Yeah, I know. These days, the very phrase “new zombie show” borders on oxymoronic. And yet, this really is a fresh spin on the old paradigm: imagine that, years after the dead clawed their way out of the ground and started feasting on the living, we figured out how to fix them. Not cure, exactly: think diabetes or HIV, think management instead of recovery. Imagine a drug that repairs the mind, even if it can’t fix the rot or the pallor or the eyes.
Imagine the gradual reconnection of cognitive circuitry, and the flashbacks it provokes as animal memories reboot. Imagine what it must be like when the sudden fresh remembrance of people killed and eviscerated is regarded, clinically, as a sign of recovery.
This is only the beginning of what “In the Flesh” imagines. It also imagines government-mandated reintegration of the recovering undead (“Partially-Deceased-Syndrome” is the politically-correct term; it comes replete with cheery pamphlets to help next-of-kin manage the transition). Contact lenses and pancake makeup to make the partly-dead more palatable to the communities in which they once lived. Therapy sessions in which the overwhelming guilt of freshly-remembered murder and cannibalism alternates with defiant self-justification: “We had to do it to survive. They blew our heads off without a second thought— they were protecting humanity! They get medals, we get medicated…” Hypertrophic Neighborhood Watch patrols who never let you forget that no matter how Human these creatures may seem now, a couple of missed injections is all it takes to turn them back into ravening monsters in the heart of our community…
What’s science fiction’s mission statement, again? Oh, right: to explore the social impact of scientific and technological change. Too much SF takes the Grand Tour Amusement Park approach, offers up an awesome parade of wonders and prognostications like some kind of futuristic freak show. It takes a show like ItF to remind us that technology is only half of the equation, that the molecular composition of the hammer or the rpms of the chainsaw, in isolation, are of limited interest. Our mission hasn’t been accomplished until the hammer hits the flesh.
“In the Flesh” rubs your face in that impact. It rubs my face in my own inadequacy.
Echopraxia has its share of zombies, you see. They show up at the beginning of the book, in the Oregon desert; through the course of the story, various cast members wrestle with zombiesque aspects of their own behavior. Echopraxia‘s zombies come in two flavors: the usual viral kind sowing panic and anarchy, and a more precise, surgically-induced breed used by the military for ops with high body counts, ops for which self-awareness might prove an impediment. Both breeds get screen time; both highlight philosophical issues which challenge the very definition of what it means to be Human.
Neither even tries to answer questions like: How do you deal with the guilt? Or How do you handle the dissonance of becoming a local hero through the indiscriminate slaughter of rabid zombies, only to have your son come back from Afghanistan partially-deceased with a face full of staples?
“In the Flesh” does a lot of the same things I’ve done in my own writing. It even serves up a pseudosciencey rationale to explain the zombie predilection for brains: victims of PDS lose the ability to grow “gial” cells in their brains, and so must consume those of others to make up the deficit. (I’m not sure whether this is an inadvertent misspelling of “glial” or if the writers were savvy enough to invent a new cell type with a similar name, the better to fend off the nitpickery of geeks like me.) It doesn’t hold up to rigorous scrutiny any better than Blindsight‘s invocation of protocadherin deficits to justify obligate cannibalism in my own undead, but in a way that’s the point: they’ve taken pretty much the same approach that I have.
The difference is, they’ve done so much more with it.
I used technobabble to justify a philosophical debate about free will. “In the Flesh” used it to show us grief-stricken parents dealing with a beloved son after he’s taken his own life—and come back. Side by side, it’s painfully obvious which of us used our resources to better effect.
I only wish I’d have been able to see that without the object lesson.