Wed
Oct 7 2009 10:26am

Prescription: Zombies

Lately 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.

This article is part of Steampunk Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
9 comments
Missy S
1. Missy S
Awesome, Cherie! I'm going to have to check-out the Zombie Squad. :)

Personally, I think it would be nice to slide back a few years in technology in some areas. I did not carry a cell phone until this year (I swear!) and I still barely use it. I see all these kids getting them and it just seems like overkill.

Besides, I want an excuse to wear goggles.
Missy S
2. Wereviking
My whole childhood my brother and I used to dream up scenarios where either zombies or mutants (or heck, mutant zombies) took over affairs and we were forced back on our wits and thousands of rounds of ammunition. I think as young men reared on pop culture, this fantasy offered a path through to being able to imagine ourselves as useful, proactive survivors rather than the meek puppets of postmodernity, and like many people, male and female in the present age, it lacked the basic challenge for survival that justified life for so many people for hundreds of years. If imagining zombie hordes was our way of fantasising about a life of real (or direct) rather than abstract challenges, I guess this is a reflection of that fact.

Zephyr -- a superhero webcomic in prose
http://wereviking.wordpress.com
Missy S
3. DrGonzo
Thanks for the great writeup, Cherie! I believe I was at the booth when you came by (I was the one the dashing ZS beret!) and you really seemed to get the point of our message: If you are prepared for the zombacalypse, you are prepared for anything! Many of us came to that conclusion through our interest in zombie movies and post-apocalyptic fiction, and that interest grew to a practical understanding that bad things can happen in life, and little preparedness can go far to mitigate potential disasters. It had never occurred to me that the Steampunk community would come to the same conclusion, but it makes sense; who considers the possibility of a world with out electronic devices and comfortable conveniences? Who considers the alternative to our modern suburban lifestyle? You guys! Thanks for the positive writeup, feel free to swing by our online forums and say hi. You might like what you see there.
Alec Coquin
4. bloggeratf
Fascinating post. Not being a big steampunk fan I wasn't aware of the survivalist overlap between zombies and the subgenre.

While I enjoy the parallel, isn't there a substantive quality that sets the two distinctly apart. Zombies are essentially the personification of human fears and anxieties produced by the modern age. Giving them tangible form allows us to 'kill' those fears, thus providing a sense of cathartic release. As such, zombies themes are inherently destructive in nature.

Steampunk, on the other hand, deals with construction - the (re)building of a society in straightforward terms, uncomplicated by the bewildering complexity that gave rise to the need for a cathartic zombie rampage in the first place.

Agree/disagree/cheese?
Missy S
5. cmpriest
Hello all, and thanks for the feedback/commentary.

Dr. Gonzo, 'twas very nice to meet you (and you gave me wonderful blogging fodder!) ... and I really *do* have a go-bag. Maybe it's the old army brat in me, or maybe it's the girl who lived too long on the Gulf Coast (including southeast Texas when hurricane Danny went tearing through in the 80s), but I'm 100% behind your message of Have A Plan.

And Bloggeratf, while I recognize and agree with this difference, I don't think it makes the two mutually exclusive. Many things are quite different from one another, yet produce similar results. You can put out a fire with a blanket or a fire extinguisher -- both will undo the flame.

Besides, as Canadian theorists will be quick to tell you, zombies can be a direct and substantive corollary to more than human fears -- it's also a nice analog for disease vectors and community response. :)
Alec Coquin
6. bloggeratf
@ cmp

Agree 75%, they are a different side of the same coin. The interpretation I used was simply to showcase that fact. Obviously zombies can mean different things depending on what optic you are looking at them through.

In the context I presented before though, there seems to be an inverse relationship between zombies and steampunk. As coherence increases zombies should decrease and vise versa - think sin curve. I guess that was the point I was trying to get across. Cheers, and thanks for the reply.
Michael Curry
7. mcurry
Thanks for a great post, Cherie. I hadn't actually heard of ZS before!
Michael Below
8. ediFanoB
I like steampunk even I'm a programmer. I agree that steampunk in some kind is like a preparation for a world with a step back in technology after a disaster. But I didn't see the connections between steampunk and zombies.
It is an interesting view. But I still don't like zombie stuff.
Joshua Starr
9. JStarr
Hey, thanks! This post added something to my understanding of zombies!

Particularly, the insight that zombie contingency preparation can be "a useful didactic prop to get people interested and involved in their own self-preservation" made me think both about how often people are (I am) *not* so involved in that, and reminded me how genre tropes can help keep one interested in many less fun but useful pursuits (Typing of the Dead, anyone?)

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