Wednesday, September 7, 2011

When The Dead Rise

I noticed recently that I am getting bored by the tried and true tropes of the genres I typically read - urban fantasy, epic fantasy, and science fiction.  Sometimes, it seems like every urban fantasy is basically just one standard deviation away from every other urban fantasy.  Werewolves, vampires, and fae - oh my!  I've gotten tired of 'The Chosen One' in epic fantasy.  It's like, hey, you got your Judeo-Christian mythos in my dragons and elves!  Again.  Yawn.  Space aliens trying to take over the world/galaxy/universe?  Meh. Just give them the damn thing already.  This has led me to reading stories that are based on one particular fantastical element being true.  These things take place in the 'real world' (for certain values of real) and the world building stems from that one specific change.  I love this particular style because every author ends up constructing a very different world, even when using the same basic idea.

My current one-change obsession is world building based on the dead rising.  Whether it's murderous ghosts or an old-fashioned zombie apocalypse, you still end up with a fairly unique experience as each author posits the changes that would have to take place to contend with our new neighbors.

Here are a few of my favorite 'dead rising' books.

Unholy Ghosts by Stacia Kane
Twenty years ago, the dead rose up and viciously attacked the living.  These ghosts killed millions before the Church of Truth and its witches were able to banish them, and the world that's left behind is very changed.  In the absence of faith - you know what comes next and it isn't pretty - the Church of Truth is more like a utility company than a spiritual organization; they guarantee a ghost free existence or they will compensate you handsomely.  When someone reports a haunting, the Church sends out its Debunkers, a type of witch who can both detect and banish ghosts, to validate the claim. That's the role of our heroine, Chess Putnam. The world Chess lives in is particularly grim, and she copes the best she can, mostly via her drug addiction.  Her habit gets the best of her when she's coerced by her dealer into banishing ghosts that are complicating one of his schemes.

I love the idea that ghosts showed up and started busting heads.  The fact that a bunch of witches put them down, then established a perpetual bureaucracy to keep the ghosts in their place is pretty ingenious. It seems inevitable that such an institution would grow to encompass the entirety of civilzation.  If this is the only known defense against ghosts, of course we'd put our trust in them - there's no other choice. I also love how the certainty of the grim reality of the afterlife ended the need for faith, but has thereby killed a lot of the hope in the world. The Downside books are set in a dark, rich, complex world that all stemmed from a very simple idea.

Feed by Mira Grant
The good news is that cancer and the common cold have been cured!  The bad news is that those two cures combined to become a virus, Kellis-Amberlee, that can turn any mammal over 40 pounds into a voracious zombie and causes the dead to reanimate and attack living beings.  Every mammal on the planet is infected with Kellis-Amberlee.  Every person who dies will - without exception - rise again. Every person has the potential for spontaneous amplification of their virus, thus becoming a maddened zombie with almost no warning.  Managing the potential for outbreaks has worked its way into every aspect of day to day life.  Constant blood tests are required to ensure that the virus is still dormant. After going into a hazard zone, you must effectively decontaminate - basically by bleaching yourself. Large gatherings are a thing of the past.  The CDC is the most powerful organization in the United States, as they manage all blood test results and constantly search for a way to neutralize Kellis-Amberlee. As more people stay indoors to avoid the outbreak risks, independent news sources on the internet are depended upon to report in close to real-time when any serious issues occur.

Feed is written from the perspective of one Georgia Mason, a blogger whose team has been chosen to follow a presidential candidate on the election trail.  We get a good history of The Rising from her, but even more interesting are the things that freak Georgia out.  Things like eating at an outdoor restaurant, the idea of owning a dog, or having picture windows - those are all just madness in the world she inhabits. When life is all about minimizing and managing the outbreaks that are certain to happen, most people live in a constant state of controlled fear.

World War Z by Max Brooks
We have survived the zombie apocalypse - for now - and this documentary-style chronical looks back at the class-4 outbreak from start to finish as told by a random sampling of surivors from across the world.  We hear from an illiict transplant surgeon in South America who began dealing with tainted organs, a human trafficker who moved sick refugees until the danger got too great, and the country doctor who knew that something was terribly wrong in rural China. Through the eyes of others, we see how the virus was disseminated across the globe before anyone even knew there were issues, and by then it was too late.  Each country dealt with containment (or declined to deal with it) in their own way, and the measures ranged from ineffectual to inhumanly brutal - sometimes they were both. Warfare tactics that have been tried and true for centuries fell short when dealing with a foe who had no fear to prey upon, could not be intimidated, and came on relentlessly until they were utterly incapacitated. Even the cleanup after the worst of the danger had passed was harrowing.

I loved the view from each of the fictitious survivors.  Their recollections are colored by their own lives, how each development impacted them, and as such it makes the account of the outbreak so much more personal. I could almost visualize the interviews as each person told their piece of the story.  Some people cashed in on the mayhem, some people were heroes, and some were just trying to survive. Despite the personal tone of each individual story, you can piece it together and feel the global impact of the disaster.  About two thirds through this book, one thing becomes abundantly, chillingly clear: This was a close call.

These three books are just plain excellent and I love how they go vastly different places despite the fact that they all began with the same basic premise. I highly recommend you go pick them up and get to reading - you never know when the dead will be knocking on your door.

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1 comment:

  1. Tad Williams.. Otherworld, and his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn cycle.. are two Fantasy series.. that completely break the mold. That doesn't mean you will like them.

    But after you slog through them... you will agree they break the mold. In fact MST is _very_ good after that first book.

    I like hist one off book, before he got famous the best though. Tailchaser's Song, a tale of a Cat who has to save his friend. :D Highly recommended!

    Also Janny Wurt's Riftwar books placed in the Riftwar saga, daughter of the empire, queen of the empire, servant of the empire, etc, are quite different as well.