Steampunk Month

Prescription: Zombies

I’ve seen a lot of conversation about why steampunk so commonly goes hand-in-hand with zombies, and part of the answer is that both zombies and steampunk discuss what’s on the other side of the controlled, regulated lifestyle most of us live.

To talk about this further, I feel compelled to bring up something I read not too long ago—The Unthinkable: Who Survives when Disaster Strikes and Why, by Amanda Ripley. The thesis of this book is that people who are  marginally prepared—including people who only feel prepared—are much more likely to survive a nightmare scenario then if they remain ignorant about their options and oh, say, sit around and wait for help to arrive.

And for all the various threads of zeitgeist feeding the steampunk steamroller right now, I think this is one element to the genre’s appeal. Many steampunk scenarios (most of those which aren’t alternate history constructs) detail catastrophic chaos in the wake of a culture’s collapse, essentially asking the question, “So if all this high-tech, iPhone-carrying, wifi-having civilization goes away … what do we do?” And then, steampunk tries to give us some answers.

It tries to prepare us for what comes next.

The steampunk answer is that next we fall back on the sturdier technology of yesteryear—the stuff you can fix with a wrench and a hammer. If society devolves to a point that predates the extensive social regulation we have now, well, we’ll reach back to the behavior of the days before we had all these lines drawn on a map and a pocket-full of official identification. If we keep our wits about us we’ll claw our way past the lawless hazards and come out on top regardless.

At least, we’ve got a shot at it. The prescriptive undercurrent of steampunk and the survivalist message served with zombies give us a gameplan for survival.

And on a more contrived level, some people have made the connection between fiction prescriptions and real-life disaster readiness. I’m not talking about folks who watch Titanic and then invest in life jackets. I’m talking about people who prepare in earnest for the zombie apocalypse—not because they believe it’s really coming, but because it’s a useful didactic prop to get people interested and involved in their own self-preservation.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself at the Revenant Film Festival—a zombie film fest held in Seattle at the Museum of History and Industry. The event was exactly what it sounds like: eight hours of undead celebration in the form of independent movies, local writers and artists, and zombie-affiliated associations.

At this festival, I met representatives of the Zombie Squad, and they tickled me pink. I picked up their pamphlets and chatted up their visiting dignitaries, thereby learning that the entertaining survivalist shtick of “let’s ready ourselves for the incoming undead!” masks an honest effort at education that goes well beyond the sneaky lessons of genre fiction. As a woman who mostly grew up on the Gulf Coast and weathered plenty of hurricanes, I was absolutely charmed by the reasonable, practical evacuation and emergency-preparedness advice being offered … never mind the cool stickers and logos.

The Zombie Squad is the logical result of the pop culture prescription—it’s a bridge between fiction and reality, and that bridge has actual life-saving lessons to teach.

And I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve got my go-bag in the hall closet. I haven’t lived in Seattle very long, but I hear they get nasty earthquakes here, every once in awhile. And the more I think about it—the more I want to be ready when the lights go out … whether the problem is a 7.0 quake, the collapse of the 21st century, or a zombie horde.


Cherie Priest is the author of seven novels from Tor books and Subterranean Press, including the award-winning Eden Moore series, Dreadful Skin, and Fathom. Her most recent book, Boneshaker, was released on September 29th by Tor.

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