Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Politics of Life With Zombies

The zombie apocalypse has happened.  Never mind how, it just did, fourteen years ago when Benny was eighteen months old and was spirited away from his parents by his half-brother Tom before they became victims themselves.  Since then, the living have taken to enclosed cities and let the undead roam in what is now called the Rot and Ruin.

Fifteen is the age of maturity, and that means getting a part-time job in order to continue receiving rations. Benny, like many teens, doesn't really want to work, and he certainly doesn't want to take up the family business of becoming a bounty hunter of the undead.  Worse, his brother Tom is legendary, but all Benny knows and remembers of his much-older brother is that he was a coward who ran away and left their parents to become zombies.

There are plenty of other bounty hunters though, guys like Charlie and The Hammer who told war stories of their times in the Rot and Ruin and talked up their kills in ways Tom never did. Benny could never understand why his brother never talked about work, or why Tom was so revered by town elders, but he finds out quick enough when he finally agrees to become his brother's apprentice after failing at pretty much every other job he attempts.  One trip into the Rot and Ruin changes everything Benny ever knew, or thought he knew, about what it means to be human, both living and undead.

While zombies are currently in vogue and it would seem there is little to add to canon of kill-or-be-killed, Jonathan Maberry's Rot & Ruin takes the idea of a world full of the undead and makes it a dystopia where questions of good and evil become slippery.  Is a zombie out for brains any worse than the people who use them for blood sports?  Can the dead and undead coexist in a delicate test of God's will, and what of the moral ambiguity in believing that murder is wrong but murdering zombies is okay; after all, zombies were and are still human beings, right?  And what sort of "civilized" society has been preserved when, in financial desperation, the living would subject themselves to enter a fighting ring to do combat with zombies for the entertainment of others, where a blind eye is turned away from those citizen who organize such contests?

The zombie apocalypse could stand in for anything – a plague, global thermonuclear war, or even world-wide environmental collapse.  What Maberry poses is that no matter how it comes about, how we behave afterward defines who we are as a society, and what Benny learns quickly is that his whole life he and his friends have been sheltered from the reality that the post-apocalyptic world is not a pretty place.  Whacking zombies sounds like fun until you begin to attach names and families to the undead, until you realize that the "other" you're out to kill could easily be a friend or relative.

I can't be the first person to think this, but I've been wondering about the rise of zombies in popular culture recently and in doing so came to an oddly chilling conclusion.  When monsters have become popular in our cultural entertainment they usually do so as a surrogate for some other fear.  Nuclear war and radioactive fallout gave us the mutant monsters of the 1950s.  The rise of horror films in the 1980s reinforced messages of morality at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic.  The rise of vampires has been slow and steady for some time, but dawning of zombies is more than a replacement for any trend, it seems to tap into a deeply rooted fear of something in Western culture that is dark and difficult to understand or deal with in a rational way.

Like fundamentalist terrorism.

This may have been the farthest thought from Maberry's intention with Rot & Ruin, but in showing the remains of civilization as a gated community under constant threat from brain-dead outsiders who are, by lack of choice, simply trying to survive, I can't help but see the metaphor for what we are seeing today in the world.  While the United States continues to promote and preserve its freedoms as a gated, civilized community, the rest of the world remains a threat to those very ideas simply by wanting an equal chance at the good life.  Of course, to make this analogy I would have to equate the zombies for Islamic fundamentalist terrorists out for blood, but isn't that the image we inside the gates are fed all the time by politicians and the media?  And what if, like Benny, we come to learn that these people are just that, people, and that as long as we continue to demonize them or use them for our own expendable purposes we will forever be at war.

Politics aside, its an engrossing take on the dystopic zombie apocalypse, and a solid adventure that can be enjoyed at the surface level as well.

Rot & Ruin
by Jonathan Maberry
Simon & Schuster  2010


Sarah Stevenson said...

Interesting take. I'm always fascinated by the parallels between literary trends and what's actually going on in the world.

Ms. Yingling said...

Definitely have to look at this one. Most important thing I have learned-- bicycles are a good way to escape zombies.

david elzey said...

and what's odd is how these trends aren't necessarily understood or agreed upon, they just sort of bubble up through the collective unconscious. we got anxieties, what's sort of like those anxieties? zombies? cool.

david elzey said...

(don't understand why these are posting out of order, and with odd timestamps)

in addition to using bicycles to escape zombies, Rot & Ruin shows that blades are better than guns, because the noise of gunfire attracts more zombies. noise is your enemy, so all those folks in movies with shotguns, they're just bringing it upon themselves.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Probably posting out of order because we have to hand-approve comments from people who aren't contributors... :)

MarkLWilliams said...

Well, any kind of a fundamentalist is going to be a "zombie" of some sort -- their behavior already proscribed for them.

The danger is the zombies already *behind* the gates, eh?