The recent release of the Colson Whitehead literary zombie novel Zone One has caused a flurry of hyperbolic commentary both online and in print media. Glen Duncan of The New York Times compared this literary mash-up between speculative fiction and highbrow literature to an intellectual dating a porn star. Meanwhile, Joes Fassler of The Atlantic made bold claims that Zone One is proof of how literary authors “embraced genre fiction.” Notice the past-tense “embraced” as opposed to the more realistic, “are embracing.” Lost in the cacophony of the reactions to this novel and the reactions to those reactions, is a quieter, shambling question. Do zombies themselves truly represent a crossover from science fiction and fantasy into the pages of the mainstream?
No one is more interested in recommending literary novels with genre trappings to readers of science fiction than me. So as much as I want to totally concur with someone like Glen Duncan and declare the genre wars over, I think the arrival of Whitehead’s zombies might be a premature sign of permanent change. When Margaret Atwood’s non-fiction book In Other Worlds released last month, I wrote in this column about the handy definitions she offered of the various genres and sub-genres. At the time, I noted that despite wanting the membranes between the genres to be permeable, it was still important to understand various distinctions, otherwise the conversation becomes useless. To put it another way, pretending like all types of fiction are in the same big category of “stuff that’s made up” won’t cause social connotations, reader biases, or shelving polices at Barnes & Noble to suddenly change. Clapping and saying one believes in zombies does not make it so. In order to have a productive discussion, we have to see what’s happening on both sides of the genre divide.
So what’s up with zombies? For my money, zombies aren’t really crossing over from the science fiction zone and into the literary zone, because they already live on both sides of the proverbial fence. As pointed out by Joshua Starr last year during Tor.com Zombie Week, YA and sometimes zombie writer Scott Westerfeld doesn’t think zombies need metaphorical significance, and instead should “just be zombies.” I find this attitude compelling, if only because I think it gestures at the perceived differences between “Lit zombies” and “SF zombies.” On the one hand, in highbrow literature, zombies are a fairly easy analog for all the soul-sucking crappiness of society. In SF, writers employ zombies because they are “cool” and said writers talk endlessly about how they function and if they are fast or slow. But I have news for everyone: both of these things are the same thing. All the writers are zombie fans, and their reasons for being so are relatively arbitrary and ultimately wrapped up in a kind of mania. Because neither actually gets at why zombies are popular. Zombies are poplar because they are absurd and slightly comedic.
Comedy operates in several different ways, but the way it usually works is in giving the reader/audience distance from some kind terrible thing. The distance/heightening of the terrible thing can help make it paradoxically lighter. A zombie apocalypse is a little easier to deal with than real apocalypse because the existence of zombies gives us some emotional distance from it. Now, I know big zombie fans are going to say. Zombies are serious! Zombies are about having your loved ones transformed into something terrible before your eyes!
I’m not saying zombies aren’t serious, but they’re certainly less serious than either literary writers or SF writers would like everyone to believe. Because as hard as novelist and filmmakers bend over backwards to try to “explain” the scientific existence of zombies in their narratives, the reason they exist is only because people like zombies. They eat brains, and move around in a silly fashion. The connotation of a zombie is at this point, a playful one, which is different than connotations associated with vampires. Zombies (in the way we thinkg about them) have no serious literary roots, because zombies aren’t characters. The very definition of zombies involves a swarm of mindless people. That’s hardly a protagonist.
Here again, fans of the relevance of zombies will say that zombie stories are all about how normal people react to the zombies, and what it means for a large group of people to suddenly lose their identity. This is not necessarily incorrect, because that is what zombie stories are about. And yet, it doesn’t prove that they are representatives of either highbrow literature, or serious science fiction. Instead, just like “real” zombies, zombie fiction just creates more zombie fiction. Like the virus that spreads zombies in 28 Days Later, zombies are a never-ending, self-replicating fad, which are a syenchodoch of themselves. Zombies are the immortal hipsters, constantly adapting to whatever appears to be the right way to present themselves. In the era of Evil Dead or Michael Jackson’s Thriller, camp was in, so zombies played up their campy aspects. But now, deadly “serious” dramas like The Walking Dead (which is not remotely serious because it’s so preposterous) are in vogue, so then zombies are made serious.
All of this being said, if I were given a shortlist of literary authors who should write about zombies, Colson Whithead would be top on the list. And the book isn’t remotely bad. As a crazy science fiction premise, I have to say, I somewhat prefer the alternate universe presented by Whitehead’s The Intuitionist to the world of Zone One. But that’s not Whitehead’s fault one bit. Zombies are not the most interesting monsters in the whole of the human imagination. In fact, they’re more like the lowest common denominator. The use of zombies in anything approaching real art should be viewed as largely ironic. This can be profound too, but it’s not profound because the existence of zombies. It’s profound because a writer like Whitehead understands what irony is.
And because zombies are primarily populist, easily digestible monsters with no real character or literary roots, their existence in the mainstream is not opening up the floodgates for aliens and spaceships, or even time travel. Because once a few of those speculative creatures get past the zombie blockade of the literary fence, the fence gets locked right back up again.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com and is the creator and curator of Genre in the Mainstream. He likes everything he mentioned above: zombies, Colson Whitehead, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and so forth. He does not like The Walking Dead. You can tell him how wrong he is in the comments below.