Monday, 30 May 2011

Zombie Ants

So there's a fungus in Brazil that really likes to grow in ants. Carpenter ants, apparently. A spore will land upon them, and mushroomy tendrils grow into the brain of the poor ant, changing its behaviour. Turning it into a zombie. Making it wander away or climb, even as the fungus continues to grow. And then, just as it's about to die, it bites. It gets a hold on some kind of vegetation and locks itself into place.

Before that happens, other ants (having evolved alongside this thing), will desperately try to push the ant as far away as possible, because they really don't want the zombie ant to lock itself into place anywhere near their colony. There's a very good reason for this. You see, the fungus is maturing. A fruiting body is growing out of the head of the ant. And then it bursts, scattering spores far and wide, ready to infect more ants. Some spores that miss and hit the ground will grow a secondary spore like a spike, sticking up so it can infect any ants that happen to pass by.

Now you'd think that anyone who's heard of this, and who's even remotely interested in zombies, would have put two and two together and designed some shambling monstrosities based on this. But strangely, no one has (not even the Half-Life headcrabs, which don't seem to use the zombie stage to reproduce as such). And this despite the scientists doing their best to alert the world by actually calling this the "zombie ant fungus", I don't see a lot of zombies that use the concept of the walking dead being part of the life cycle of a perfectly natural (if somewhat overachieving) organism. And since I needed to create some new zombies (or revenants) for my book, and wanted them to be something that was ultimately explicable to science, I went and put two and two together all by myself.

None of which explains why this is so much fun:

A Game Where You Can Stomp Zombies Like Ants!

Crush them! Squish them! Annihilate them! Heheheheh....

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Apocalypse Problem

There are many reasons why I wrote The Last Man on Earth Club rather than just spend the time drinking, but one of the main ones was to try and solve the basic problem of apocalypse stories:

They’re boring.

Well, not always, of course, but there’s a fundamental built-in structural problem when telling a story about the end of the world: it tends to end. And it gets a bit dull after that.

Robert Rankin’s alien TV executives in Armageddon: The Musical noticed the same thing: after winning enormous viewing figures for their TV show about humans by manipulating them into a nuclear war, their show turned into a very grim soap opera about grubby people surviving in mouldy bunkers. Very tedious, until Elvis Presley shows up for no easily explainable reason (it’s just that kind of book, and represents one very comical way of solving the problem of apocalypse narratives).

Most of the narrative tension in an apocalypse story is resolved by the apocalypse itself. All too many of these stories deflate once the big bang goes off. Woe betide you if your story starts with an apocalypse: chances are no-one will care what happens next. It’s insanely difficult to have a small character drama follow on from the kind of pyrotechnics the end of the world usually entails. The change of subject is just too much for most stories. The best thing to do is to start after the apocalypse – as in The Road – and deal with it only in flashback (if that).

Mind you, it does work sometimes. Threads – which you must absolutely watch if you haven’t already – is an absolutely devastating story about the effects of nuclear war, and will leave you in a state of suicidal depression if you watch it in the wrong frame of mind (I’m really selling it well, aren’t I?) It takes you through the buildup, the war, and then the aftermath – just what I’m saying you shouldn’t do. Threads gets away with it because of the meticulous documentary-style approach which reveals the details of what happens after a nuclear war, and then uses that to show the slow deterioration of the survivors and their society. The final moment is more terrifying than anything that happens during the war, and that’s the key: the horror actually builds after the nuclear holocaust. This is no mean trick, and not one I could use without the same kind of documentary approach.

I wanted to tell a story about apocalypses, but without the attendant deterioration of the story after things go bang. The temptation to use the tension and excitement that comes before the apocalypse is intense, but I chose to step back instead. My idea (for what it’s worth) is that apocalypses would be interesting to see as a problem from the outside, from the people who are charged with picking up the pieces and saving as many as they can. This makes no sense, of course, unless you have worlds outside the one threatened by apocalypse, so it has to be a story set in a multiverse. Which really means that there’s no true apocalypse in the story: the entire ‘world’ in which it’s set will not be destroyed. The opportunity to have your world evacuated if an asteroid strike threatens might sound like a devaluing of the narrative impact of the oncoming apocalypse – until you consider that evacuating billions of people is not an easy task, and creates all kinds of room for interesting stories by itself. And, of course, many of the characters in the novel have lived through situations where such help came all too late, which is why they became the last survivor of their world.

Anyway. I think I’ve rambled on enough for the moment. Time to go to work and earn my subsistence.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Live! And strangely no apocalypse...

So, yesterday the world didn't end. This is a typical, one might even say commonplace event, remarkable only in its continual and somewhat repetitive occurrence. Harold Camping, the prophet of doom, is suddenly unavailable for comment, and the poor man who went to Times Square in the company of an NYT journalist is now trying to figure out what he's going do after he wasted all his money buying adverts proclaiming there wasn't going to be any advertising any more.

Meanwhile, I finished my book, in which there are many and diverse apocalypses, very few of which have any religious significance. Amazon accepted it swiftly, and it's gone live only a day later. Smashwords has it too, and in a week or so it may be available on many other bookstores throughout the known ebooksphere.

All that remains is to actually tell people about it.

Hi there!

Sunday, 15 May 2011