Thursday, July 18, 2013

Fun with Old Zombie Fiction Tropes 1: the Apocalypse Virus

You’d think “the mysterious virus” was there at the very beginning, but it was the return of a “Venus probe” that kicked off the original zombie outbreak in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968.

Romero deliberately avoided explaining how the zombies came about in his subsequent movies. Meanwhile, the trope of “the ______ Virus” became the go-to explanation for what killed, then resurrected most of humanity. 

In Bleeding Kansas I imagine my bug as a living, flesh-eating bacterium using reanimated corpses as a living-flesh delivery system, but that’s a small distinction I don’t even bother going into in the book; it’s just what I, as the writer, know. Yes, bacteria are living organisms, viruses are not, but no one cares about that. It’s what that makes people sick, kills them, then brings them back to eat the living. It’s all anyone needs to know.

It’s a trope that is as useful as it is convenient. It answers the question people often ask regarding how how stupid, slow-moving zombies could overwhelm civilization so quickly. Consider: if everyone who has a job is already doing the jobs of three people, and one in three of those people get sick, the infrastructure is going down. Especially when those people who aren’t sick, who have no loyalty to jobs that would dump them in a heartbeat, stay home to take care of their sick.

Everything will go on full automatic until it all grinds to a halt. Which it will, shortly after the dead rise to attack the people taking care of them, and turn them. In short order the living dead become the apex predator of the New Weird Order based on numbers alone. 

In Bleeding Kansas I use the “Mayday Malaise” as a tool to increase the anxiety of an already anxious protagonist. His wife is sick, the cab driver who drove him to the airport is sick, but it’s not the end of the world for him in the sense we know it will be. For Derek Grace, the pandemic threatens to take away his last, best chance for lifting his family out of imminent destitution. Meanwhile, it’s as if the world is mocking his desperation. As this passage opens, Derek Grace has just left the cab and entered the airport concourse:

I’d like to think that’s the end of it but I’m running a gauntlet of sneezing, coughing people all the way to the fat lady at the ticket counter. She got a red Hitler mustache of raw skin under her nose from wiping at it with her third wad of tissue.

I wish I had some tongs or latex gloves with which to take my boarding pass. For God’s sake, I can’t afford to get sick, not for the best chance for gainful employment I’ve had in years! It’s probably a matter of time, though. Turning away from the counter every other person I see is suffering from some degree of the “Mayday Malaise.”

That’s how the logo reads behind cable news queen Stefani Dunham on TVs all over the airport. “Now this is a different kind of cold bug,” she says. “Aside from the fact that one out of three people come down with it, you can actually sort of function through it! Of course, some are saying it’s because Americans with jobs are afraid to miss work for any reason, given the economic situation.” Our head cheerleader-cum-broadcast journalist makes a face to let us know what she thinks of some people.

“Whatever the case, doctors say it’s an aerosol virus, which means it’s all up in your air!” The shot cuts to a gray-haired eminence mumbling authoritatively in a plush office. Back to Stefani: “And we’re not immune here!” She coughs theatrically into a handkerchief. “All this and a runny nose! A big shout-out to my make-up people here in the News Center for keeping me presentable! Hey, we carry on, what can you do?”

With my Irish luck, that’s the strain I won’t be getting. Claire struggled to make it to the bathroom and that poor dumb cabbie I rode in with was barely functional. 

If you’ve even suffered through a cable morning “news” show in this benighted empire-in-decline that is the USA, you’ll understand that, yes, the anchorlady is really that bad. I don’t care which channel you watch.

That aside, my hero, Derek Grace, eventually has to face that he’s abandoned his wife, who was indeed sick unto death, and now he’s 600 miles from his surviving children because he couldn’t miss an interview that wasn’t going to happen anyway. It’s the sort of thing that leaves a mark on one’s character, embittering him, hardening him—and making him perfectly suited for the World That Is To Be, in which Things Unnatural roam the land, where only the most ruthless of the survivors stand a chance.

If you  can’t feed ‘em, don’t breed ‘em! That’s all I’m sayin’.

Bleeding Kansas Copyright © 2013, 2017 by Lawrence Roy Aiken