Zombies, Pandemics, and Other Disasters

The Walking Dead is, of course, the standout show of the current televised post-apocalyptic lineup. What makes it good is that the showrunners have discovered how to convince the American viewing public to sit still for an extended meditation on the various approaches to living a moral life – or at least surviving – in an imperfect world: For every so-many minutes of debate by the characters on morality and philosophy, throw in an equal or greater number of minutes of zombie-smashing and gunfire. The genius lies in the show’s ability to determine just how long viewers will sit still for philosophy before a zombie needs to shamble up out of nowhere and go rarrrgh! (Also, they have figured out that philosophy is a lot more palatable when coming from bikers with biceps. Which is probably a sentiment that Plato could have understood.)

Fear the Walking Dead is a limp noodle by comparison, mostly because all of the characters are operating on a stupidity level that makes me wonder how they survived before Southern California started sliding downhill into chaos. You know that things are bad when the junkie older son of the viewpoint family is one of the few people exhibiting sporadic flashes of intelligence and common sense. (Oh, and Ruben Blades is doing a thankless job of portraying the only other character with more depth than a wading pool. I hope it leads to better roles for him in better shows.)

But the show that I have a sneaking fondness for is the post-pandemic-apocalypse drama The Last Ship. It doesn’t have the groundbreaking quality of The Walking Dead, nor the trainwreck-in-progress morbid fascination of Fear the Walking Dead. What it does have, though, is a refreshing change from the usual Hobbesian post-apocalyptic universe, where all it takes is a couple of weeks without hot water and electricity for the world to collapse into a war of all against all that’s fit to warm a social Darwinist’s heart. In The Last Ship, people aren’t just taking the breakdown of civilization-as-we-know-it passively. They’re all working, in their different ways, to restore order and government and the social contract. Hell, even the bad guys on the show are trying to do that thing — they’re just doing it wrong.

And frankly, I think that for all the tempting darkness of the Walking Dead future, the idea of people banding together and striving for the restoration of order is the more realistic vision.

Amusements for the Coming Solstice

I could have saved this for posting a bit closer to the day, but by that time we’re going to have a house full of people and I’ll be lucky to get up a few sentences griping about punctuation trivia.  That being the case, herewith a few of my favorite winter-holiday stories and characters from both written and visual media:

  • The visit from Saint Nicholas at Christmas in Nazi-occupied Holland in Hilda Van Stockum’s The Winged Watchman — I read this one when I was a kid, and it helped start me off on my ongoing fascination with history and the people who were part of it.
  • Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, whose arrival with gifts for the Pevensie children signals the end in Narnia of “always winter and never Christmas.”
  • The New Year’s feast at Camelot that kicks off Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  For those who feel up to tackling the thorny Middle English dialect of the original, there’s a text on-line here. My co-author and I liked it so much, in fact, we wrote our own short story about the events of that particular Arthurian feast, “Holly and Ivy.”
  • The third-season Christmas episode of Supernatural, for the way that it combines the Winchester brothers’ childhood memories of The Worst Christmas Ever (everybody has at least one of those in their memory book) with the sense of impending doom that hung over all the episodes of that particular season, and still manages to finish up the episode on a warm, if bittersweet, note.
  • The first Die Hard movie.  (Of the others in the franchise, we will not speak, except to say that I’m happy Bruce Willis has a long-running franchise to keep his own Christmas stocking full.)  Underneath all the blood and explosions, it’s a romantic comedy for the Christmas season . . . how often, after all, do you get a rom-com where the hero is literally willing to walk barefoot over broken glass for the sake of his one true love?

Family Feasts and Rituals

We’re gearing up for Thanksgiving dinner already — tonight is pie production, because Thanksgiving dinner is nothing if not a pie delivery system.  This year we’re only doing three pies (cherry, apple, and pumpkin) because there are only going to be four of us at the table.  Come Christmas, when all three of the unmarried offspring will be temporarily in residence, we will be doing at least four pies (the current loadout, plus blueberry, and quite possibly some kind of chocolate cream pie as an extra.)

One of the things that a lot of science fiction and secondary-world fantasy often lacks, in my opinion, is this kind of tradition-laden family gathering.  Partly it’s because the protagonists of science-fictional and fantastic stories are so often loners, either by circumstance or by choice — they’re orphans, or they’re wanderers of one sort or another, or they’re estranged from whatever relatives they’ve got.  (Which is a pity, I think; nothing complicates life, or a plot, like family.)  But partly, I suspect, it’s because making up plausible and consistent holidays and family rituals that are convincingly alien but nevertheless feel like the real thing . . . is hard work.

(This is also where I like to give a nod to one of my favorite fictional Thanksgivings, the season four episode “Pangs” of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  It has everything, from the manic freakouts over getting the traditional recipes exactly right, to a look at some of the more problematic historical and cultural issues surrounding the holiday, culminating in a shared meal where everybody — even the captive vampire tied to a chair — is entitled to a seat at the table.)

Peeve of the Day

Another thing a lot of writers get wrong:  cold.

Film and television writers are particularly bad in this regard, possibly because so many of them live in southern California, where cold is something that you make a day trip to visit and then drive home again.  But they aren’t the only ones.

Cold — true cold — isn’t charming and picturesque.  It’s dangerous and debilitating; it drains your energy and makes you stupid and has no compunction about killing you dead.

A few writers have gotten it right, notably Jack London in “To Build a Fire.” (The fantasy novelist Sean Stewart also got it right, in an elegant homage to London’s work that appears in his novel The Night Watch.)

Film and Television Aren’t Your Friends

There are a few things — more than a few, actually, but this is a blog post, not an exhaustive list — that you’re going to get the wrong impression of, if you’re relying on film and television and not real life:

How dark darkness really is.  Scenes on television and in the movies that are supposedly set in lightless or minimally-lit places (the woods on a moonless night; a windowless room) are in fact taking place in a representation of darkness and not the real thing, and the representation has to have enough light going on that the viewers can follow the action.  You’re a writer, not a film or television director, so you don’t have access to that particular artistic convention.  You need to keep track of what your light sources are, and if you don’t want your characters to be tripping over furniture in the dark, have them remember to bring along a flashlight.

How much injury it actually takes to put somebody out of action.  If all you want to do is sideline a character for a few chapters so that, for example, other characters are temporarily deprived of their assistance, it’s not necessary to riddle them with bullets or put them in a coma.  A severe sprain, a minor dislocation, a bad case of flu or even food poisoning . . . any of those will work as well.

How loud gunshots really are.  Make that how LOUD.  Your characters aren’t going to be holding any complex conversations in the immediate aftermath.

At what speed the wheels of justice really turn.  Anybody who’s ever served on jury duty knows that the reality is a long way from its fictional counterpart.  There are fewer moments of high drama, and more moments that sound like a couple of highly-paid professional litigators playing a complex but boring game of Mother-may-I.  (If you’ve never served on a jury, do so if you’re called — the experience, for a writer, is invaluable.  Lacking that opportunity, you can sometimes find gavel-to-gavel trial coverage on television or the internet.)

The moral of the story, unsurprisingly, is that if you find yourself writing about something that you only know about through media representations . . . back off and do some research.