I’ve discovered an odd trend in myself these days: I’ve been yelling at the TV a lot. Even more oddly, the things that make me yell at the TV the most (besides Scott Brown political ads…ugh) is the show Revolution. Now, I’ve already ranted a bit about how I find the basic premise ridiculous, but there’s more to it than that. There is a cynicism hidden within and behind the show that makes me pretty frustrated with what is, apparently, the writers (or perhaps modern society’s) attitude towards human endeavor. It isn’t just Revolution, either. I find this frustration present in most zombie franchises, too (another premise I find ridiculous) and, indeed, with much of the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic sub-genre. Again, it all has to do with what these folks think of human nature and human’s capacity to survive.
In my most recent yell-at-Revolution escapade, I caught an episode where Maggie describes how she tried to get home to her family in Britain after the blackout. There was lightning in the episode, too, which prompted me to yell “DO LIGHTNING RODS STILL WORK?”, but that’s besides the point. The point is that Maggie explains, tearfully, how she couldn’t find anybody to take her across the Atlantic. She meets a fisherman in a flashback who exclaims ‘there are no steam engines, no tall ships anymore, and those we had were broken down for firewood’ and basically explains that no one can sail across the ocean anymore. Even presuming the non-existence of tall ships (false) or assuming we broke them all down for firewood (though you would think having the only ocean-going vessel would be put to better use), I have this to say:
Do you know what you need to cross the Atlantic?
- A Compass
- A Sailboat that doesn’t leak
Given the number of fiberglass and aluminum sailing vessels in the US (in the millions), if even 10% of those are large enough to safely cross an ocean, that’s hundreds of thousands of potential boats. There are a lot of sailors, too, and it isn’t all that hard to learn, and you’d imagine if the power went out, sailing would become massively lucrative and important almost immediately.
These facts, though, aren’t what the purveyors of apocalyptic literature are interested in, though. That isn’t what the writers mean, precisely, when they tell us Maggie can’t cross the ocean. They’re trying to sell us on the idea that humanity is helpless without modern civilization and that only the very strongest of us can achieve anything without it. They’re trying to say that element #5 – guts – is a rare and unusual diamond among the detritus of humanity. This, right here, is what makes me start yelling at people.
Look at this guy:
If you think Felix Baumgartner is unique and alone, you’re wrong. For every person watching his jump on Youtube saying ‘I could never do that’, there were others who were saying ‘that is totally awesome’. Hell, many of the team that put him up there are probably cut from similar cloth, in that they invested time, blood, and treasure into this ‘ridiculous’ scheme – you don’t do that unless you admire it. Maybe they’re not likely to jump out of weather balloons, but they’ve got the desire to make their mark on the world. In Felix Baumgartner, we see the thing that the apocalyptics don’t seem to like acknowledging: humans do some pretty amazing stuff, no matter the circumstances. Ever heard of Shackleton? Hillary? Magellan? The Wrights? Eriksson? The Venerable-fucking-Bede? The Felix Baumgartners of the world would look at Maggie the English Doctor, crying for her children, and say “Sure lady, I’ll get you across the Atlantic. Might take me a little bit, but I’ve got a plan.”
Humanity is nothing if not adaptable. Even in our darkest times, we accomplished wonderful things. We, as a species, do not crumble in the face adversity; if anything, it makes us better. When I look at scifi stories that refuse to acknowledge the beauty and wonder of humanity’s potential, it saddens me. It reminds me of what Michael Dorn had to say about these days in which we live. To summarize, he thinks we need more Star Trek. We need more optimism. We need people like Dorn and Baumgartner and to remind us that, no matter how bad it gets, so long as there are people, we’ll make a comeback. And the odds are pretty good that we won’t run out of people.
I had a brief Facebook exchange with some friends regarding Cormac McCarthy’s The Road recently, and it got me thinking about apocalyptic literature. Now, I should preface this by saying I’ve only read parts of The Road and never the whole thing, primarily because it is such an upsetting book and I don’t particularly relish reading something so bleak. Then again, on the other hand, it is truly beautifully written, so I find myself coming back, reading a bit, and then putting it down with a shudder. This demonstrates it as a work of true and raw power, if nothing else.
It also draws me to reflect upon what, if anything, is the purpose of post-apocalyptic literature as a whole. It is very much in vogue these days (though primarily as interacting with the uninspired trope of the zombie apocalypse. For my thoughts on this, see here.) and this shouldn’t be seen as accidental. It’s a reflection of our cultural insecurities, ultimately, as evidenced by our perceived status as ‘top of the world’ and the added realization of the vulnerability of that status. You can see the same thing happening to literature written in cultures in similar situations, such as HG Wells’ apocalyptic visions during the height of Victorian Britain, the rash of numerological fears in ancient Rome (they had their own version of the ’2012′ myth), and others, as well. We fear the end because we see no way to go any higher or any further. When you can’t go up anymore, the only way to go is down.
But what, today, does wallowing in our own self-destruction provide us? It’s ghoulishly fascinating, of course, but is that all it is? Is the idea to just sit their and grimace as we watch our society torn down by barbarism and nod sagely, saying to ourselves ‘it had to happen?’
God, I hope not.
Stories that lead us nowhere but to human extinction are upsetting and miserable. Far be it from me to forbid the use of tragedy (it’s a trend in scifi that could use a bit of disruption), but the unhappy ending isn’t wholly my problem. My problem is that the hopeless apocalyptic tale is, essentially, bad tragedy. Tragedy is supposed to be a lesson. You should emerge from the experienced as enriched as you are harrowed. I find nothing enriching about witnessing the end of the human race with no hope for survival.
The subtext of a wide variety of apocalyptic stories I’ve read is that we, humans, are so broken, flawed, and miserable that we can’t help but screw ourselves over even in the midst of devastation. This is partially true, of course – we humans are miserable bastards sometimes and often do stupid, short-sighted, or cruel things. It is not, however, universally true. Stories that portray humanity without that goodness, nobility, resourcefulness, and perseverance that characterize a good bit of our history are lying to us just as thoroughly as those that portray us as exclusively possessing those traits. Presenting the apocalypse just as an excuse to jeer at the meanness of human experience is not terribly enriching, or at least I don’t find it so. It is powerful, of course, and horrifying and all the rest of it. I, however, find tales of redemption all the more powerful, though.
If you’re going to lie to me anyway, I’d rather the lie be sweet than sour. Maybe, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I am still an optimist. Or, perhaps, I just won’t cede reality to the pessimists just yet. The world will yet turn; we may yet be saved. Take the tales of the apocalypse as warnings, but not portents. Our future is not yet written in stone.
So, on occasion I watch Fraggle Rock. My daughter likes it; we have some of the DVDs and play them often. Since I’ve watched the same three episodes or so over and over and over again to the point where I can probably recite them from memory, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve begun to overthink every aspect of the show. My usual target for such ruminations? The so-called Gorg Empire.
Seriously, what the hell is up with the Gorgs?
It goes without saying that the so-called King and Queen of the Universe do not rule a kingdom, do not have an empire, and have no subjects. They mention how they have never met their subjects on at least one occasion, and it is only very rarely that we see other beings in their world at all. We are forced, then, to presume one of two things:
- The Gorgs are delusional. There never was an empire, they aren’t really kings, and they’ve been making all this stuff up.
- The Gorg Empire once existed, but doesn’t anymore. The three Gorgs in the show are the very last survivors of a once-great civilization.
Being a literature guy, I know that #1 is never the right answer. No, they aren’t just ‘crazy’–that’s a cop-out. That leaves us with option #2: post-apocalyptic Gorgs eking out a living on a wild scrap of land among the bones of their civilization. The parents persist in the fiction that the empire is alive and well because they cannot fathom explaining to the child the atrocities that brought them to this turn and, furthermore, are probably not emotionally equipped to handle the revelation themselves. Accordingly, they cling to the old traditions and tell the old stories and pretend nothing is amiss.
Causes for Collapse
The reason for the collapse of the Gorg Empire could be anything–war, famine, natural disaster, plague, or whatever. Without asking Madam Trash Heap, we will never know for certain. My favorite theory, though, is this one: the Fraggles did it.
You know how Queen Gorg is always freaking out anytime she sees a Fraggle? They’re considered vermin, right?
Well, one of the reasons we humans have instinctually negative reactions to vermin is because they represented a health risk to our ancestors–they ate our food, they spread disease, and they rendered areas unliveable. The Fraggles are the same thing–they are vectors for disease. Furthermore, since they happen to be quite intelligent vermin, they would be exceedingly difficult to eradicate. Centuries or even millennia of Gorg history likely passed with Fraggles ravaging gardens and ruining abandoned homes. This, though, doesn’t destroy the empire, does it? They’d need to spread some kind of terrible disease that the Gorgs would have no defense against. Wherever could the Fraggles have gotten such a thing? Hmmmm…
Right: Earth. Outer Space–favorite home of such civilization-killing diseases as smallpox, the bubonic plague, and even cholera. The legends of Outer Space abound even before Travelling Matt makes his sojourn through the workshop and into the world, so presumably fraggles had been there before. Some fraggle could have popped out into Outer Space, looked around, and then popped into the Gorg Empire to raid some cabbage. A sneeze or some tainted water later, and boom–a deadly plague raging across the continent. In our own history, diseases spread to new continents were terrible to behold; it doesn’t stretch the imagination much to think a cross-world plague would be worse. Dead Gorgs piled in the streets. Plague carts roving the countryside. The collapse of civic order, the decent of the barbarians–death, destruction, and unending pestilence.
Mamma and Papa Gorg were the lucky ones–immune to the disease, survivors of the chaos that followed. Can you blame them for holding on to the past? What have they got to live for now? Radishes? An idiot son?
Chills the bones, don’t it?
Anyway, these are the things I think about while watching children’s programming.
Blackness, void, horrible solitude. Wollow’s cottage swept out of Draminicus’s perceptions like a cozy but poorly sketched memory. If time passed in the darkness, Draminicus had no knowledge of it. He only felt afraid. He held onto the void for as long as he was able, but part of him knew that to do this was suicide. To tarry in nothingness for too long was to become it.
He conjured up the horrors of Ogga and let himself slip into the nightmare.
Once the world of Ogga had borne a different name and, accordingly, it had been a different place. There had been a sophisticated civilization, with achievements in science and philosophy paralleled by only the greatest of worlds—cities to rival mighty Trajan, technology to equal that of busy Earth, and learning to match that of even the wisest institutions of Daledas. But, unlike Trajan or Earth or Daledas, this world’s name was now forgotten, replaced by its new name and, along with it, its new self—Ogga, the Ruined World.
Draminicus opened his eyes to the sound of his flesh sizzling. He was on the surface of Ogga, under a harsh purple sky. The pain from his hands hit his brain just after the sound, and he snatched them off the scorched pavement beneath him. The air was as hot and dry as the innards of a kiln, and it bore along with it a fine, grey dust. Around him stood endless cairns of rubble, climbing into the hot, dusty air like mountains—the dissociate, featureless remains of a once great civilization.
Blisters already forming on his arms and hands, Draminicus ran. To stay here was to die. Remembering his training (but from whom?), he focused his conscious mind upon running across the uneven, treacherous terrain. Harnessing his unconscious, he tapped into his desire for survival—a primordial, powerful force within every mind—and used it to tweak the very existential fabric of Ogga. There was an ancient, rusty hatch nearby; it would lead to safety.
As his blistered hands worked the old, stubborn lock, Draminicus marveled at his ability to will something from nothing. How had he done this? How could a single, sentient being warp reality to his will?
Draminicus’ cloak had begun to smolder just as he tore open the hatch and dropped into the narrow, black passage it concealed. He closed it behind him, and felt instant relief as the unbearable heat and radiation of the surface was blocked out all at once. Climbing down a metal ladder in the dark, an unbearable sense of déjà vu once again descended upon him. This all had happened before; the hatch and the tunnel beyond it were like old friends.
His arrogance was enough to make him wince. This was not a new hatch; this was not some mystical bolt hole he had summoned up from nothing. It had always been there, even before he thought of it. It was he that had come to it, not it that had come to him. The Ogga where there was no hatch had been tweaked slightly into an Ogga where there was. It was a petty trick that solved nothing.
But what was he here to solve?
There was a puzzle. Draminicus thought about it as he reached the bottom of the ladder to find nothing but air and darkness beneath him. He knew there was a floor—there was always a floor—so he let go and dropped. This time the floor was two feet lower than expected, and he twisted his ankle on the uneven detritus scattered about. He fell onto his back and kept himself from crying out. The trogs, he knew, were always listening.
The puzzle, the puzzle, the puzzle—what was puzzling about Ogga? Many worlds might destroy themselves, had destroyed themselves. It was well known that Earth had died by many hands down through the ages, and yet Earths where those same hands saved it from destruction were also numerous—this was the way in almost all realities. For every nearly infinite set of factors that created a world (in Daledas, the daystars, the Great Disc, the feral Quay tribes, the heat of the mountains, the smell of roasted lodan wood meat and spinebird), there were infinite permutations of those factors, creating infinite versions of that world. There was a Daledas where the spinebirds were deadly predators and another where they were but prey. There were a million different shades of sky, different tastes in the air, a great spreading web of history that undulated over the fabric of the cosmos with every shift and twist of fate. Each of these places were still Daledas, but each of them were also separate, distinct places. Just so on Earth, and on Trajan, and across every world in the infinity of existence.
Draminicus knew he could slip from reality to reality, from plane to plane, and change the fundamental makeup of any single thing in any single world until, eventually, he could tailor anywhere to his choosing. Every world a paradise; every reality a perfectly formed reflection of Draminicus’ own expectations.
But not Ogga.
The Ruined World would not be perfected. Lying on his back in a hexagonal chamber of concrete and breathing in the stale, dead air, Draminicus knew this to be irrefutable fact. Every permutation of Ogga was destroyed; every cosmic reshaping of the trogs still resulted in ultimately the same, horrifying beings. It was as though the whole of the world’s history was one of death and devastation. The civilization which had so clearly built the chamber in which Draminicus lay seemed to have never existed in any form but the current one. It was paradoxical, and yet it was. In an infinite world, all things were possible—even contradictions.
The reason for this contradiction was Draminicus’ task. Again, the knowledge seeped in from hidden warehouses deep in his mind. Part of him wanted to dredge them up and throw their contents into the light—to finally have full understanding—but he thought better of it. He was just now becoming attuned to Ogga, learning how existing in it weighed upon his limbs and tasted in his mouth. To allow himself to remember and visualize other worlds would only pull him further away from this one. Then, when he returned, he would have to ‘remember’ this all again.
Draminicus rose and tested his ankle gingerly; it was sore, but useable. The exit to the hexagonal room was behind him, and beyond that he knew he would find something of use. Doing his best to move stealthily with a limp, he found a broad chamber dimly lit by some kind of phosphorescent moss and filled with dusty, abandoned consoles of steel and glass, their fish-eye screens staring blankly out from black, scorched walls. The usual array of crumpled trash, grey dust, and rubble filled the corners of the room, but, incongruously, at the center of the room stood a chair of rusty metal. It was the first intact object Draminicus had seen since arriving in Ogga. It strangely troubled him. He did not sit in it, nor touch it.
Instead, Draminicus searched throughout the great chamber. It must have, at one time, been a command center of some kind. It must have, but wasn’t. Draminicus could feel the finality of the room’s current condition. For all existential purposes, it had always been thus—the scorch marks and the pools of glass where some white-hot fire had raged were permanent features of Ogga. No amount of will from Draminicus could change that, despite his training. The people who must have once lived and worked here had died before their world began, somehow—their existence was impossibly erased.
Brushing away a layer of black ash six inches deep, Draminicus found a box on the floor, its lid dented and warped open by some unknowable force. Hands trembling, he opened it. Inside, white as a sun-bleached bone, lay the yard long metal shaft of a phoenix rod. Draminicus saw it and sighed—he’d found this box before, many times. Picking it up, he heard the distant bark of a trog echoing through the vast underground labyrinth.
“It’s not fair.” He muttered. The words were dry and meaningless on his lips. The trogs knew he was here. They came now to kill him. They would kill him. He had failed again.
He looked down at the strange, cool metal of the phoenix rod and turned it over in his hands. Its length was inscribed with small, blocky lettering in a foreign alphabet that could only be seen when the dim yellow light of the strange moss hit it at just the right angle. Draminicus’s mind produced tightly controlled bits of information, again unbidden. The phoenix rod was a weapon, named for a legendary creature of apocalyptic significance—well, apocalyptic in Ogga. Other places, other worlds, he knew, had other ideas of what a ‘phoenix’ was. He dimly recalled that they were not all so grim and final.
The trogs were closer now and more numerous. They roared to one another as they crashed through distant piles of debris, moving towards Draminicus in an unerring line. It wouldn’t be long now before they appeared.
There was a drain cover in the corner of the room, and through it Draminicus knew of a long, dark pipe full of polluted water that might lead to safety. It also lead to death, many times over. Focusing his will, he tried to tweak the world into giving him another solution, but the existential fabric of Ogga refused to wrinkle or bend.
Another stomach-trembling boom let him know that the trogs were very close. Draminicus could hear every heavy, steel-shod footfall, steady and inexorable. They were in the hexagonal chamber. It was too late to run.
Raising the phoenix rod and leveling it at the entrance to the room, Draminicus planted his feet and steeled himself. There was no trigger or control stud on the weapon in his hands; he could not and had not ever discovered the secret to the rod’s power. He doubted it really mattered. When the first trog arrived, he would be as good as dead, anyway. His feet felt leaden in his boots and his heart jerked wildly against its moorings.
The first trog was small for its species—only about eight feet tall and six-hundred pounds or so. It had the meaty, thick physique of a draft animal standing on its hind legs, but encased in plates of concrete and barbed wire. Its eyes, sharp and yellow with pinpoint black pupils, focused on Draminicus instantly in the dim lighting. Whirring, chainsaw talons extended from its fat, heavy paws and it charged at him, roaring from a mouth obscured with stained yellow tusks. Draminicus, waving the phoenix rod like a fly-swatter, ordered it to halt. It probably didn’t hear him as it knocked aside the strangely placed chair at the center of the room.
The chair, it turned out, concealed an ancient mine. There was bright light and a noise so loud it brought the world to silence. Draminicus felt his body ripped apart by shrapnel. He struggled to remain conscious for long enough to slip his fading existence from Ogga and into the bleak, cold emptiness of the void. He did it, but barely.
He awoke on a cot, covered in heavy blankets that smelled of mildew and old grass. The heavy, smoke-stained thatch roof of Wollow’s cottage pried itself into his conscious memory. Draminicus lay still, feeling the piercing pain in his chest and legs, and let the tiny reality of his master’s cottage congeal around him.
Wollow sat on a stool, his flowing, prehensile beard lighting a lantern and tucking books and scrolls into half-secret cubby holes in the walls. The kaleidoscope spectacles were fixed on a phoenix rod, which lay in the strange old man’s lap. He ran his hands along its length. The cottage was silent and dark save for the lamp, which flickered weakly.
“Am I…are we…immortal?” Draminicus asked finally. He was surprised at how hoarse his voice was.
Wollow did not look up. “Nonsense. You just died, didn’t you?”
“But I died and here I am!”
“You are many places and times, Draminicus. In many of them, you are dead. You have died in that very cot over two-dozen times now.” Wollow snorted, “and from the same mine, no less.”
Draminicus considered this. “So I haven’t returned on occasion, as well?”
“Of course! In an infinite world, all things are.”
“How many times?”
“The number is irrelevant.”
Draminicus forced himself to sit up. “I can’t do this forever!”
Wollow ignored him, and brought the lamp close to the phoenix rod. “Fascinating, isn’t it?”
Draminicus peered at it intently, as though trying to work out its secrets from across the room. “How does it work? Is that the key to the test? Is that how I succeed?”
Wollow looked up and shook his head. “Questions which you have asked before and have been answered in turn. You grow tiresome, boy. I had expected you to succeed by now.”
“What do you mean ‘now’? How do you mean ‘before’?” Draminicus rubbed his eyes, “Time and reality—it’s confusing. You keep saying I’ve done this and that before, but time here and time in Ogga are not the same time, are they?”
Wollow’s beard fished two square stools from under his writing desk and set them side-by-side. Motioning to the stool on his left, Wollow said, “This is my cottage, a self-realized world created by myself and apart from the rest of existence; this other stool is Ogga.”
“You mean, if I open the door to your cottage and go outside, there will be…nothing?”
“Ridiculous question—you will note that my cottage has no door. You are changing the subject, too, which is cheeky considering how I’m trying to help you.” Wollow scowled. “Are you done asking stupid questions?”
Draminicus nodded, and Wollow went on. “Both of these stools—Ogga and the cottage—have time and space. We shall think of that as the length and width of their seats, like so.” Wollow lined the stools up so that their edges were flush with one another.
Tracing his finger along the length of the stools, he said, “Time is length, and as the length of the cottage stool unfolds, so, too, does Ogga’s. In one sense, you are hopping back and forth from stool to stool, time to time,” Wollow made a skipping motion from the Ogga stool to the cottage stool and back again, zig-zagging down the length of the stool.
“But it seems like Ogga is the same thing, the same circumstance, over and over again.”
Wollow frowned at the interruption. “That’s because you are thinking about it wrong. These stools don’t have to line up, you know.” Wollow moved the Ogga stool towards himself, so that they were now askew. “You have been leaping from here to there, but while time might pass here, you are leaping to the same part of time there. Simply put, the Ogga stool is moving as the cottage stool is holding still.”
“You said that one cannot exist in the same world at the same time as yourself, though! I remember that!”
“That is true, but, despite what you might think, you haven’t been going back to the same Ogga. Each time you attempt the test, a new stool is swapped out for the old one. One of the reasons that it is impossible to exist simultaneously as yourself in the same reality is because no finite sentient being can travel to the exact same reality twice. At this moment, in a slightly different version of my cottage, we are having this same conversation, except your face is bandaged instead of your chest. In another version from that one, you are the master and I the student. In another one, I have poisoned your tea and am dancing with glee over your bloated corpse. All things are, remember.”
Draminicus digested the enormity of what Wollow was saying, and he felt suddenly very tired. “This test has no solution. The puzzle has no end!”
“You are going back now.”
Draminicus shook his head. “I won’t! I won’t do it! I can’t!”
Wollow shrugged. “A wretched human businessman of Earth once said that the only similarity between a person who says they can and one who says they cannot is that they are both right.”
“I need more time.”
The cottage was fading now, and as it grew darker, only the glittering kaleidoscope spectacles of Wollow could be seen. “The universe is infinite, Draminicus. You have all the time you need.”
Draminicus opened his mouth to say something else, but he had no mouth. He was in the void.
(Author’s note: in the vein of posting stuff here I’ve posted elsewhere, just to get ‘up to date’, here’s my little argument against the sci-fi zombie and its corresponding ‘apocalypse’, posted on facebook some months ago. Enjoy. Or not, I suppose.)
Okay, so this whole zombie obsession of the past few years has really started to drive me bonkers. It hit a head a week or so ago when my wife, Deirdre, came home from work at BU with a flyer that was being handed out regarding ‘what to do in case of zombie attack.’ Obviously farsical, the pamphlet nevertheless frustrated me beyond reason, and I need to vent. My blog strikes me as a pretty good place to do this, so here it goes. I should note that this rant is in no way personally targeted at anyone.
I am a self-avowed enthusiast of things fanciful or science fiction-esque and, as a general rule, I do not begrudge other groups their obsessions with whatever ghost, goblin, or android currently catches their fancy. Do I like Twilight? No. Do I begrudge the fans their interest in Twilight–no, not really. Indeed, my problem with zombies is very specific. I don’t mind that zombie films are popular or even that some clever little student group is distributing bogus health information to no-doubt confused international students. My problem is that the modern zombie, in its current incarnation, makes no internally consistent sense and, therefore, fails to enable me to suspend my disbelief.
This is a by-product of the ‘science fictionization’ of zombies, primarily. If we want to stick with necromancers chanting foul rituals to raise hordes of the undead, I have no problem with the concept whatsoever. By dint of involving magic, you are consciously waving away any and all of the concerns I voice below. However, science fiction, as the first word indicates, needs to pay a certain homage to science as we understand it. It can bend and stretch the rules of physiology just so far before an idea ceases to be plausible and, therefore, becomes ridiculous. The science fiction zombie is one such entity.
The Science Fiction Zombie
The sci-fi zombie has a series of characteristics that set it apart from its fanciful cousin. In order to critique the trope, it only makes sense that I lay out what I see as being included in that trope.
Premise #1: Zombies are created by some kind of disease or biological agent that, once it infects its host, transforms them into a zombie over a variable period of time (from a few minutes to a few hours, depending upon dramatic license). This agent is almost universally transmitted via bodily fluids of some kind, chiefly blood and/or saliva.
Premise #2: Zombies suffer from extreme behavioral modifications, primarily limited to the following: rabid aggression towards other humans, the complete destruction of human empathy or compassion, erasure or curtailment of the capacity for problem solving or creativity. Thus, they tend to stagger around stupidly, attack on sight, and show no mercy.
Premise #3: Zombies are extremely strong due to their lack of restraint and are resistant to damage due to the fact that they do not feel pain. This makes them hard to stop.
Premise #4: The only sure-fire way to kill a zombie is to destroy the brain somehow or otherwise cut it off from communicating with the body.
Premise #5: The zombie plague spreads so quickly and is so unstoppable that, inevitably, the entire human race will succumb, ushering in some kind of apocalypse or reasonable facsimile thereof.
There you have it–the basic set-up. I am aware that there are distinctions between ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ zombies, but I would contend that the difference is immaterial to the heart of my critique, except to say that ‘fast’ zombies make somewhat less sense (who in such an addled state of mind actually *improves* coordination?) and is somewhat more effective (see below).
The Problems with Premise #1 (Transmission)
Okay, let’s make this one easy. I want you, right now, to try and bite the nearest human being so it breaks the skin. Go ahead.
You hesitate, I’m guessing. Let’s entertain why that is:
Firstly, you rightly conclude that to do this would result in some kind of physical struggle. You, in the role of zombie, will be attempting to use your teeth to bite someone while that somebody will be using their fists to pummel you and their legs to run the hell away. Here we can see that an *actual* zombie (were such a thing to exist) will be at something of an advantage, seeing how they don’t feel pain (so punching doesn’t help in most cases) and they are in a state of near-permanent adrenaline rush (so they will be trying harder).
Secondly, and perhaps not consciously, you must be aware of just how poorly suited the human jaw is for the purpose we have assigned it. Human jaw muscles are fairly weak, human teeth are not especially sharp, and the human head/neck is not designed to tear flesh from something that’s still wiggling around. Even were we to grant you the extra aggression needed to *really* try to bite somebody so hard you draw blood, it won’t be easy at all. Keep in mind that a drooling zombie is likely to incite an intense adrenal response from the victim, too, rendering them comparable in strength. Then there’s the simple possibility that the victim in question is wearing, say, a leather jacket–good luck biting through that. I suppose we could grant that zombies ‘benefit’ from the kind of intense muscle spasms that are caused by siezures, but even in that case we have to mitigate their effectiveness as biting things with the fact that such muscle siezures are (1) exhausting, (2) hard to control with any agility, and (3) seldom so strong as to allow you to bite straight through leather, cloth, and skin with ease.
Thirdly, the zombie virus presumes a 100% infection rate (hardly comparable with any real disease known to man, even the man-made ones) and that the person thusly attacked by a zombie won’t immediately go to the hospital because they’ve been attacked by somebody with rabies (which is a rather large presumption) and, once there, be appropriately isolated. Also, the prospect of this zombie being able to pull off a successful bite in public is very slim. A rabid lunatic trying to maul somebody is likely to engender a collective response. Our ‘first zombie’ might be able to bite one or two people, optimistically, before he is sat on by a bunch of other people and the police are summoned.
The Problem with Premise #2: Zombie Psychology
Tightly tied in with the reason a zombie plague wouldn’t go very far is because of what it does to zombie victims. From what we can ascertain from the source material, it is evident that the zombie plague does massive neurological and psychological damage to the victim. In some cases it is explained as a kind of ‘rage virus’, in others it messes around with brain chemistry to the point where the victim is in a rabid-like state or some other form of irrational fugue.
All of this presents an enormous problem for the viability of a zombie as a credible threat to civilized society. It dovetails nicely with the problem with Premise #1–it makes it really, really hard to bite somebody. It would be one thing if you were riding next to some dude on the train and he, out of the blue, turned around and tried to bite your face/hand/whatever. This, though still not likely to break skin, is infinitely *more* likely than the prospect of the drooling, moaning, blood-covered dude getting the drop on you. He is, by his very nature, a pariah to all ordinary people. He sticks out like a sore thumb. I’ve seen a *lot* of zombie movies make the assumption (admittedly for the purpose of drama, but still) that zombies are able to sneak up on people. Sorry, folks–a ‘rage’ virus doesn’t have an off button. If your brain is so screwed up that you are a mindless cannibal, you aren’t going to be using subterfuge. Subterfuge requires planning, a degree of reasoning ability, and an element of restraint and judgement that zombies clearly lack. There is a *reason* all of the predatory species of the world have, on average, much larger brains than their herviborous cousins–hunting, sneaking, trapping, and so on require *thought* to manage. Zombies ain’t got it, so they will suck at catching you off-guard.
This problem snowballs with a huge number of other none-too-unusual obstacles that would face your average zombie in an urban locale. They aren’t thinking creatures in the same way that a guy who murders his wife and kids in a red-tinged rage-filled haze is. They are going to do stupid things, like walk through plate glass, swim after you until they drown (What? Zombies can’t drown you say? Bullshit–see part 3), get hit by cars, fall down open manholes, electrocute themselves on third rails, and, perhaps most importantly, be unable to find you.
Yes, that’s right–zombies would suck at hide and seek. They aren’t thinking beings anymore. They lack curiosity, creativity, problem-solving skills, etc.. All you’d need to do to survive a zombie infestation is lock your doors and not go out. There–problem solved. Hell, climb a ladder atop a roof and then vandalize the rungs and you’d be safe forever, provided you didn’t starve (don’t worry, though, since zombies aren’t going to be able to topple society, somebody will be along sooner or later).
For all their ferocity, zombies are morons. Morons are not all that dangerous, ultimately, especially when they’re trying to spread disease with their mouths. Look at it this way: if you could pick out somebody with the flu at ten paces without fail, would you ever get the flu? If the guy with that nasty cold going around ran around groaning and saying ‘cold…cooooold…COOOOOOLD,’ would you shake his hand? Of course not. The ability for the disease to transmit itself would be immediately and instantly curtailed. No zombie would be able to get on a plane, drive a car, sail a boat, which means the simple geography of the earth would keep them bottled up in one tight area, even *presuming* they were able to spread the disease with ease, which they can’t. Even if somebody were to manifest as a zombie on a plane, they would be quickly restrained and those one or two people they bit would be quarantined/checked out. Somebody bitten by a rabid person doesn’t just get to walk away, folks. Hell, they don’t *want* to walk away–they want antisceptic, bandages, and a consultation with a doctor.
Anyway, even if I were to grant everything I just refuted, the zombie apocalypse *still* wouldn’t happen. Why? Well, simply because every physical capability ascribed to zombies is complete nonsense.
The Problems with Premises 3 and 4: Zombie Physiology
Right off the bat, lets get one thing straight: the science fiction zombie is created by a plague/disease/pathogen of some sort. It doesn’t much matter if it comes from a spacecraft or a secret government lab or the garage of an apocalyptic lunatic, it’s still a mircoscopic thing designed to invade the body and do something to it, presumably for the purpose of self-propagation (its creators, of course, have alternate goals, no doubt, but the bug itself doesn’t). The reason this is important is because there are some things a disease just *can’t* do.
For starters, let’s dispel this nonsense that states that zombies, in their science fiction capacity, are ‘the living dead’. No, they aren’t. They aren’t dead at all–they’re alive. They are people with a disease that modifies their behavior, and that’s it. They can’t be dead because dead things don’t (and can’t) move around. No disease imparts motility on inanimate matter. No disease can. The disease’s function is to attack the brain, primarily, for the purpose of altering behavior in a specific way (see part 2). Viruses don’t have muscles to move things, even collectively, and even if they did there is very little likelihood they could coordinate together on such a massive scale as to operate a human body in even a rudimentary fashion. Hell, they don’t have *eyes*. Good luck spreading a zombie plague without eyes, super-virus. Sorry, but zombies are living people.
They have to be alive *unless* we aren’t dealing with a plague but rather an *extremely advanced* series of parasitic entities (likely nanotechnology based, or perhaps part of some alien collectively intelligent organism) that can replace the human musculo-skeletal system for locomotion with their own alternative. If we are going to grant that this is possible (so we’re dealing with aliens far more advanced than ourselves–goodbye any ‘government lab’ scenario), that begs the question ‘why’. I would presume that the purpose is to use a human host to somehow infiltrate society. There are easier ways to do this than transforming dozens of people (yes, dozens) into mindless, drooling idiots. I would imagine that a species with technology advanced enough to create the kind of thing that would create the living dead would have access to such methods and would employ them, since any species that intelligent wouldn’t do things the hard way.
So, we pretty much *have* to assume that zombies are alive, since that makes the most sense. Now, if zombies are alive, they can be killed just like anybody else. Sure, they don’t feel pain, but pain is simply an alarm system alerting the brain to damage done to the body. Not feeling pain doesn’t mean you don’t suffer damage. The whole ‘must destroy the brain’ thing also plays in here: the brain doesn’t make the body work all on its own. The brain gives orders, yes, but it needs the things it’s ordering to be functional. It needs the heart, lungs, arteries, veins, muscles, joints, and so on to be functional enough to operate the complex machine that is the human body with sufficient skill to manage to bite somebody so it transmits the disease. If a zombie’s heart stops, it dies just as quickly as you or I would (well, perhaps marginally slower, but still). It doesn’t matter if its addled brain is still ordering the heart to beat; if the heart is busted, no amount of neural impulses will keep it running. If you apply the brakes when your brakes are out, you don’t stop, do you?
What this means for our zombie scenario is that, for all their ferocity, zombies aren’t going to last very long or do much damage before they render themselves inoperative. They can be shot dead as easily as anyone else (bleeding out will kill them, too), they can drown, they can suffer debilitating injury, they can be beaten unconscious (with sufficient head trauma), and so on. Furthermore, since they can’t feel pain and their survival instincts are removed, they are far more vulnerable to simple things we might not consider. They don’t blink–blinking is a pain response to dryness in the eyes. The result is zombies will let their eyes dry out, hampering their vision (remember what I said about blind zombies?). They could be influenced to stare at the sun, for crying out loud. They don’t rest, meaning they are going to exhaust themselves, cramp up, run their feet raw until they’re bleeding, leading to infection and death. They could die of exposure (from heat or cold), dehydration, and all that other stuff that our very useful brain ordinarily wards off as a matter of instinct. Killing zombies would be arguably easier than killing regular people, since regular people would know not to walk into potentially deadly hazards and would periodically stop to rehydrate.
”Ah,” says the zombie enthusiast, “but what about their enhanced physical strength?” My response is to ask “what enhanced physical strength?” Okay, so we can grant zombies a state of constant adrenal surge (no matter how exhausting that may be–again, zombies don’t last long), but this doesn’t mean they can punch through walls or tear down locked doors with their bare hands. I would bet any of you anything you like that, were you in a state of mindless adrenal-fueled rage, there is no way you could kick in my door while the bolt was thrown. Not happening, especially not if you weren’t in your right mind and weren’t using your brain or simple tools. It’s a thick door; I live in the city.
The reason zombies can’t go past this goes back to the limitations of disease. A plague doesn’t build muscle, even one that attacks the brain. I suppose, were we to grant that this plague is so advanced that it interferes with or otheriwse influences growth hormones (but, again, this is stretching the likely possibilities), a zombie might be able to grow more muscle. The emphasis there, however, is *grow*. Zombies don’t just get muscle mass for nothing–they’d need to eat. The more growth you want, the more you’d need to consume. While this might combine nicely with an appetite for human flesh, it also means you’d need to eat your victims, which means they don’t become zombies themselves since they’re dead. It also means it would take some time (numerous hours, if I’m being charitable) before their zombie muscles are in place. It also indicates that (if my nascent knowledge of biology bears true), rather than a singular virus, we are dealing with a condition made up of a cocktail of viruses–one to alter behavior, the other to alter the endocrine system. This would necessarily reduce the frequency of successful transmission and would probably result in some zombies having the behavior without the physique while others would have the physique without the behavior (in other words, they wouldn’t be zombies at all, but closer to superhumans like Captain America).
Given all this stuff, zombies would be more sad than dangerous. They would likely dehydrate and die within a few days at maximum, probably less time. If you thought to bring a gallon of water and some granola bars up on your roof with the sabotaged ladder, you’d outlive the lot of them.
The Problem with Premise #5: Zombie Apocalypse
Okay, so I have thus far established why sci-fi zombies wouldn’t function like zombies are portrayed. They would not transmit their disease as easily as imagined, they aren’t smart enough to capitalize upon their aggression, and they aren’t anywhere near as strong or tough as they are represented.
But what, you ask, about the zombie horde?
It is true, indeed, that a giant mass of zombies would theoretically be a dangerous thing. Every bit as dangerous as a giant mass of regular people, actually, except infected with a dangerous pathogen and, overall, more violent (certain mobs of soccer fans excluded, of course). It is also worth noting that in almost all zombie movies, the mass of zombies is the primary danger–the thing that shows up somewhere in the second act to finally put the heroes out of their misery, and that it takes the third act for them to figure out how to solve. The zombie horde is what ends the world, destroys civilization, and lead to Will Smith wandering the streets of New York alone with his dog.
There is, of course, one major, overriding problem with this scenario: the zombie horde would almost certainly not develop. Some of the reasons why are already inherent in the flaws of the previous premises. Since zombies would have trouble transmitting the disease efficiently, you really wouldn’t get that many zombies. You’d get them, sure, but in the dozens or possibly scores; almost certainly not in the hundreds or thousands. Those dozens or scores would probably develop in closed quarters where there is a lot of distraction keeping people from noticing the rabid zombie attacks. In particular, I’m thinking nightclubs and bars, wherein the music is loud, the lighting is dim, and the patrons are drunk. Still, there *are* bouncers in such places (usually), and it’s pretty likely any drunk person bitten by a drooling lunatic would *still* wind up at the hospital, but you never know–people are stupid.
Oh, and just so I can settle this: a zombie plague stops at the hospital. Zombies are clearly out of their minds, would arrive restrained, and would remain restrained. Zombies can’t escape from full hospital bed restraints without injuring themselves to the point of incapacitation. People who haven’t turned yet will get treated, inspected, etc., and even if there is no cure and the hospital doesn’t know what’s going on, they aren’t going to let somebody attacked in this way walk, most likely. They *might* (people *are* stupid), but even in that case we’re dealing with dozens or scores of zombies, all told, not *everyone*.
More important than the transmission problem, however, is this simple fact: how do the zombies know to gather in a horde? There are no zombie organizers. There is no zombie Facebook page informing everybody to gather at point A to go gathering up the humans. Also, why don’t zombies eat or attack *each other*? They are mindless, aggressive, flesh-eating machines and, as it happens, zombies are made up of flesh. Seems to me that two zombies in a room would spend just as much time tearing *each other* apart as they would normal humans. a great pack of zombies would just become a hyper-violent mosh pit, likely resulting in the zombies killing one another. Bingo–no horde.
The only way a horde might happen is if, again, we are working on the assumption that the zombie plague also creates some kind of pheromonal IFF signal (Identify Friend-or-Foe). Not only is this ridiculously complex (and thus unlikely), it also reduces the likelihood of perfect transmission, meaning *splat*–again no hordes.
In essence, the zombie apocalypse simply wouldn’t happen, couldn’t happen, and (obviously) won’t. This doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be zombie *disasters*. We could imagine perfect storms of human error, stupidity, and environmental factors that might result in hundreds of deaths in some small community or part of an urban center, but it wouldn’t topple the government of anything important. State of Emergency declared, perhaps; National Guard called in, possibly. End of the human race? Not a chance.
Conclusion and a Note on Origins
In the end, I think I’ve made pretty good case for why I find the sci-fi zombie scenario so hard to stomach. It’s patently ridiculous on the face of it. If we want to have magic powers involved, well then I have no problem. Beyond that, though, its, frankly, lazy sci-fi. This doesn’t mean zombies *can’t* be done well, it’s just that, lately, they haven’t been. Personally, I blame Charlton Heston and The Omega Man. That started this whole zombie-apocalypse nonsense.
And, as a final swipe at the trope, let me ask this question: who the hell is designing this zombie plague? Why? If the objective is to create a devastating biological weapon, why make zombies? A hyped-up version of the flu, anthrax, or smallpox would kill *far* more people, be easier to deploy, and, what’s more, give you an easier time when you came in to mop-up and claim territory (which is what all good weapons are supposed to let you do, you know). If the objective is to make some kind of super-human soldiers, why make it transferrable? You don’t want your opponents in a conflict to ‘catch’ your super-power, do you? If the objective is to infliltrate or control society, why make zombies? Zombies are freaking useless slaves. Why not simply infiltrate society with very *appealing* creatures and take control that way. Society is compelled by smiles and pretty faces, but repelled by blood-stained, drooling monsters.
Okay, I’ve said enough. Thanks for reading, if indeed anyone has, and I promise that, if you start chattering about the latest zombie-related property, I won’t say anything. I won’t even roll my eyes. I’ve said my piece, now. I’m done.