A Year Without Zombies 3: Dead March

(For 2015, I am trying to avoid playing any games or consuming any static media with zombies in them. My reasons, and other fun things like ‘what exactly counts as a zombie?’, are explained here.)

Not a great deal to report. Mostly I have not been playing a huge amount of new stuff. My Monsterhearts campaign continues to contain a goodly number of dead people with rich and varied inner lives. Ditto Sunless Sea, which came out of early access and is now considerably less punishing. Anna just finished S1 of The Walking Dead, said lots of things like ‘I didn’t meant to make that choice if it meant that! I feel so bad I want to stop playing now,’ then immediately went to buy 400 Days and S2.

Games I Quit

scribblenauts

WIPE THAT GRIN OFF YOUR FOOL FACE, CHILD

Scribblenauts Unlimited. Time to zombie: 37 minutes.

This one was a bit of a self-trolling, really; I assumed that it was likely that zombies would be possible, but only as an option if you specifically requested them. And I had been playing a lot of grim, moody, long-arc games and wanted something cheery and bite-sized, and, c’mon, five bucks. Alas, in the fire-station in the first damn city there is a challenge about defending against a zombie attack. Moral: zombies can appear in the lightest as well as the most grimdark of games; the mere potential of a zombie in a game pretty much amounts to a certainty that a level designer will use it; research every damn game, no exceptions.

What Is This, I Think It’s Probably OK Maybe

Jazzpunk – as a gonzo piece that plays around with videogame conventions and thus – rather like the opening sequence of Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country – unsubtly lampshades the two-dimensional nature of NPCs on the regular. There are no zombies that I’m aware of, though the pizza levels – you open a pizza box to reveal a dial-a-pizza interface, and are sucked through into a world made of pizza where you are attacked by pizza-cutout people and must defeat them with a pizza paddle and a pizza cutter – are sort of reliant on zombie-game conventions. Barring the highly unlikely emergence of a backstory for pizza zombies in which it is revealed that they were once human but were zombified through transformation into pizza, however, I am going to go with the assumption that they are more accurately pizza golems or pizza elementals. (Since Jazzpunk is framed as a surreal virtual-reality drug trip, causal origins are probably beside the point.)

The Yawhg: as advertised, contains a zombie ferret. This is OK because ferrets are not, nor were ever, people.

The Curse of Chalion (novel) – A well-loved comfort-read. There is brief mention of the possibility of a zombie-like condition, potentially caused by a rather abtruse set of theological circumstances, though one character claims a more than hypothetical knowledge of it. (It’s a variant of the your-body-is-possessed-by-a-very-stupid-spirit version of zombification.) No such entities ever actually appear, and it’s really more of a tangential fear than anything, but the being described would clearly be a zombie.

In Which I Am Too Confused To Really Articulate A Position

Cute High Earth Defense Club Love! (anime): A goofy gender-switched Sailor Moon thing that was inflicted on me. The team’s mentor, a pink wombat from outer space, accidentally kills teacher Mr. Tawarayama and then commandeers his body as transport. It is not entirely clear how permanent this is – initially it just looks like mind-control, but the body keeps collapsing when Wombat gets too far from it, and there’s concern about it decomposing. It’s suggested that Tawarayama is recovering – he appears to speak from behind Wombat’s control – but it’s unclear whether Wombat is representing the situation honestly. On reflection, this is zombie enough for me, but at the time things were too confusing to really make a call one way or the other.

*

A working theory.

Invasion literature was a specifically British genre popular precisely between the unification of Germany and the onset of WWI. (It’s best-known for the work that most influenced modern postapocalyptic fiction, War of the Worlds, which was specifically a subversion of the form – where invasion literature was politically militarist, advocating military build-up against the German threat, Wells created an enemy against which no army could stand.) The current popularity of zombie literature, too, reflects the near-future fears of a specific time and place.

Here is where we stand in the early 21st century: Western Civ is in serious trouble. Young adults can be pretty damn sure that global warming is going to have ruinous effects within their lifetimes, and have every reason to believe that the Powers that Be will keep their foot on the accelerator right up until we hit the cliff; nor do we have very good reason to assume that said Powers would handle a crisis of this scale with competence and compassion. More immediately, the middle-class promise of the 20th century is being more or less intentionally dismantled, driving the vast majority of the population towards a state of perpetual insecurity.

The fear of crisis tends to entail a crisis of liberalism, a dread or hope that in order to survive disastrous circumstances we will be driven to ruthless self-interest, either as individuals (survivalism) or as social groups (fascism). Specifically, that we will have to dramatically reduce the circle of people whose moral claims we recognise to a small community, a single family, or oneself alone. Those outside the circle – the vast mass of people – must be excluded, category by category, not just from material aid but from our hearts. The zombie figure is the most radical version of this othering: zombies have no moral claim on us whatsoever, no right to be seen as anything other than threat, not even to the extent of feeling a little bit bad about killing them for sport.

Heidegger has a thing about how being-with, acknowledging other persons as persons, is inherently a relationship of caring. For him ‘care’ doesn’t imply positive attitudes – indeed, its default state is indifference – but the point is, even indifference towards a person is a fundamentally different attitude than one has to other features of the universe. Being indifferent to a person is not the same thing as being indifferent to a rock; the person still takes up more bandwidth. Zombies are moved off into the rock category.

So zombies represent…  a kind of cultural despair: not just a fear of social collapse – there are interesting ways to explore that – but a giving-up of the idea that we might be able to retain some scraps of humanity under such extreme circumstances. Or, uglier, they represent glee at the prospect of having an excuse.

I know people who see the zombie genre as essentially racist, a proxy for white fear of black violence or swarming immigrants. I don’t think that’s the essential nature of the beast, though it has some roots there and is easily turned that way. (Watch the Jerusalem sequence of the World War Z movie and try to avoid reading it as a parable about immigration. Read any race-war fantasy penned by white supremacists and try to distinguish it from a zombie action sequence.) I think that’s wrong only insofar as it’s too narrow. Racism is a framework for dehumanising people of colour. Zombies are a fictional framework for dehumanising anyone.

This is not a new pattern of fear, or a new story. But its omnipresence as an acceptable, deproblematised, fun, lowest-common-denominator trope in a genre I love is disquieting to me. (There is a special-case version of this, however, which I’ll talk about next time.)

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7 Responses to A Year Without Zombies 3: Dead March

  1. busterwrites says:

    Good theory on zombies. I tend to subscribe to the idea that it’s okay to like problematic things as long as the problematic elements are recognized and not incorporated into my behavior or beliefs, so zombies remain approved in my book.

    Anyway, the real reason for my reply is to offer some clarity on Cute High Earth Defense Club Love! I assume you were only inflicted with the first episode, while I choose to inflict myself on a weekly basis. But rot13 just in case:

    Va n yngre rcvfbqr jura gur grnz vf ybfg va gur jbbqf, Ze. Gnjnenlnzn vf erirnyrq gb or fgvyy nyvir. Ur jnxrf hc naq jnaqref gur jvyqrearff va n jung-gur-uryy-vf-tbvat-ba fgngr, ohg ol gur raq bs gur rcvfbqr, ur vf vanqiregragyl “xvyyrq” ntnva. Jung’f tbvat ba unfa’g lrg orra rkcynvarq, ohg V guvax vg’f snyyra zhpu pybfre gb Abg Mbzovr.

    • I tend to subscribe to the idea that it’s okay to like problematic things as long as the problematic elements are recognized and not incorporated into my behavior or beliefs, so zombies remain approved in my book.

      Oh, absolutely. My media consumption would be extraordinarily curtailed otherwise. Hence the one-year span of this project.

      And I think, purely from a personal perspective, that it’s really easy to say ‘it’s not incorporated into my behaviour or beliefs!’ – in fact, I think there’s some evidence suggesting that the more strongly someone believes themselves immune to being influenced by media, the more susceptible they are to that influence. I’m cool with the principle, but I don’t want it to be a convenient checkbox, y’know?

      • busterwrites says:

        Yup, I think we’re on the same page. I find myself wrong about things more often than I’d like, though it helps having people in my life who are willing to call me out on my shit. Because I’d rather consume the media and get it wrong (and learn!) than avoid the media for fear of getting it wrong.

  2. Petter Sjölund says:

    The metaphor changes a bit in situations like XCOM where there is someone you know who turns zombie right before your eyes. It can be read as both classical philosophical dilemma (Euthanasia? Is it right to kill one innocent in order to save five?) and Red Scare-mongering (even your husband or children might become Communist/terrorist, and then they HAVE TO BE KILLED or we’re all gonna die!).

    • dougorleans says:

      While watching the trailer for “The Crazies” a few years ago, it struck me that zombie stories can often be read as a metaphor for the Red State/Blue State divide (or, if you prefer, the white-and-gold/blue-and-black divide): that person you once thought you knew as a friend or family member turns out to be an unstoppable bloodthirsty mindless automaton/Rush Limbaugh listener/NPR pledger, and the horror is that you’re never going to get them back. The Walking Dead TV show in particular has an awful lot of story threads about people who mistakenly believe that a zombie is still a person who can be restored to sentience/sanity. But if you ever try to argue with someone who’s On The Other Team, you come to realize that it just makes it worse, and you fantasize about just splitting their skull like an overripe gourd and moving on…

    • That is precisely the special-case that I alluded to right at the end – a subject too extensive to be covered in this margin.

  3. Pingback: A Year Without Zombies: Envoi | These Heterogenous Tasks

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