October 31st, 2010

The Zombie Bandwagon

On this fine Halloween Sunday morning, I have to ask: W(h)ither zombies? I've read about why pirates like parrots, but the undying love steampunkers hold for death-in-self-denial has always puzzled me. I guess it's part of the punk rather than the steam, and I've always been better at steam than punk. A recent blog post by Charles Stross has created enough noise in the blogosphere to wake the dead: Charlie is annoyed at the fact that steampunk has become a bandwagon, and he doesn't do bandwagons. (My overall reaction to the post is that Charlie protesteth too much, and by the end sounds like he's annoyed because he didn't jump on the bandwagon when it rolled past his house.)

One place where Charlie and I agree: zombies. They've been done to, well, you know. He's locked horns with Cherie Priest, a gung-ho Seattle steampunk writer who's had a lot to do with populating the steampunk universe with shambling horrors, which she very aptly calls "rotters."

The problem may be that steampunk as a subgenre is shattering, and parts of it are slithering across the floor and merging with paranormal costume fantasy. (I'll know when I grab and read one of Cherie's books.) Perhaps it's time to claim a subsubgenre as "hard steampunk," where we get to keep the pipe fittings but bury the dead. I could do that. I may already have. (See "Drumlin Boiler," which I'd rather see considered steampunk than weird western.)

Zombies are not a new thing. I was given a zombie story called "Impulse" to read aloud at a Boy Scout summer camp campfire gathering in 1964, and it was decent. (I wish I could find it again, but I don't remember the author. I think it goes back to the Fifties.) Unless I misrecall--and that was 46 years ago--it was about some sort of telepathic alien goo that tries to use a dead body as a disguise and finds it doesn't work well. Surprise! I saw plenty of zombie movies as a much younger man, and have read more than my share of zombie fiction. (The best? George R.R. Martin's "Override.") To my hard SF mind it's a difficult business. Biological systems are more resilient than mechanical ones, but after all, we call them "dead" when they don't work anymore. If they get up and start working again, I find it hard to still think of them as dead.

In truth, what I mostly think of them as these days is funny. I have a whimsical novel called Ten Gentle Opportunities on ice right now that turns De Camp's Harold Shea concept on its ear, and posits a sort of magic hacker from a universe where magic works as a consistent alternate physics (with spells a sort of immaterial software) who jumps universes to escape from an enraged magician and lands here on Earth. To escape pursuit while still in his own magical world, he makes his way into a zombie trap, where the zombies check in but can't check out. Alas, physics is a bitch, whether magical or not.

Getting the dead to stay dead was an increasingly serious problem. Formerly living material was powerfully endomagical: Once the Great Magic of life drained out of it, a corpse would soak up any uncommitted Third Eye magic in its immediate surroundings, and if enough were available would get up and start shambling around again, breaking things and getting into fights.

For most of history, magic had been rare and valuable, and the few magicians in the world tended to be well-bred and tidy. Unnecessary or broken spells were always frotted back to the primordial chaos from which they had been drawn. Alas, as the archipelago grew crowded, younger magicians lacking an inheritance increasingly turned to drink and careless spellmaking to obtain what they wanted. Few landless magicians studied hard enough to advance to Adamant Class. The spells blikked up by drunken Ruby-classers were complicated and fragile, and rapidly broke down into increasingly tiny fragments that nonetheless had to be individually frotted to be rid of them. No one would bother, especially the Amethyst and Adamant classes, who thought of spellfrotting as something one did only to one's own magic. So little by little, invisible grains of useless magic blew around the world on the very winds, ready to be absorbed by a corpse's hungry substance.

Most folk lacking the Third Eye grumbled that Global Enlivening was a conspiracy by magicians, who were the only ones who could unbreakably bind a corpse to its own etheric shell such that both would comfortably and permanently disintegrate. Within Styppkk's own lifetime, mean-time-to-shamble had fallen from a comfortable fortnight to only three days, and if a magician could not be found (and paid) to conduct a proper funeral and shellstaking by then, one's deceased relatives would wander off, though walls as easily as through doors.

The problem had grown acute enough two centuries earlier that the world's Adamant magicians had collaborated on the creation of the great lychfields, which were zombie traps: The bait was earth magic, which though powerful was not absorbed by dead flesh. The simple spell at the heart of every lychfield made earth magic smell like Third Eye magic, attracting zombies that were already ambulant. Once inside, they could not get out, and eventually exhausted the ambient magic they had absorbed and crumbled to bones and dust.

Styppkk had read it all in Wiccapedia, and as he got to his feet he felt around in his many pockets for the requisite spells. He knew how to command zombies and had done it a time or two, usually as a way of getting cheap if not especially skilled labor. This time what he wanted was a diversion. In only seconds, the shambling horrors in the lychfield would smell the magic he had in his pockets, and would turn in his direction. Then the real fun would begin.

Seconds passed, then minutes. Nothing. Styppkk looked around in the gloom. He saw no movement. There was no sound but the unnerving trickle of water down the granite walls enclosing the lychfield. He took a step forward, and crunched on ancient bones--then tripped over a motionless body that shuddered only slightly at the indignity.

Something was wrong, and Styppkk knew that in relatively short order, Jrikkjroggmugg would be over the wall and on his case again. He fished a clamshell phial from an inside pocket, snapped it open, and dipped his left pinkie in the dust it contained. Seconds later, his pinkie burst into brilliant but cold flame, and Styppkk could now see clearly to the far wall of the lychfield. There were plenty of zombies, but none were moving. In many places, they were stacked like cordwood or leaning against one another like tottering monoliths in a henge. Styppkk counted hundreds by eye.

On a hunch, Styppkk flipped down his helmet's crystal daggers again, so to see how strongly the magically animated zombies were glowing. Nothing was glowing very strongly...but every zombie in sight was glowing identically. Of course! Like water, uncommitted Third Eye magic sought its own level, and newly-arrived zombies confined in close proximity to older zombies lost some of their magic to the lychfield's older denizens, until at some point there was so little magic to go around that nothing was even twitching, much less shambling.

Styppkk fixes that, of course, and I get to make fun of the zombie fad on a large scale, while putting forth my own vision of magic-as-alternate-physics. (Want me to finish it? Then find me an agent. I'm not having much luck on my own.)

That's my take on zombies. They're kind of like reuben sandwiches or Drambuie: Not my thing on the consumption side, but as a bartender or deli owner I'd serve them up without a twitch to paying customers. (Hey, I sold lots of C++ books from Coriolis, right?) As for bandwagons, well, let's consider that bandwagons don't roll without customer demand to pull them. Sorry, Charlie. Zombies taste good, whether or not they're in good taste. People are buying Cherie Priest's books and those of many others who are plowing that same field, which means that zombies are now firmly planted in the fantasy landscape. I'm a starships guy by birth and I've been waiting for the elves'n'gnomes'n'dragons thing to die out for fifteen years or so, but by this time, them having taken over 80% of the SFF shelf space at Border's, I'd say it ain't gonna happen.

Which doesn't mean I'm going to start writing zombie stories, apart from (perhaps) Ten Gentle Opportunities, which treats zombies only in passing. I will only raise for my fellow writers the possibility that unless you're big enough to have your own wagon (as Charlie Stross certainly is) it probably makes sense to grab the first one past that you know you can ride--and if the other passengers' arms come off as they pull you aboard, so be it.