Saturday, 30 August 2014

Adam Baker: Outpost, Juggernaut, Terminus

Before reading on; it’s conceivable that you fall into the tiny Venn Diagram intersection of people who a) trip over this blog b) are interested in two year old zombie books and c) somehow are only getting round to reading any of these titles two years after they were published. If so, read on at your peril. There is, apparently, a minor risk that you might figure out the endings from this post. 

The internet consensus is that the best book ever about zombie apocalypses is Max Brooks' World War Z, which has among its virtues the realisation that a whole bunch of brief vignettes is going to capture the sense of the thing more effectively than a long drawn out focus on one group of people getting picked off.

Adam Baker has caught on to the idea that the end of the world should be the story of more than one group of survivors, but he’s decided to give each group their own book and their own little bit of the apocalypse. Three books in, the apocalypse doesn’t seem big enough for that many books and his groups of characters don’t seem big enough to need whole novels about their rich lives and problems.

So in Outpost you get a bunch of oil rig workers being the last to hear about the end of the world and struggling to get out of their Arctic oil rig and back to what’s left of civilisation (not much, but it doesn’t matter, because they don’t make it). Juggernaut has a bunch of jaded mercenaries in Bremer-era Iraq trying to steal bunch of gold and running into proto-zombies instead (it’s like Three Kings crossed with Night of the Living Dead if somehow neither of them had been much good). And Terminus has jailbirds and firefighters in an uneasy alliance trying to find the cure for the zombie plague in the bowels of a devastated Manhattan (this time it’s like Escape from New York crossed with something I’ve haven’t even seen yet). There’s another one out there called Impact, which guiltily I know I’m going to read when it  gets cheap, which has the crew of a crashed B52 getting picked off by zombies in the desert.

What they all have in common is female protagonists who might just as well be men, some core characters who are struggling to be more than cardboard, and a willingness to just keep hurling more and more incidents at the page whether they make sense or not (in Outpost, one character seems to make a getaway only to appear out of nowhere for climax intent on just ruining everything for the small number of uninfected survivors still left; it’s so preposterous that it kind of ruins everything that’s come before it). Oh, yeah, the other thing they have in common is space zombies. 

The best take I’ve seen recently on zombies (and the most intellectually satisfying execution of the infection logic) was The Girl with all the Gifts. There’s a huge guff mine about what zombies are standing in for in our cultural discourse, which I will truncate to “we’re not all in this together, and all those hordes of other people I’ve never met are just the worst”. This contrasts with vampires’ role in our thinking, which is best summarised as “elites need staking”. So I tend to hand wave all that and just think about how practical the plague sounds. Baker’s thinking is that the plague is from space - it’s still not clear whether it’s space aliens hard at work, or just human hubris gone bonkers in orbit and then coming back to visit and ruin everything. I suspect that Baker’s got a long game in a notebook somewhere and this is all going to make sense in hindsight umpteen books from now. There’s good and there’s bad. I like the simple notion that the plague’s been brewing up in an abandoned Russian space station, which then broke up and landed in chunks all over the planet. I’m less convinced by the idea that the zombie plague gradually fills up all its victims with hideous metallic tumours, because biochemistry doesn’t work that way. You’d be hard put to make a teaspoon out of all the metal atoms present in a human body - discounting the kilogram of calcium tied up in your bones and teeth, which wouldn’t make a great tea spoon, and the half pound of sodium and potassium which are both going to catch fire as soon as the air gets at them, the best candidates are the 19 grams of magnesium and the four grams of iron. So this isn’t just the zombie plague, it’s the philosopher’s stone, transmuting random organic chemicals into metal somehow. The explanation for that is going to take some build-up all right.

In short, not the world’s most convincing zombie infection, not that anyone but me is keeping score. But no zombie infection really is all that convincing; you’ve got to distract your audience with shiny new ideas or well executed characters, or if all else fails a whole bunch of explosions. Baker’s genuinely trying for the characters, but on the one hand, they’re not all well executed and on the other hand most of them should have BEEN executed; in trying for a consistently dark and gritty tone, he’s overshot and given us no-one to root for. Which does make it easier not to care when most of them meet horrible ends, I suppose. A couple of people - always including that book's female protagonist - make it out of each book in one piece, and I find myself wondering if they’re all going to meet up in some future book to form a Voltron of zombie killers, and whether I’ll care enough to check in and see how they get on.

1 comment:

Nicholas Nasir Kotelensky said...

Next time you write about a book, please say "Spoiler Alert" before sharing the ending of a book. It's really a bummer to hear the ending while I'm still deciding whether to read it or not.