The Big Idea: Robin Becker
Posted on May 26, 2010 Posted by John Scalzi 29 Comments
Zombies: Very popular in literature these days. But there’s a (zombie) elephant in the room here: In all of zombie literature, there is one person whose needs, wants and desires are woefully underarticulated — yea, hardly a shuffling moan is heard in his or her defense. Who is that silent person? Author Robin Becker knows, and in Brains: A Zombie Memoir, she finally gives that person a voice. I’ll let her explain herself — and her silent partner — better.
Brains: A Zombie Memoir developed out of this simple realization: Most zombie movies aren’t about zombies. They’re about humans, those desperate survivors holed up in houses or vacant buildings, fighting amongst themselves over food or whose plan to follow. It’s their struggle, their survival, their story that we’re told.
But what about the zombie? Who will tell his story?
The idea occurred to me in 2004. It was a banner year for zombie movies, the year of Shawn of the Dead and the Dawn of the Dead remake. Land of the Dead, with it optimistic ending (at least for the ghoul), followed close on their heels in 2005.
That’s when the “big idea” became bigger: What if a zombie retained sentience? What if inside one of those rotting, moaning, brain-eating automatons lurks a being who thinks, feels, maybe even loves?
The question became this: What if the living dead have souls?
Suddenly I was rolling around in the mud of zombie ontology, Cartesian duality, and a few stray tendons. I started reading about the philosophical zombie and my mind was blown.
I had to write that story! My zombie would be a special being, almost transcendent, and all alone in a sea of mindless monsters. He would be conflicted and scared—but still driven to do what the living dead do best: Eat brains. That would be the tension, the crux: a character driven by two opposing impulses, the higher and the lower. Good and evil, if you will.
Would a sentient zombie be able to refrain from eating brains if necessary? If it benefited him in the long run, could he ignore the gleaming viscera before him? Could a zombie be “civilized”?
Spoiler alert: Turns out, the answer is no.
I set about writing in the first-person POV of a thinking zombie. At the time, there wasn’t the amount of zombie lit there is now—Max Brooks’ Survival Guide and the Permuted Press catalogue, mostly. The field was wide open! My book would be the first zombie diary, a memoir, a zomoir, as I called it. It would chronicle his resurrection and subsequent struggle to survive—just like the zombie movies do, but from the other side of the consciousness divide.
With this in mind, I couldn’t go the straight genre route. If I adhered strictly to the rules, Brains would only be a short story. “Mwaaaa,” the living dead said. “Gunh. Nom.” The end.
I decided that the characters would be aware of zombie mythology. They’ve all seen the movies, and most have read the Zombie Survival Guide. In fact, the characters in Brains comment on the amazing fact that everything in the movies turns out to be true. These genre conventions remain: a virus spread by biting; the infected sick with a fever and chills; slow, stupid Romero zombies. To kill them you shoot ‘em in the head.
Oh, and gore. There had to be gore.
Just as I was aware of genre, while at the same time playing with it (in the form of the smart zombie), I couldn’t be all philosophical. How boring! Those ideas had to be inherent in the text, not overt soliloquies. Luckily that was easy because the more I tried to be serious, the more I faced the absurd. Jokes appeared, seemingly of their own free will. (Plus, I love zom-coms!) The outer characteristics of zombies (drooling, shambling, limbs falling off) sharply contrast with the trauma of a mind trapped inside that fetid body—and it’s fertile ground for humor.
So I took it one step further and created Jack Barnes, PhD. in English, complete with pipe and elbow patches. As a human, Jack was the kind of guy who sees casual conversation as competition. Surely he would be melodramatic—but his drama would be ridiculous because of his physical state. The indignity of his situation! The humanity!
It didn’t hurt that I teach at a university and so am all-too-familiar with profs like Jack. The book was an opportunity to “write what I know” and poke gentle fun of my profession, while at the same time tackle real phenomenological questions: What makes a person? Who deserves to “live”? Is consciousness what makes us human? Is language?
In the past, I’d been a careful writer, afraid to make the puns that I love so much, afraid to make popular culture allusions, afraid to have fun, darn it. Because writing is serious! But during the writing of Brains, I said screw it. If zombies cannibalize humans, then the memoir of a professor-turned-zombie would cannibalize culture.
But a strange thing happened on the way to the end, and it was completely unexpected. I started to care about Jack; I started to worry about his future, his survival. He finds a small band of other rational zombies and together they fight to survive. When their situation becomes dire, the jokes dry up, the allusions to other movies and books slow down, and we are left with the all-too-human story of one entity’s quest to discover who he is and therefore how to “live.” No philosophical zombies, no jokes. We are left with—dare I say it?—love.
One final word: Although Brains is in the voice of a zombie, when the apocalypse happens—and it will—I’m killing them, even if a few can think or write. When it comes down to us or them, I’m picking us. Every time.
Brains: A Zombie Memoir: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit Robin Becker’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.
This reminds me of The Zombie Shelly storyline in Scary Go Round. Poor Shelly was raised from the dead by her well-meaning (if inebriated) friend, and now must deal with her unlife.
Non-film-classical zombie as he doesn’t eat brains. He does have a vodoun houngan to do his repair spells, so arguably more authentic:
“Non-film-classical zombie as he doesn’t eat brains.”
Actually, the majority of versions of film zombies (and novels too, among the several I’ve read) don’t eat brains—which makes sense given that most versions of zombie are only killed by damaging the brain. If they ate brains then the zombies wouldn’t propagate and you’d have no zombie apocalypse.
The brain-eating thing was entirely due to Return of the Living Dead. For its zombies, eating brains helped ease the pain of being dead. They didn’t NEED more paramedics, they just WANTED more paramedics!
The struggle of sentient zombies has found its way into a small number of zombie films. “I, Zombie” is the one I remember off the top of my head.
Print (paperback) version $7.69, Kindle (electronic) version $9.99. What’s wrong with this picture?
@5 Nothing. Buy whichever you want. Please don’t complain, though, that the version you can get on your $259 Kindle costs $2.30 more.
i was actually going to read it on my notebook using kindle for pc. I don’t own a kindle.
So? Go buy it. I really don’t want to get this off track, but a $2.30 difference isn’t material and if it is to someone I’d argue they shouldn’t be spending either $7.69 OR $9.99.
The other way to look at this is that it’s $9.99 for some Kindle titles even before the paperback is out and the hardback is $24.95 list. Even discounted, most hardbacks are ~$15. So you lose some, you win some. Or, of course, buy the paperback.
Let’s not have this thread be a discussion area for price differentials between versions. For one thing, the authors have no control over the pricing. For another thing, the topic is boring and aside the point of the book’s subject.
But, John, if the publishers and Amazon had braaaiinnnzzzz…..
(Of course you’re right. Sorry for the temp thread hijack.)
I know maybe it worked with vampires, but I really wish people would quit messing with zombie lore. I was just at Borders two hours ago, and I picked up a hardcover where some author had asked, “Ok, now WHAT IF this zombie was a football player?” What an incredibly amusing take on the zombie genre!!! I’ve been a huge fan of zombie stuff since I was a kid and saw Dawn of the Dead. All this Pride Prejudice and Zombie stuff is really ruining it for me personally.
I was fortunate enough to read an ARC of Brains, and I loved it. It’s a fun read. The part of me that ran screaming from academia after grad school really appreciated the poking Becker does at her own profession.
I’m getting tired of seeing the bookshelves inundated with zombie this and zombie that, too, jva, and initially I wasn’t sure I wanted to read this, but I’m glad I did. It’s not the usual fare. So I’ll be buying a copy of Brains for a friend’s birthday gift while I pass by most of the other zombie-focused books.
@jva: Ditto. I’m really kind of tired of “Zombie Sesame Street” and “What if a Zombie plague had occurred during the 1935 Wimbeldon tennis match?”
I’ve got to recommend the 2007 ZomCom Wasting Away, told from the viewpoint of four ordinary slackers who at first don’t understand why everyone around them is moving so fast, can’t understand them, is trying to kill them. Here’s a review.
Everything I know about Zombies I learned here at the Whatever blog site over the past few months. Everything I learn about Zombies here leads me from my previous “no interest in reading about them” position to “[expletive deleted] No! …no interest in reading about them” position. Ditto for vampires. Can we roll back around soon to some science fiction titles or even fantasy titles from the Big Idea contributors?
@Buck Funny and I completely agree.
@Buck Yes that
Robin, if you do follow up here, please realize that I feel your premise is more original and less derivative than most of the recent Zombie tropes.
The whole Zombie thing doesn’t work for me personally but I do hope it does well for you.
I think John had something apropos to say about the content of “The Big Idea” just the other day.
Second paragraph probably states it best.
Oh, and John I wasn’t trying to answer for you or anything, I like the big idea for stretching the boundaries of the books I might like to read. It doesn’t have to be SF or Fantasy, it just has to pique my interest. Many do, some don’t and that’s a good thing.
Monster Island anyone? Anyone?
I too am surprised no one mentioned Monster Island until the end of the thread. It and its sequels deal specifically with intelligent zombies from their point of view (as well as the survivors’).
Thank you, it is now on order for the shop.
Am I the only one that finds it amusing that John has the tagline to call him “Your Deliciousness” and this book is about brains?
Maybe with salsa?
@21: Everyone knows that brains go best with BBQ sauce.
And people should feel free to take zombies in any direction. As long as they don’t $#*!’n _sparkle_.
I read Monster Island which had its moments. The truth is even George Romero himself seems to be having trouble doing anything cool with the genre. Anybody see his latest SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD? ugh.
Having said that, don’t tune out on the zombies yet until you read THE WALKING DEAD comics. Soon to be a series on AMC this fall! I’m 50+ issues in, and no talking, thinking or running zombies. No zombies playing football or dealing with existential crises over their newfound zombiedom. Hurray.
“And people should feel free to take zombies in any direction. As long as they don’t $#*!’n _sparkle_.”
I respect and appreciate the opinion. Still I think for longtime fans of the genre like myself, these new “takes” on zombie stuff are alot like Lucas ruining Star Wars. You know? Like the trilogy was out there on its own for a long time, and people loved it and really invested themselves in it, and then Lucas came back twenty years later or whatever and spoiled it by messing with the formula. Maybe not an exact analogy, but that’s how it feels. Anyway, in neither case will I stop the cashing in with my complaints!
“Robin, if you do follow up here, please realize that I feel your premise is more original and less derivative than most of the recent Zombie tropes.
The whole Zombie thing doesn’t work for me personally but I do hope it does well for you.”
thanks @Jeff S. That’s sweet!
But really, I know it’s problematic, messing with a genre. But, in all honesty, it was a lot of fun to write!
So you want every new zombie novel to be like every other zombie novel? I would think that would get old fast.
I’m not aware of a single genre where authors don’t mess with standard story conventions to do something new, and I don’t see why zombie stories would be an exception to that.
Oh! *That* Robin Becker!
I thought you meant this Robin Becker:
I wondered what Robin — my former college writing professor — was doing dazzling us with zombies.
Any relation? Or do all Robin Beckers, at some time or another, reside in Philadelphia?
I could come up with a ten thousand work essay unpicking your epic analogyfail. But instead I’ll share Charlie Brooker’s snappy response to bitching that the zombies in his Dead Set didn’t shamble and lurch sufficiently to satisfy Romero purists.
“Well, mine fucking do.”
And he explains at slightly greater length why Simon Pegg can just blow him here (scroll down a bit):
The Guardian piece Brooker is responding to is worth reading as well, and be found at:
Added to my list of books to get; I think I’ll appreciate the satire on academia.