Is everyone having a nice apocalypse? Jolly good – now let’s talk about what happens next!
The professor who taught microbial genetics during my undergrad degree was hilarious. A lot of people didn’t like him at all, but those of us with advanced dry humour detection abilities absolutely loved him. One of his most memorable moments was when he told a packed lecture theatre about how he’d tried to introduce a new exam format for final year students, which would involve designing and engineering a novel virus; the class would be graded on a curve, with those who managed to kill the most people upon the release of the virus getting the top marks. However, the university apparently wouldn’t let him, so he had to keep using those boring essay questions.
When I saw the iPhone game Plague Inc, I wondered if Professor Samson had been involved in its conception. Probably not, but he would have loved it. The aim is to evolve a pathogen that will wipe out the world; you get “DNA points” for infecting and killing people and for spreading the disease to new countries, and can redeem them for new traits related to symptoms, route of transmission, and resistance to human research and treatment efforts. It really is enormously good fun.
The trick is to focus first on infecting as many people as possible without making them so sick that finding a cure becomes a global priority, then ramping up the symptoms and resistance to treatment / genetic analysis once you’ve infected as many people as possible. Unfortunately though, it’s almost impossible to win without help; I tried to get past the first (bacterial) level, which you need to beat in order to unlock the more exotic virus, prion and parasite levels, about seven times without success. The problem was that I kept killing everyone except a few hundred people in fucking Greenland and being told I’d failed. GREENLAND! Honestly! I ended up reluctantly paying an extra 99 cents for a power-up – you can unlock these by playing well, but obviously that wasn’t going to happen. Some awesome geeks I met at Beth‘s party a few days later a) commiserated with me about fucking Greenland and then b) let me know that you have to beat a level on the hardest setting to unlock the power-ups for free (I’d been playing on “normal), so I felt a bit better about my extravagant expenditure.
The global outbreak simulation is obviously rather scientifically unrealistic – when the virus evolves a new trait it manifests itself in every single infected person in the world simultaneously, for starters – but really, it’s the “leaving any survivors at all means you fail. Even if they’re in fucking Greenland” flaw that bugs me the most. Where’s the fun in that?! I’m a huuuuuge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, starting with my childhood love of John Wyndham, and therefore appreciate that what happens after the plague is the most interesting part.
(smooth and seamless segue into the book-review portion of the post)
One of the best examples of the genre (and one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years – I’m completely 100% serious about that) is World War Z by Max Brooks. Yes, it’s about zombies, but it’s entirely unlike any other book I’ve read (or film or TV series I’ve seen) in this genre, or even in the post-apocalyptic fiction genre as a whole. The novel’s set in the very near future and is framed as a series of interviews, conducted a few years after the outbreak by a UN official who’s been tasked with writing a comprehensive report. Each chapter is its own little story, featuring interviews with doctors, soldiers, politicians, psychologists, civil servants, and ordinary people from all over the world about their own little part of the war; together, these vignettes add up to one of the most detailed and thoughtful post-pathogen-apocalypse scenarios I’ve ever read. (It even gets into some things that really bug me about The Walking Dead, such as why the hell don’t they obtain a pack of guard dogs to protect the camp?! Why are they so afraid of forming larger groups – are we seriously supposed to believe that not one single character on the show has read Day of the Triffids?! But I digress…)
The book is about much more than zombies, though – it’s a wide-ranging satire on the current state of global politics, international relations, military endeavours, medicine, celebrity, the world of work, and society in general (two notable exceptions that I thought should have been given more coverage: religion, and scientific research). Some parts are so specific to our time that they’ll probably seem quite dated very quickly – for example, Beth joked about the “undead” part of the “any resemblance to actual persons, living or undead, is purely coincidental” legal statement, but some real-life celebs are totally recognisable in one of the more humorous chapters of the book (plus one well-known and much-loved politician, who makes an appearance in one of the more serious chapters, in a very powerful and moving scene that has definitely stayed with me).
I’m guessing that the upcoming film is going to be very different from the book; it’s not really filmable as-is, due mainly to the lack of recurring characters. It would probably have been next to impossible to find enough well-known actors to sign up for five minutes of screen-time each to justify the huge budget a faithful adaptation would necessitate… but I’m sure I’ll go and see it anyway, even though there’s no possible way it’ll be as good as Shaun of the Dead.
The next book I read was The Passage, by Justin Cronin. I know what you’re thinking – “why on earth would she read another vampire trilogy after the whole Strain/Fall/Night Eternal fiasco?! She doesn’t even like vampires that much, at least not compared to zombies!” (you were thinking that, right?) Well, the answer is that it wasn’t my fault. While I was buying WWZ, the woman who works in my local book shop recommended The Passage, saying that it was “excellent, but really really creepy – do NOT read this book if you’re home alone!” I didn’t ask for further details and, suitably cautious, didn’t start the book until Mr E Man came back from Montreal and then finished the night shifts he worked on next. Disappointingly, it really wasn’t all that scary, but I did thoroughly enjoy it and will definitely buy the next two books. It was much, much better than the aforementioned vampire trilogy – much better written, much better characterization, and getting more into the psychological aspects of survival (the story begins with the outbreak itself, then jumps forward a few decades into the much more interesting post-apocalyptic phase). It did get a bit silly in the middle, but redeemed itself by the end, and finished with a massive cliffhanger. I’ll be buying part two in the very near future, I think, after I’ve worked my through some of the piles of unread books in my house!
A little light, cheerful beach reading for a tropical holiday
I didn’t really expect the third and final book I read on vacation to fit the same theme, but somehow it does. Yes, I know I’m late on this one, but I finally got around to reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In this case the catastrophe that befalls mankind (well, the USA, at least) is a drastic fall in the birth rate, and the novel deals with what happens to the status of women in a world where fertility is a rare and precious commodity. The story unfolds from the point of view of a single woman, and gradually expands from a narration of her daily routine to a much bigger picture of what has happened to society as a whole. I definitely found this book to be by far the scariest of the three – recent statements about women from some sectors of the society to my immediate South have really been quite terrifying, much more so than the thought of fictional monsters. OK, so I did have one nightmare per “camping in the woods” episode of the first season of The Walking Dead (seriously! Get some dogs!), but it’s The Handmaid’s Tale that continues to haunt my waking thoughts.
Interestingly, Handmaid and Passage both employ the same device – a post-hoc analysis of some of the book’s events at an academic conference set a few years ahead of the novel. I wonder if Cronin was consciously influenced by Atwood?
Right, back to the
fire and brimstone final family Christmas party preparations. Happy Solstice, everyone!