postapocalyptic fiction? Are we really so fascinated by civilisation’s rise and fall?
And if you want to see me grapple some more with what it means to be civilised, you can download my novella Guns and Guano for free from Amazon or Smashwords.
The thermostat in the quarantine room was broken, telling Dan that it was at room temperature when he could feel himself breaking out in a sweat. He’d already shrugged off the spacesuit and sat on a metal cot in shorts and a t-shirt, waiting for someone to tell him what was wrong.
At last Jean appeared at the observation window, looking every inch the doctor in her white coat, a coffee mug in her hand.
“Hey Dan.” Her voice was crackly through the intercom. “Sorry about this.”
“It ain’t exactly a hero’s welcome.” Dan walked over to face her through the glass. She was still as stunning as she’d been on their first date, as vexing as she’d been through the divorce. “You remember I saved the other shuttle crew, right?”
“Oh yes.” She looked away, stiff with tension, sweat beading her brow. “That’s the problem. They came back with some kind of superbug. Not the first time a virus has got stronger in space, but it’s the first time we’ve seen it change so much. We’re fighting to contain it, and there’s a risk you were infected, so…”
“So here I am.” It made sense, Dan had to accept that. “How long will it be? No-one’s even brought me food yet.”
His stomach rumbled.
“I’m not sure.” Jean grimaced and bent over. “Sorry, I…”
The mug exploded in her hand as she let out a cry of pain.
“Hungry.” She looked at Dan with bloodshot eyes. “So very hungry.”
Hand pressed against the glass, looking at him with a strange longing, and then slid to the ground.
“Jean?” Fear knotted Dan’s stomach with its own pain. “Jeany, are you alright?”
There was no answer.
“Help!” Dan yelled. “Help!”
But there was no answer. The quarantine room was sound proof, and without someone standing outside the intercom would have switched off.
Jean needed his help. And he needed to see that she was OK, to hold her, to feel her warm flesh. The tension of the moment was muddling his thoughts, but he could find a way out.
He flung himself against the window and then the door, trying to break through, all the while shouting for help. But there was no response, and the door and window held.
A technician appeared on the other side of the glass.
“Thank God!” Dan’s relief turned sour as he saw that this man too was hunched over in pain, his grey overalls drenched with sweat. He stumbled to where Jean lay, then crumpled over over beside her.
“Dammit!” Dan was scared for himself as well as Jean. What if everyone in the base was infected? Would he be forgotten, left to starve in the quarantine cell, while Jean died inches away from him? His heart was pounding, his whole body quivering with tension.
Desperate, he looked around for something he could use, but there was only a toilet and the cot bolted down in the corner of the room.
The cot would have to do. He grabbed the aluminium bedframe, cold and hard beneath his hands. He’d expected it to be attached securely to the floor, but it came up surprisingly easily, metal screaming and screws popping as he wrenched it free. Then he ran at the window and swung the frame with all his strength, ready to batter the reinforced glass into submission.
It shattered with one single, explosive blow.
Leaping through the gap, he saw Jean and the technician on the floor. He could even smell them, an unexpected moment after so long alone.
The technician hadn’t collapsed as Dan had thought. The man was crouched beside Jean, blood on his lips as he chewed her arm.
In a rage, Dan grabbed the man and flung him aside. He hit the wall so hard that his head smashed open. The scent of blood was overpowering. Blood and something else.
Was that brains? Could Dan really smell brains?
He looked down at Jean, faintly aware that she needed help. But he was hungry, painfully hungry, a sensation he couldn’t even resist.
Day after day, I’m currently writing science fiction with a grim setting. And I’m enjoying it. I’ve also enjoyed reading and watching quite a lot of science fiction that has that darkness to it. The harrowing dystopia of the The Hunger Games. The post-apocalyptic teen angst of The 100. Hell, I’m still a fan of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 setting, even though I haven’t played or read anything set in it in years.
It seems almost perverse to take pleasure in such dark futures. After all, this is science fiction, a form designed to show the amazing and wondrous things that the future could hold. So why do we do it to ourselves? Do we find hope in seeing people struggle against the darkness? Do we find failed futures more convincing? Do they act as a warning? Is it just easier to create conflict that way?
It genuinely perplexes me. There are so many potential explanations it’s hard to work out which are relevant, never mind common for those creating and experiencing this sort of fiction. So I’ll ask – do you enjoy dark science fiction, the stuff where bleakness plays a larger part in the setting than hope? And what about it appeals to you?
The phrase ‘world building’ sounds so positive and constructive. Of course for us as creators it is – we’re dreaming up another reality to put down on the page or screen. But that doesn’t mean it’s always going to feel constructive to the inhabitants of that world.
I mentioned Watch the World Die, the game of collaborative apocalypses, in my post on story games. I had it pegged as a potentially useful world building exercise, so last night Laura and I gave it a go.
WtWD as a writing tool
WtWD is about creating an apocalyptic scenario, describing how the end of civilisation as we know it comes about. Like Microscope it’s pretty free wheeling, though it’s narrower in its focus and designed more to inspire you with its list of possible scenarios than to send you running off in all sorts of crazy directions.
While it doesn’t energise the creative faculties to the same extent that Microscope does, I can see WtWD being helpful to writers in two ways. One is that, like any good creative exercise, it sets some limits and makes you work within them, leading your brain to make connections you didn’t expect.
The other is that it’s a handy shortcut if you want a well-developed post-apocalyptic scenario for a story and don’t want to spend hours on it. A few dice rolls, a couple of sentences expanding on each result, and you’ll have what feels like an in depth history without having to dream it all up from scratch. You could even use it to flesh out an apocalypse you’ve already half developed. It’s perfect for short story writing, where you want to create the impression of depth without investing disproportionate time in planning.
So if you like your settings dark then this could be pretty useful.
WtWD as a game
Though not pitched in the same way as a roleplaying game, WtWD is most similar to Microscope, being another collaborative story telling / world building exercise. I think we might see these narrative games emerge as a genre over the next few years, because they really don’t fit within the category of roleplay games, where Microscope is marketed.
WtWD is to Microscope as a quick round of dice game Heckmeck is to spending the day playing Britannia. It’s a quick, pallet cleansing game that you’ll get done in half an hour. It’s fun but without the time commitment or the sense of deep engagement that comes with a longer game. It’s a good world building game for someone who finds Microscope intimidating, with its back-and-forth chronology and wide open spaces of the imagination.
One more tool in the box
WtWD is free to to download and adds one more tool to your writers’ toolbox / games collection. All you need is a pen and a couple of six sided dice, so why not give it a go?
Picture by Maxwell Hamilton via Flickr creative commons