When we know something, it’s not just what we know but how we came to know it that determines how useful it is to us: How did we learn it? Is it from a trusted source? How will we save and store that knowledge? How will we pass it on? In a world where we can store entire encyclopedias on flash drives the size of a fingernail, this doesn’t seem like much of an issue. But it’s not that difficult to imagine a world where it might be.
Such a world exists in The Dead-Tossed Waves, author Carrie Ryan’s follow-up to her bestselling debut, The Forest of Hands and Teeth. In these books, the world of the living is small, poor, and clearly demarcated. In that world, what we know and how we know it has implications not only for how people live day to day, but also how they see the world… and how they imagine how the world can be.
In my first book, The Forest of Hands and Teeth (released last year) Mary, my protagonist, lives in an amazingly circumscribed world — a small village in the middle of a forest full of zombies where everyone’s told there’s nothing left of humanity past the fences. Mary lives about 150 years after the zombie apocalypse and her village has nothing left from the before time — no books (other than one religious text), electricity, maps and the like. Every bit of information and knowledge they have is passed down through several generations.
I think of it a bit like playing a game of telephone — you know where one person whispers a phrase to the person sitting next to them and it gets passed around the room such that “I had eggs for breakfast” somehow becomes “bacon taped on cats is yummy”?
The idea of memory and the corruption of information over time fascinates me. We’re so reliant on outside sources of information today that if the apocalypse hit… what stories would we remember to pass down?
Because here’s the thing… once, about a decade ago, I sat with my ill grandmother while she told me stories from her life. In one of them, she described going to a dance at Amherst with her mother as a chaperone and wearing lavender stockings (during a time when such a color stocking was rare). One of the matrons at the dance asked my Nana to leave because of her shameless attire (re: lavender stockings). Her mother, my great-grandmother, straightened her back and gave one of the best retorts I’d ever herd — so perfect and cutting and yet also so poised. I remember listening to that story and thinking “this is where the strength of the women in my family comes from — this is how I am who I am.”
And yet I can’t remember what my great-grandmother’s oh-so-perfect retort was and no one else in my large family ever heard the story. It’s lost to time. This is the corrosion of memory.
Now imagine that on a larger scale: how to build things and cure things and repair things. How many miles in a light year or which clouds are cumulus and which are cirrus. All the things we turn to Wikipedia and books for — just slowly eroding away.
This is Mary’s world in the forest: the only information the villagers have is what’s passed down year after year with no influence from the outside world. So when I decided to write a sequel/companion book set beyond the forest, I suddenly had to figure out what would we retain and remember given slightly more resources?
My answer: not much more. In my second book, The Dead-Tossed Waves, Mary’s daughter, Gabry, grows up in a dead-end town at the edge of the ocean. There’s little communication between enclaves of survivors (no electricity because resources for things like wires is rare and travel is dangerous because roads are still rife with zombies). But even more disturbing is that there’s a pervasive feeling among the survivors of “what’s the use?”
What’s the point of caring or learning about art or physics or calculus in the face of everyday issues like keeping the town safe, farming fields, feeding mouths? Knowledge and learning becomes a luxury pretty quickly. At one point in the book a teacher comes to town and talks about the universe and gravity and most of the families pull their kids from school because to them, such information is useless.
Sometimes I think of these characters in my books — these random survivors — as living their lives with their heads down, sometimes glancing over their shoulders to ensure no zombies have breached their carefully structured safety. And then I imagine my protagonists standing, head raised, looking to the horizon and wondering what’s out there.
In the first book, this is Mary, staring at the forest and wondering if there’s a life on the other side. In the second book this is Gabry, growing up in a lighthouse by the ocean wondering if there’s an easier and safer life out there. And then the real question becomes: what causes someone to raise their head from the ground, to not just stare at the horizon but to go out after it?
Zombies can embody all sorts of themes: the slow crawl of death, fear of science/religion/technology/ourselves, inescapable nihilism. But to me, they often represent a life not fully lived. They are nothing more than pure existence shuffling through time with no dreams, hopes, desires or memories. This drives me to wonder what separates the character living life staring at the ground and the zombie straining at the fence?
What makes us raise our heads and go after something more? What makes us care about lives apart from our own? What’s the difference between the person who stands at the edge of the ocean day after day wondering what’s past the waves and the person who gets in a boat and paddles off to find the answer?
Often, it’s my own fear of not taking advantage of this life — of forgetting my grandmother’s stories, of not bothering to read poetry or look at art or remember what kind of flower grows on my front porch or caring about a dispute between two warring tribes on the other side of the world — that causes me to write about people who do take advantage of what they’re given and constantly grasp for more. I hope their drive and determination will bolster my own.