Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Fun with Old Zombie Fiction Tropes 2: The Firearms Expert

You know the story. The Mystery Virus comes out of nowhere and takes down a lot of people. Those people die and return as flesh-eating ghouls. Law and order collapses beneath their sheer numbers. Our hero finds himself separated from his family and spends the rest of the narrative fighting through mobs of deadly-ravenous former humans and flaky and/or devious survivors to get to his people.

With a few tweaks, that’s the basic plot to Bleeding Kansas. I did not presume to reinvent the wheel with my first novel. As a rock guitarist employs the simple pentatonic box scale to craft a lead solo, I ran my riffs off that basic zomfic template. 

Jimmy Page, Slash, and a host of other guitar slingers crafted memorable solos
using the above template. Of course, it helps tremendously
to be Jimmy Page or Slash to make it really sing out. 

Sometimes I wonder how many of these elements readers of zombie fiction expect in their stories. True, we can (and often do) omit the cause of the zombie apocalypse. We don’t need the whole Quest to Find My Loved Ones angle, either.

But it seems a given, in at least 99 out of every 100 zombie apocalypse books you’ll pick up, that you will encounter Sam Shootist and his encyclopedic knowledge of firearms from across the world. He knows the calibers of slugs they take, the general availability of said slugs, their range, their “stopping power,” etc. As zombie fiction tropes go, the Firearms Expert dominates. 

My own hands-on experience with firearms is extremely limited. I did not grow up in the country, so I never owned a plinker with which to shoot gophers and foxes and Mountain Dew cans. My military experience is limited to having married a Navy hospital corps/aviation med tech and drinking beer with Marines. 

I’ve met a few “gun people,” though, and from them I have learned the following:

1. Firearms are a serious investment of time and money. You have to clean your weapon lest the oil and dust turn your projectile-firing device into a hand grenade that blows up in your face. You have to take the gun out and fire it periodically to ensure it works properly. 

You’ll also need considerable time on the target range to ensure you can actually hit what you’re aiming at. “Point and shoot” works only with cameras. Cameras don’t jerk backwards with explosive recoil when you push the button.

But in case you missed it in that first sentence, here’s what really kills it for my broke, unemployable self:

2. Firearms and their ammunition, the cleaning materials, the time on the shooting range, the locks, the gun safe, etc., are a serious investment of money.

 So I’m not trying to be cute or in any way subversive/snarky/smart-assed when I make Derek Grace a relative “noob” when it comes to weapons in Bleeding Kansas  He’s not a man of means; he’s in the city for a fluke second interview and counting on the job to save his family from imminent homelessness. Fortunately, he’s locked up in a luxury hotel with a man named Tanner who gets a police-issue Glock based on his Colorado-issue concealed-carry permit and social engineering skills. Grace tries to bullshit his way into getting a pistol of his own but the cop has already been basking in the warm glow of Tanner’s smooth talk, and as Grace doesn’t have a permit, he loses out. 

The cop leaves to patrol his assigned blocks. We begin this excerpt with Grace asking Tanner what he does for a living, and continue with Grace’s basic education in firearms maintenance:

“So what are you doing out of Colorado?”

“I’m a security consultant. I give presentations to company boards about doing business in depressed markets. I advise them how to brand themselves so they don’t appear part of the problem, how employees should and should not talk about what they do, and so on.”

“Then I guess you’re all we need. I don’t have a gun.”

“I’ve got to sleep sometime. You can use the one they issued me.”

“I’m going to need some training.”

“I thought you told Officer—oh! Okay! Well, we’ve got plenty of time between now and when the burials start. Probably ought to clean this thing first, anyway. Good time to get you acquainted with the basics.”

Which we do. I’ve always meant to get a gun, but the general commitment involved with owning one put me off. You don’t just buy one of these things, load it and leave it in the nightstand drawer, hoping you’ll never use it. For my part, that’s just it: I knew I’d use it. Especially throughout these last four years when my general mood has been swinging somewhere between animal rage and oh-God-why-bother despair.

I go over and over taking apart the piece, reassembling the parts. Meanwhile, Tanner talks about himself, his five-star wonderful family living the Good Ol’ American Dream. To people like him the Great Recession is an attitude problem. Everything is onwards and upwards, the good getting better all the time.

As much as his prattling annoys me I’m grateful he’s not asking me any questions about my own family. Claire is dead. That’s my grief and mine alone. She couldn’t even kiss me goodbye because we couldn’t afford it. Couldn’t afford it. Seriously.

Well, honey, I didn’t get sick. Now what? Just think, poor Giselle has to bury her mother like icky poor people do in their icky poor countries. How could we be so selfish, thinking only of ourselves!

There are so many things I love about the above exchange, the first one being the notion of a “security consultant.” I’ve actually met people in Colorado Springs who make a good living in what I call the Bullshit Industrial Complex, doing nothing more than giving PowerPoint presentations to various companies. They use the generic “ex-military officer” line to give them the appearance of experience and knowledge. They’ll be sure to let you know if they’ve done time in Iraq or Afghanistan—it’s Serious Warrior Bonus Points, and a factor in their speaking fee—but as a non-flying officer, you can be sure his worst day in either locale was when the air conditioning broke.

It’s likely Derek Grace has met such people, especially at job networking events where these guys will come to perform their happy-talk Expert from Out of Town shtick. Grace is not interested in playing Neighborhood Watch with this fop in a white tennis outfit (yes, that’s what Tanner is wearing when we first meet him towards the end of Chapter 5). He wants this martial law in the city to get over with so he can get back on the road.  So the first thing Grace does is attempt escape by throwing a little raw meat at Tanner’s ego. 

Tanner needs an audience, though. Angie the Desk Girl isn’t much company, what with her getting sicker by the minute since Mr. Devereaux in 604 tore that chunk of flesh from her arm with his teeth. So he makes an offer to share gun duties. In a last-ditch effort to escape, Grace confesses he doesn’t have training. Tanner catches that Grace had lied to the police officer, and as one bullshitter catching out another, Tanner is impressed—and needing the company, offers to train Grace.

And while Derek Grace learns to disassemble, clean, and reassemble a common police-issue Glock 9mm, we learn the most important reason why he’s never kept a gun. It turns out to be the same reason that enables him to survive when the dead begin to fill the streets later in that same chapter.

The moral of this story is that any trope that comes up can be used to tell a little about the character and the world he lives in. Here, I took my own ignorance of firearms and turned it into a learning experience in more ways than one. Grace learns how to disassemble and clean a common Glock 9mm and we get an idea of how Grace is going to come into conflict with his new partner.

Derek Grace goes into the zombie apocalypse with a steeper learning curve than most. With a little tweaking of the Firearms Expert trope I add a world of depth and texture to what might have been a more ordinary zombie story.

BLEEDING KANSAS Copyright © 2013, 2014, 2017 by Lawrence Roy Aiken