Tuesday, 10 January 2012

#35 The Enemy/The Dead/The Fear: Zombie Apocalypse for Kids

It’s been a whole year since I first sat down and decided that the Internet needed to hear all of my opinions on zombie apocalypse fiction. Say, you know what I’ve not done for a few weeks? Given you my opinions on some zombie apocalypse fiction! Let’s do that today.

With that in mind, here’s my review of Charlie Higson’s Young Adult zombie series, The Enemy, The Dead and The Fear. (By the way, is it just me, or is there something vaguely patronising about the phrase "Young Adult"? Why doesn't Teenage Fiction do the job any more? I can't help feel it's more for the benefit of people in their 20s and 30s who still want to keep reading Harry Potter (and all power to them) than for the supposed intended audience of the books.)

Anyway, let’s start by talking about Lord of the Flies.

Lord of the Flies was a book I saw on my mum’s bookshelf as a kid but didn’t read because the cover was a decomposing pig’s head on a stick, and I was a sensitive child. Then at 13 we were made to study it in English, and fell in love with it.
Pictured: A children's book, clearly
I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid to read that book and realise that A: It was 100% spot on, and B: If I and my classmates ever ended up on a desert island I would probably get my head cracked open with a rock.

But there’s one thing that people always seem to miss about Lord of the Flies. It’s a science fiction story- a post-apocalyptic science fiction story. It’s definitely not a large part of the plot, in fact aside from one mention in the first chapter of the book, I’m not sure it’s ever mentioned again, but it’s definitely there.

Right at the beginning Piggy tells Ralph, “Didn’t you hear what the pilot said? About the atom bomb? They’re all dead.”

It’s not referred to again, but it does cast the entire novel in a different light. Firstly, it means that for most of the novel the characters aren’t just kids without their grownups- they’re possibly the last surviving people on Earth. Secondly, it throws a different light on Ralph’s thoughts about the grownup world. Throughout the book Ralph remembers the adult world as a place of law, order and civilisation. Yet what we actually see of the adult world is a plane getting shot down, atom bombs being dropped, and the only actual adult we meet is a military officer. The wider world the characters of Lord of the Flies live in is, in the end, just a bigger version of the island.

Since then other writers have chosen to write similar stories and instead of stranding their children on a desert island (where sooner or later you apparently have to start dealing with smoke monsters and bizarrely multi-faith churches in parallel purgatory universes). A quicker and easier way to do it is to just wipe out all the grown-ups with a deadly virus.

One example of this was New Zealand’s series The Tribe, where the death of all adults meant that the survivors all decided to wear far more hair gel and facepaint. Actually, that’s probably pretty realistic. Another version of this plotline- and one a good deal closer to Charlie Higson’s series, was the Star Trek episode Miri, where the crew visits a planet identical to 1960s Earth, except that the grownups have all been infected with a deadly disease that fills them with homicidal rage.
This episode featured the most disturbing romantic subplot in Star Trek history, apart from the episode where the Enterprise carries a “cargo” of wives, or the one where the Enterprise-D has a cargo genetically designed to become every man’s fantasy, or the one where Scott Backula and his crew are given sex slaves as gifts... You know, looking back, there are a lot of "women as property" plots in Star Trek
In actual fact, it’s surprising that there aren’t more well known stories about all the adults getting wiped out. After all, it’s a well known truism used by everyone, from Charles Dickens to Roald Dahl to Jacqueline Wilson to J.K. Rowling, that you’ve got to kill the parents off if your child protagonist is going to do great and heroic things. It only makes sense that for a really dramatic story, all you need to do is kill off all the grownups on the planet.

It also plays in nicely to the wish-fulfilment/careful what you wish for aspect of the apocalypse genre. On the one hand, nobody will ever make you eat your greens again. On the other hand, you quickly learn exactly why your parents were so keen on doing laundry all the time.

Well, we’re almost eight hundred words into the blog post by now, so I should probably start telling you a bit about the books themselves.

In Charlie Higson’s series the grownups are most definitely The Enemy (Oooh, see what I did there?). Even where grownups seem to have avoided the symptoms of the plague, they aren’t to be trusted. There are even scenes where we are given the grownup/zombie point of view, which is usually a twisted parody of grownup thought, including a vicious hatred of kids that’s only a hairs width away from what is genuinely said by adults in a culture that just loves villainising its youth.

There are times when children reminisce about how kind and smart and super awesome their parents were, but those times are pretty much restricted to immediately before a child dies a horrifying death. Oh, and children dying horrifying deaths happens a lot.

One way in which Charlie Higson’s books differ from your usual zombie apocalypse fare (aside from the young protagonists) is the size of the cast. It’s huge, and on more than one occasion in the last three years I’ve been reading these books I’ve had to go to Google to remind myself which character is which (seriously guys, we’ve got an extensive and detailed wiki for Bones (http://bones.wikia.com/) but not for this? What’s wrong with you?). The massive cast serves two purposes. Firstly, it allows Higson to kill off a lot of people. The cast is about 90% Red Shirts. What I’m saying is: Charlie Higson loves nothing more than murdering children. Often when writers enjoy murder, they’ll introduce lots of minor characters who are given just enough dialogue and description for you to distinguish them from the furniture, then quickly jog forward to the satisfyingly gory deaths (This is sometimes known as being a Mauve Shirt. In The Enemy series Anyone Can Die (That’s two links to TV Tropes- I’m really sorry if you’re reading this at work, and for the two hours of time you’ve just lost).

Aside from giving Higson plenty of zombie-fodder, the big cast also allows him to show a variety of different post-apocalyptic set-ups. Anyone who was reading this blog early enough to take part in our Zombie Drinking Game will be familiar with my theory that zombie apocalypse stories are nearly always about locking a bunch of people who hate each other in a room together. When it comes to The Enemy series this theory still stands. In fact the series reads pretty much as a tourist guide to London for the zombie apocalypse survivor. Over three books the survivors form communities holed up in Buckingham Palace, The Imperial War Museum, The Natural History Museum and the Houses of Parliament. I’m pretty sure this list will expand in future books, depending on which London landmarks Higson wants a behind the scenes tour of next.

Each of these landmarks serves as a testing ground for a different response to the apocalypse, with a cargo-cult style society being built around it. For some it’s parliamentary democracy, for others it’s a dictatorship, for others it’s simply having lots of big sticks to hit the grownups with. In each of these places, the same power struggles we see in all the standard zombie movies are still going on, alongside increasing paranoia and competition between the various encampments.

However, it’s got to be said- this series is not a sociological treatise on how to best rebuild the world. Nor is it trying to make any big statements about the relationship between kids and grownups. First and foremost, Higson is trying to write an adventure book. You can tell the writer is having his most fun when he is lovingly describing the various states of disrepair of the grownups as they stumble about a ruined London, or in the frenetic and extremely violent combat sequences. I think if this book has one thing it does really well, it’s that no punches are pulled here at all. Higson is writing a horror book, and giving his readers nightmares is what he is here for.

1 comment:

  1. Been meaning to give these a go. Sounds like they are worth a read.