Usually, plots are populated by the alive or alive-adjacent. (I was going to say “alive and breathing,” but then I remembered that some vampire characters don’t breathe.) Nothing facilitates plot like living people. Most corpses are poor conversationalists and don’t do much besides just lie there. Hence most authors choose to populate their books with the living.
As always, there are exceptions. A few fictional corpses are very interesting. Take, for example, these five dead people…
Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan (1977)
Charlie is an enigma: a human corpse found in a cave on the Moon. A missing man should be easy to identify, given how few humans have made it out into space. Inexplicably, all of them can be accounted for. So who is the dead man?
Detailed investigation compounds the mystery. Radioisotopes establish beyond the shadow of doubt that Charlie has been interred on the Moon for fifty thousand years. Fifty thousand years ago, Earth’s native population was Stone Age, not Space Age. They couldn’t have crafted Charlie’s kit, let alone sent him to the Moon. That human origins are terrestrial is indisputable, backed up by basic morphology and hundreds of millions of years of fossil evidence. Yet somehow Charlie died on an airless world, cloaked in a space suit made with tech that is as good or better than the best the 21st century could produce. The facts are indisputable. But how on earth to reconcile irreconcilable facts?
Voice of the Whirlwind by Walter Jon Williams (1987)
Etienne Steward wasted his life. Feckless veteran of a disastrous extra-solar war and two divorces, he didn’t even bother to keep his memory records up to date. Thus, when Etienne’s past caught up with him, his clone—Etienne Mark II—woke with memories fifteen years out of date. Someone in the original Etienne’s past saw the need to brutally murder the mercenary. The current Etienne has absolutely no idea who the killer was or what the motive might have been. Nevertheless, the clone feels duty-bound to resolve his predecessor’s unfinished business, despite his total ignorance about what business might have been. It’s an Actor’s Nightmare whose payoff might be a grave.
The Kingdom of the Gods by Kim Eun-hee and Kim Seong-hun (2019)
Scurrilous posters claim that the king of Great Joseon is dead. If true, Prince Yi Chang, crown prince of Great Joseon, should ascend the throne. But the crown prince’s stepmother, Queen Consort Yo, and her powerful clan insist that the king is not dead. Further, they accuse the crown prince of spreading the seditious rumor. Justice demands that he be executed for undermining the authority of the rightful king (and, of course, for resisting the Haewon Cho clan).
There is some truth on both sides. The Prince is indeed conspiring and the king does have a mild case of death. Or rather, he had a mild case of death. Faced with the prospect of losing power if the king were replaced by Yi Chang, the Queen Consort and her allies resorted to extreme measures to revivify the monarch.
Whether the king could be said to be alive is an interesting question. He is most certainly animated. Furthermore, he is extremely dangerous to anyone unlucky enough to come close to him. Not only that, his semi-dead condition is contagious. The Haewon Clan may be able to suppress the truth. They have not, however, contained the plague, as Great Joseon will learn to its cost.
Ward Against Death by Melanie Card (2011)
Ward De’Ath could have been a perfectly respectable necromancer. Instead, his interest in forbidden surgical arts left him a branded pariah. He’s reduced to scrabbling for jobs, such as his latest: temporarily raising the late Celia Carlyle long enough that she can say goodbye to her family, He discovers he has resurrected a murder victim who would very much like her murder solved. A murder victim who drags the necromancer along like a living battery (he has to periodically refresh his spells) for as long as it takes Celia to crack the case.
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (2016)
The Fortress of Scattered Needles has fallen into the hands of rebels. The hexarchate is determined to have it back. The fortress is impregnable to conventional attacks. Commander Shuos Jedao would be the ideal person to retake the fortress, being both brilliant and innovative. Too bad that he’s dead, which is usually a disqualification for leadership roles.
However, Jedao is only mostly dead. His essence could be decanted into the unfortunate Captain Kel Cheris, there to advise her on ways to reconquer the fortress. Victory is expected. It is also certain that victory will be followed by the swift demise of Cheris and Jedao. The empire had executed Jedao for good reason. He cannot be allowed to offend again.
Have I overlooked examples even more apropos than the ones above? Well, the comments are below: post away!
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.