Zombies that Make Sense

Many, many zombies stories make the mistake of trying to make zombies have a rational explanation. Here’s the thing, zombies don’t make sense. I know, I write about them, and I read about them… but I have only ever read a single zombie book (and seen a single zombie movie) that did a decent job of explaining zombies. I will talk about that in a minute, but first I’m going to talk about how I handle the issue and how I think it should be handled.

So, first things first – in Night of the Living Dead Romero fucked up. I hate saying that, because I love Romero and all of his work, I think he does an amazing job with details, and with themes, but he fucked up this time… he suggested the zombies were the result of cosmic radiation. Note, he refuted that in all subsequent movies, and many people have said that it wasn’t the cause, just what the news anchor thought might be the cause, but let’s face it, Romero was going that direction. It wasn’t definitive, so people have taken it in another direction.

In the sequel, the brilliant Dawn of the Dead, Romero makes it much more ambiguous, dropping the cosmic rays theory in favour of the line that “When there is no more room in hell the dead return to consume the living”. That isn’t meant to be the explanation, but it is used in the movie. A preacher says it on the radio at one point. It’s great, incredibly well used, and represents people not having answers, a theme that continues throughout the rest of the series.

In the end, leaving the characters without those answers makes far more sense. Usually, a half-assed explanation for zombies takes people out of the story, and it really doesn’t add anything at all.

One important note: this is about zombies, reanimated corpses coming back to feed on the living. It doesn’t apply to stories like 28 Days Later. That’s a disease. The “zombies” aren’t actually dead. Interestingly enough, Romero was also the pioneer of that genre with the 1973 film The Crazies but always viewed it as separate from zombies.

I have only ever seen one zombie movie that made the zombie infection make sense, as I mentioned above. It was both a movie and a book, although they were written at the same time. The movie is The Girl With All the Gifts. They used cordyceps, an invasive fungus that takes over the host body, basically running it without the permission of the host. It’s terrifying because for once it is something plausible. Cordyceps could look like a zombie, especially if they spread spores through the saliva. They would be creatures who looked human, but their internal structures would be nothing, just a skeleton for the cordyceps to work on. That’s the only semi-realistic explanation for zombies I’ve ever seen.

There are other issues with zombies as well. The majority of the population would have to turn, and fast, for zombies to be any kind of a threat. I mean, they are slower, dumber, weaker. They would have to be the majority. In my World of the Dead series I got around that by having seventy percent of the living become zombies overnight, from that point most people died, and yet humanity is still probably going to win in the long-term… we are smarter and more versatile.

I do have a plague story planned as well, for someday. It’s nothing soon, but I have figured out the characteristics that would make that kind of global plague a genuine threat.

Anyway, unless you are ML Carey, don’t explain your zombies. It will damage your story.

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Editing is Finally Going Well

Stone Arch

I know I said that before, but it is… I’m more than halfway through my first edit pass on Resource Economies. I’ve identified a couple of minor issues and one major one in terms of structure, but nothing that I would call a show stopper if it was software instead of book writing. My main concern is something that may or may not be a major issue. I have two main plots, and they don’t really intersect. I’m worried about that, but I think I will leave that to beta readers. I think both are good, and both affect the story arcs in a major way.

The core theme is the interaction of two civilizations, one of which is steeped in superstition and ignorance, the other which is trying to move forward, even if it is often not doing so terribly well. Both plotlines reflect that struggle and come out of it. The main thing is that one of the struggles is more of a struggle and the other one is less of a struggle. I hope people will enjoy both. Oh, the one with less struggle might be darker than the one with more struggle. Nothing comes without a price.

I will be posting some excerpts from Resource Economies as I get edits done. Just teasers, it won’t be free on the site unless people decide to do the patreon thing… sorry, I’m trying to make a living at this stuff.

Having said that, there is a lot of things I think are valuable in the book – I actually plan to post some excerpts to the survival subreddit, because it has some concrete survival tips. So does A Long Walk come to think of it… maybe I should post it there.

I’m trying to work out the marketing as I do the editing. I think dipping back into that world has really inspired me. I miss that world, the simplicity of it. I love the Jenny Dark stuff, but it’s definitely more grey when it comes to who needs to be killed. Zombies are pretty obviously not worth worrying about.

This post is going to get well and truly rambly now.

I had a few ideas for things to add to the World of the Dead books. One that’s high in my mind is a book about a kid who survives the apocalypse by hiding out in a hunting camp (modelled after my families camp) but doesn’t run into another living person for five years, when he meets a girl around his age who is also a survivor. It’s kind of a survival romance concept, with a lot of the focus being on the two of them growing to know each other. By this point, they would be around seventeen or eighteen.

I also want to do a series of stories set in the city of New Hope, the largest human stronghold left after the zombies (yes, it is named after the movie… one of the founders of the city is a huge nerd). Kind of slice of life stories in a city where anyone who dies comes back as a zombie and resources are stretched to their limit.

So, that’s stuff that’s being added to my writing queue.

I’ll get to them someday.

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Black Mirror

Haunted eyes

I think I’m a decent writer, that I have ideas worth exploring.

Black Mirror is usually the ideas I wish I’d explored.

I sometimes start down that road, but I also kind of like my adventure stories, my zombies and demons, but man, this show is just so incredibly bleak. It speaks to a part of me that’s probably not even all the emotionally healthy… I love the show.

Seasons 1 and 2 were among the greatest television ever made. Season 3 isn’t as good, and so far neither is 4. Both are better than almost everything else out there.

I think that what Black Mirror gets that so many other things don’t is how isolated we are these days. It’s rather an intense feeling of isolation, a kind of dark exploration of exactly what technology is doing to us.

Also, it’s on Netflix

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Make a World that Makes Sense

StormySkies

I’m reading Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson right now. I’ve been reading Sanderson since his first book, Elantris. It was a great book, with a system of magic I’d never read before. The rules of the system of magic were a huge piece of what made the world work. They consistent, the plot depended on them. A few simple rules that made magic, well, not make sense, but make sense in the world. A huge part of the story comes from those simple rules, and what makes magic work or not work.

This has become a hallmark of Sanderson’s work. Now, he does compelling stories, brilliant character work, he’s overall just a great writer. That has led to his being one of the best and most compelling writers in fantasy today. Many people know him best because he was selected to finish Robert Jordan’s super epic “The Wheel of Time”, but for my money, Sanderson is a better writer then Jordan was.

Back to these magic rules though. Every series he does has a distinct set of rules for how magic works and those rules are essential to the plot. They move the story forward. Sometimes it’s a subtle detail, a small thing that you didn’t notice until later, but he never cheats. If you think he’s cheated, that’s probably the key point. The characters have missed something and there is something else going on in to make things look the way they do. A character exercising powers in a way that doesn’t make sense means that the character has something going on that makes it make sense.

I don’t know how to stress how much that improves his work. It lends a depth to it. Now, that doesn’t mean that the rules are simple, or easy. They can be quite in depth and layered, giving you lots of meat to work with, lots of ways to miss a detail… but the detail is there and when he comes back to it and shows you what it was, it always makes sense. Not only that, but it’s not THE PLOT, it’s merely something that drives the plot forward.

There is a lot to learn from Sanderson, and I now follow in his footsteps when it comes to magic. I don’t always make it the driver though, it’s often less of a factor in my stories, I write more horror than fantasy, and even when I do write fantasy the magic may not be as important as the politics… however, I have learned to craft a magic system that is internally consistent. I don’t even always tell the reader what the system is, and there are books where nobody will ever understand (in the Jenny Dark series one feature of hell is that entropy doesn’t exist – there are a large number of effects that come from that, when I describe hell you will see those effects, but in the books themselves that’s all you see, the reason behind it is hidden).

It’s a thing too many fantasy writers ignore.

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Stories and Culture

Three Warriors

Stories are shaped by the culture they come from. You can track changes in a society by looking at the changes in their stories. See what kind of person a culture casts as the hero of their stories and you will see what kind of values that culture holds.

Yes, there will be individual variation, but it will be limited.

Stories also shape culture. The stories a child experiences when they are young have a huge effect on their view of the world, what the consider to be positive values, negative values, all of that.

It’s a feedback loop, but one that changes over time. See, the stories you experience as a child may set your values, to a degree, but it’s not just the formal one. It’s not just the kids’ book with the boring, bland storyline. No, it’s the stories you hear in the schoolyard, the ones your friends tell around a campfire at night, the ones your parents don’t know you hear from them.

All those stories together shape you, and there are more stories than people think. We call some of those stories history, because that’s what history is, a series of stories that we think are true. In aggregate, those stories are maybe even more influential than the ones we think of as stories… although I could see arguing it either way.

The history ones are however fascinating, in that they shape how we see ourselves, the identities we establish for ourselves. There is one country where the story goes like this: “There were threats on every side, and we beat those threats back. Then we wrested control of our own destiny from our overseas masters at the point of a gun. After that we expanded by beating back the wilderness, killing the threats to us at gunpoint. Threats everywhere, but by being vigilant and strong we were able to defeat those threats and make this nation the greatest in the world.” Sure, that narrative is mostly lies, but then again, aren’t they all?

Very close, in fact sharing a border with that place is another country. The creation myth of this country is “We got here and made friends with the people who already lived here. We set up trade and built settlements. We expanded from that place, growing as we did. We were resolute when we were invaded, but never invaded anyone else. When we wanted independence we asked nicely and it was granted.” That narrative is also mostly lies, but then again, aren’t they all?

These two stories have established the character of these places, and most people buy into them. On a subconscious basis, we follow these narratives. Americans as a whole are brash, combative, loud, aggressive. That’s how they are seen around the world, and many of them take pride in that image.

Us Canadians on the other hand, we believe in the image that we are polite, friendly, inoffensive. We include people, we make peace with people. That’s our image around the world and we take pride in that image, at least many of us do.

I have known Americans who are the politest, friendliest, quietest people you could imagine. I have known Canadians who are intolerant assholes of epic proportions, who will fight someone before they say please, who would rather die than apologize.

In the end, the myths we create aren’t who we are, they are just the stories we tell, and any individual might be different than their stories, but we still tell the stories.

A common mistake writers make, especially in terms of fantasy and science fiction, is to make the people in their stories be their cultural myths. Have every person from this country be this way, every person from that country be that way. It’s a form of shorthand for world-building, and it’s boring.

Instead, try to think about the cultural myths in your own world, and then try to see how that idea could extend into your fantasy world. Maybe the society is known for strict ettiquette, but the character you just introduced is kind of rude, maybe they are polite, but they secretly long to just throw politeness and rules to the wind and be themself. Maybe a confrontational people has a character who’s scared of conflict, and that person might even be on the surface much like the cultural myth, but inside they are nothing like that, and maybe every person from that culture exists somewhere on the spectrum from beyond what is considered their cultural norm to the exact opposite.

You will build richer worlds that way.

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NaNoWriMo Day 10 – Thoughts on AI in Science Fiction vs. Reality

Cascais, a Great Tourist Town in Portugal

I made my goal + a little bit today. It was good; I’m close to being back where I want to be regarding making it to 75k.

This post is inspired by a thread from one of the facebook groups I participate in, although I will be talking about a fair number of things that weren’t in the post.

AI is a staple of modern Science Fiction. This makes sense since AI is both strange and familiar enough to be compelling. The truth is though, very few people understand AI very well. They have it created as something like a Genie from folklore, or a super connected, super intelligent person.

AI could be much, much stranger than that.

Right now we “program” AI by giving some sort of learning algorithm a target and a massive amount of data as to what that target can look like. AlphaGo, we didn’t give it a bunch of decisions about how to play go, we told it what winning go looks like, what the rules are, then we told it to win go, and we let it play literally hundreds of millions of games.

AlphaGo has learned to play go through that process. It is the best go player in the world, and will probably be so forever. It will improve as the tech driving it improves, and it will improve exponentially.

This is a computer with a small fraction of the intelligence of a human. At this task, it is so much better than we are.

Self-driving cars are safer than humans. Right now. Not at some point in the future when they are allowed, no, at this moment there are autonomous vehicles in the world that drive better than you do.

We didn’t program them with rules, not the way we do something like Microsoft Excel or Pac-Man. No, we told them what good driving looked like, and we fed them data. There is some human intervention in their programming, at least right now. As time goes on that code will probably have a smaller and smaller footprint in the code base of the self-driving car. As that happens, the cars will become better drivers. Skynet can’t capture the potential strangeness at work here. Sure, the Terminator understood that AI will be smarter than we are, but it still made it look a lot like us, at least in the way it thought.

The Matrix was guilty of this too. The Wachowski’s wanted to machines to be using humanity for our processing capacity, not as a form of energy (because come on, we are a really bad energy storage medium). It was better, but it still made the machines somewhat more human in their core thought process.

A more interesting answer? They wanted to understand humanity, to really comprehend everything about us. This whole thing, it’s just a laboratory to study our response to stimulus. The Matrix as a social experiment. A war fought to figure us out.

AI could have a motivation that’s so alien to us that we don’t even recognise that such a motivation could exist. Hell, The Matrix could have started life as a time management system that was designed to get the maximum number of work hours out of each person, without any other parameters. It figured out a system that would allow us to work more total lifetime hours. Since it didn’t care about what we did, or if what we did produced anything in particular, so long as we were working, it decided to go with The Matrix.

That’s AI, at least amongst the realm of things that I can, just off the top of my head, think that AI might have as motivation for just that one scenario.

The realm of possible stories that can come out of this is nearly infinite. These creatures will have motivations we design, and we may not do a very good job designing their motivation.

I would love to see more Science Fiction out there with a more original take on AI, not just “they see humanity as a threat and want to destroy us.”

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NaNoWriMo Day 6 and some details about my current work in progress.

Swordfight on a dock

I made my word count today. I think I was at 2516 when I stopped for the night. That’s my personal word count. NaNoWriMo is supposed to be a fifty thousand word novel, which would mean 1667 words a day. I’m aiming for a seventy-five thousand word novel, so it’s clearly going to be longer.

That’s enough about NaNoWriMo for today, instead, I’m going to reveal a little bit about the book I’m working on.

It’s book two of a series called The Strange Tales of Jenny Dark. I like to think of it as Buffy meets Sherlock Holmes with a twist of Clive Barker.

The first book is set in Detroit, Michigan and introduces the world. This book takes that mythology and widens it. Jenny and Miranda, my two main characters, have to go to Utah to face a demon.

One thing that involves is me spending a crapload of time in google maps. I’ve never been to Utah, I don’t know how it feels, what the air tastes like, how the people greet you. I’m making all of those details up or extrapolating from stuff I’ve read by other authors or things people I know have told me.

This one is a different process, and it’s not something I’ve done before. I have never written a sequel that’s this soon after a previous book, using the same characters. It’s a fun thing actually, and well worth doing.

As a side note: This article was in draft instead of publish for some reason. I have no idea why. It was ready last night, before midnight.

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Nic Styx

A Dame in a Dress Pointing a Gun

Nic Styx is a private eye. He’s hard-boiled and tough as they come. He likes his women hot and his whiskey cheap. Only one problem: he doesn’t live in that sort of world. Nic lives in the mid-twenty-first century, not the mid-twentieth. His world is one of ubiquitous computer technology and gleaming cybernetics.

Nic maintains his practice anyway, with the occasional financial contribution from his wealthy parents who just want their son to follow his passion, although they aren’t crazy about him changing his last name. What was wrong with Nicholas Parsons anyway?

Nic is legitimate though, he’s good at his job and is probably the person you most want to count on when the chips are down. For Nic, the chips are almost always down.

The series is a serious piece of noir fiction, but with elements of comedy and cyberpunk.

I thought of the character as an advertising gimmick for a product I had designed but never bothered to create. The idea took off though, I liked the character too much to let him go. He’s faking it through life, trying to be something he’s not, but he’s been doing it for so long that now it’s who he actually is and he doesn’t even remember the person he was before.

Nic may be my favourite character I’ve ever created. The first book is a fair ways in, but it isn’t my current work in progress. The process of creating the novel is going to take me a while, I have to interpret my handwriting to do it. I have notebooks full of story, handwritten in pen, from many years ago.

Like Jenny Dark and World of the Dead, nicstyx.com is coming soon. I just have to build it.

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World of the Dead

Zombies Shopping

My first novel was the first book in the World of the Dead series. It’s a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested hellhole. Book 1, A Long Walk (available for free on Amazon as well as in chapter form on this website)

The series as a whole takes place much further in the future. Twenty years pass between book 1 and book 2. The zombies rule most of the world, leaving it uninhabitable to humanity. A city stands alone on a tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean. This city, built on the remnants of an old one, is called New Hope.

As the population of the city grows, due to survivors finding it and humans doing what humans do and bringing new life, it becomes clear that they don’t have the resources to support all these people. A force is formed to take back areas from the dead.

Much of the series is about this force, brave men and women fighting to reclaim our world. There are other parts though, a second planned series called Tales from the Last City is about life in New Hope, and is noir-tinged, although with an element of survival horror.

The final series is just called World of the Dead and consists of strange things I feel like writing. I have one story from that series coming out in an anthology of new writers soon (link to come as soon as the collection is published).

There will be much more information soon on world-of-the-dead.com, but I have to build the site first, so not quite yet.

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Magic Systems

There is one writer at the moment who is more identified with concrete and developed magic systems than any other. That man is of course Brandon Sanders.

For Spellcraft and Heavy Artillery I need a complete and crunchy magic system. It need to have well defined internal rules, ways it can be exploited, issues, etc.

So of course I’m turning to Brandon for inspiration. I’m building up a complex and complete magic system for my world. I’m not doing this alone, I have recruited my son to work on this. He runs the magicbuilding subreddit, and when he plays an RPG the first thing he does is try to break the magic system.

I know elements of the system, and in the end it doesn’t change the plot as a whole, but it is important to the story – so working it.

Here’s what I know so far:

Magic is innate to some people, a small minority of the population. If you have the ability to see magic (the actual forces involved) you also have the ability to do magic. If you do not have this ability, you can’t work spells.

Once you can see magic your ability to work it depends almost entirely on your ability to figure it out, although manual dexterity does factor into it.

Most enchantments are done on objects, and those objects can be triggered by non-magical people. You can have magic weapons and use them despite not have any magical ability at all. This is because magic takes time, doing it on the fly is extraordinarily difficult.

So, those are the basics. Now, some thoughts on what I might do:

I am thinking that magic is kind of like weaving/knot making. Magic exists as strands of force, and you can tie those strands into intricate forms, which allows those forms to take on new properties. Taking heat, air, kinetic energy, a few other elements maybe, and twisting them into the right patter creates a fireball. There are many, many, many forms of energy. It’s more like an expanded version of the periodic table than it is like the four elements.

The more of an element that exists in an area the easier it is to make that spell happen. Fire is easier when there is heat and wind available in plenty.

There are more directions in magic space, it’s an n-dimensional space, and the magician has to construct their knots in more dimensions than a standard human can understand. The spells they chant have no power, words have no ability to influence things. They are just a mnemonic device, a way to remember how to make the damned knot.

The arcane symbols are the same kind of deal, a detailed diagramming system used to explain the knotwork. Celtic knotwork is also the same sort of thing, just a different notation system. In fact many cultures developed their own method of notation.

So those are my thoughts so far. It is still being developed, and I hope to have it more detailed by next week, when I need to release chapter 3. Chapter two is written and will come out this Friday. The plan is a new chapter every Friday until the entire thing is available. Check out the story so far.

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