The Big Idea: James Knapp
Posted on February 5, 2010 Posted by John Scalzi 10 Comments
When is a zombie not quite exactly a zombie? For James Knapp, and his new novel State of Decay, it’s when you you take the idea of the undead and give it a whole new socio-political spin — a spin that incorporates free will, social castes, an unending war, and other such fun things. I could tell you more about that, but this is a Big Idea post, and you’re not here for me. You’re here for the author to explain it all for you. And here he is!
I didn’t write a zombie story. In fact, although the word ‘zombie’ appears in almost every piece of marketing I’ve seen for State of Decay, it only appears once in the book itself. I can understand why it gets billed like this – my ‘revivors’ are the dead reanimated, and I purposely play with some of the classic zombie mythos – but I still wouldn’t call it a zombie story per se. I’ve seen it called urban fantasy, science fiction, horror, and a thriller (no one’s accused me of romance yet)…all this is fair, and if you like those things (as I do) then I believe you’ll like State of Decay, but to me the story has always really been about two basic ideas:
1. Is consciousness the same thing as a ‘soul’, and if not then where might those two things intersect?
2. As citizens of a society, what do we owe it and in turn, what does it owe us?
…and to a somewhat lesser degree:
3. How many PSI can a human bite deliver?
If the first two questions sound high-handed, rest assured third one does get answered, and in the way that you’re probably thinking. At its heart, I would call this a thriller; weapons (and bodies) are smuggled, murders are investigated, conspiracies are unraveled and the risen dead lurk in the shadows of city streets. Still, if you were to strip away all of the shell casings, cybernetic implants and arterial blood spatter (though for the life of me I don’t know why you would ever do that), then the first two concepts are what would be left behind. Don’t get me wrong; I like talking about arterial blood spatter as much as the next person, maybe more so, but here I’d rather talk about some of the underlying concepts that, to me, drive everything else.
I liked the idea of a vast meritocracy where a citizen’s worth depended on their level of service to their society, but part of what interested me were the inevitable abuses of such a system. For my story I decided on tiers of citizenship that, on paper, would work like this: Top tier was earned through military service, bottom tier was for those who refused to serve, and a middle tier was afforded for those who were willing to sign their bodies over to serve as reanimated soldiers after death. In theory, you could start at a lower tier and, by serving the community, work your way up rather than serve.
That’s on paper – in reality (my story is reality, right?), top tier lost much of its meaning to those who weren’t rich, bottom tier became synonymous with poverty, and most people picked the middle ground. This was actually by the design of those in charge, because second tiers still have to pay their taxes while earning a decent wage, and then they eventually die off to help provide a virtually limitless supply of foot soldiers. As for working your way up, the next tier was really just a carrot on a string; you would never feasibly be able to reach it.
If reanimation was to be an easy option, that raised the question ‘who would willingly sign up for such a thing?’ Especially when there are murmurings that a donor’s body might go on to commit all kinds of horrible atrocities? I felt that if the government was careful enough to keep the revivors, the war, and the aforementioned horrible atrocities far enough out of the public eye then that answer would be ‘most people’. It’s always easier and more tempting to pay later than to pay now – that’s why the Devil’s pact-printing machine is always low on toner.
In State of Decay you might decide, just before you slide into that guard rail, that maybe second tier was a mistake after all but it’s still your signature on the dotted line. The Devil always comes to collect in the end. In your invulnerable youth you might not care what happens to your body after you’re dead, but you might end up with a long time to think about it; If a person could be brought back from death with the same memories and abilities, how would that differ from being alive? If you’re conscious, in the same body, with impulses moving once more through your same (albeit no longer warm) brain, are you the same person? Or does something else, something less definable, get lost in the translation? Would choosing second tier be avoiding service, or just delaying it?
Of course, if a person who signed up for reanimation had second thoughts they always had the option of pedaling faster toward the top tier; that carrot on a stick they’d never reach. Not in time.
I could corner you at a party and talk about this until you eventually prayed for the sweet release of death, but my word ration runs dry. I considered utilizing the last hundred words or so for a treatise on arterial blood spray, but instead I think I will leave you with this: At the beginning of this piece I said there were two main themes, but I lied a bit; there is a third theme that I can’t discuss without (I feel) giving too much away. While I know the inevitable spoilers will come, I’d like to keep it on the down low as long as possible. Just know it involves the question of free will and becomes one of the major ideas behind the second book in the series. All three of these concepts (four if you count the biting thing) are the threads that tie the trilogy together.
This is the first step in main character Nico Wachalowski’s journey; here he will begin to learn some truths that he’d never even considered before. To do that, he will have to deal with a string of murders, a disturbed psychic’s obsession, an ex-lover’s questions, and domestic terrorism.
Oh, and zombies. Sort of.
State of Decay: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt of the novel. Follow James Knapp on Twitter.
Well, you’ve sold me. I’m interested in seeing how you deal with one, two and third that is not a measurement of PSI.
It will be interesting so see what solutions you speculate and compare them to my own…
A book you can buy from Amazon. Nice.
Oh, right on. I actually saw this in Barnes and Noble earlier this week when I went in for a book run, and thought “hey, that sounds like fun!”
It’s already on my list of Stuff to Buy From Fictionwise. Because I do love me an SF thriller. And zombies!
I read the sample chapter a few weeks ago and it grabbed my imagination right from the beginning. Which is a neat trick, because I don’t normally imagine zombies, er, revivors as being able to speak, let alone work. Or any of the other things that chapter implies they can do.
Definitely next on my list.
Just for your information. On the book’s website ( http://stateofdecay.net ) There is no write up at World > The Grinder, just a blank page. Obviously, this is just an oversight, but I thought I would let you know.
All the best on your debut novel and yes, it is on my list of books to purchase.
While I had some pretty harsh criticisms of this book, I must congratulate James on his debut, which, unlike many authors at this particular point in time, he is lucky enough to actually get to enjoy. Hope it lasts for you, dude, and we don’t suddenly see Penguin fall down Amazon’s memory hole too.
Definitely sounds interesting–on the list it goes.
For those interested in other brainy (derp) zombie-related fiction, you owe it to yourself to check out _Pontypool Changes Everything_ by Tony Burgess. It’s sort of experimental fiction, and not the easiest read, but works with ideas about cognition and language on several levels–is also pretty scary in my opinion.
It was made into a not-very-good film called _Pontypool_, which you should skip. It departs from the novel in unfortunate ways, yet will manage to spoil some of the novel’s surprises if you watch the film first.
On pricing: reading this summary, I realised that this is a book that I want to read — but not necessarily one that I would be prepared to pay £10 for. I find myself thinking that if I could get this as an e-book for, say, £2.50, I would probably do it without a moment’s thought.
And then I found myself thinking that I’d likely do that four times for four books, or more likely many more times, so that the total income that a publisher can derive from me by selling e-books would be much higher at the £2.50 price-point than at £10.
Then I thought: am I unusual? Or is this pretty much how most people feel? If so, then does that mean that e-book prices are deeply wrong right now?
I am sure the market will decide in the long term; in the short term, I will go without State Of Decay and in the middle term I will pick up a second-hand copy by mail-order once the price goes below say £3 including shipping.
Addendum to my previous comment: I now see that SoD is actually much cheaper that the £10 I used in my example above (e.g. £4.97 including free delivery at amazon.co.uk), so the specific maths is all wrong; but the general point stands, I think.
Just bought this today when I was leaving work at B&N. Currently sitting in my giant “to read” pile. Looking forward to it and will let everyone know what I thought.