Friday, February 27, 2015

Realistic zombie outbreak projections

So how would an epidemic of zombies actually play out?
 
A team at Cornell, using modeling techniques used in predicting the spread of diseases went to work on it, and are planning a presentation.  Alex Alemi, one of the graduate students who was working on it gives a summary of the results
Phys.Org, 25 February 2015 (hat tip: NC)
In most films or books, "if there is a zombie outbreak, it is usually assumed to affect all areas at the same time, and some months after the outbreak you're left with small pockets of survivors," explains Alemi. "But in our attempt to model zombies somewhat realistically, it doesn't seem like this is how it would actually go down."
Cities would fall quickly, but it would take weeks for zombies to penetrate into less densely populated areas, and months to reach the northern mountain-time zone.
"Given the dynamics of the disease, once the zombies invade more sparsely populated areas, the whole outbreak slows down—there are fewer humans to bite, so you start creating zombies at a slower rate," he elaborates. "I'd love to see a fictional account where most of New York City falls in a day, but upstate New York has a month or so to prepare."
If you somehow happen to find yourself in the midst of a fictional zombie outbreak and want to survive as long as possible, Alemi recommends making a run for the northern Rockies.
Of course the obvious problem with this advice is that it fails to ask why there aren't many people in the Northern Rockies, and presumably the difficulty with acquiring food stuffs was one of the reasons.  So you would need to bring a lot of supplies with you.
 
A lot also depends on whether zombies can swim, and just how tough are the zombies.  In scenarios where the zombies are really dangerous, you would have to avoid any possible zombies.  With World War Z, slow zombies, you could afford to clear out areas where zombies are limited and sightlines would allow you to see the few in the area approach you: A small island out on a lake would work with non-swimming (or floating), slow zombies.  And you could hunt in relatively open areas, escaping back to the boat when a large group hears your gunshots and heads your way.
 
As a practical matter, since they are using modeling techniques based on diseases spread by human to human contact, the advise is also pretty similar to what (wealthy) pre-modern folks did when some sort of virulent disease broke out in their neighborhood:  they headed for the hills.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Remaining: A Review

D.J. Molles' The Remaining is a zombie-apocalypse set in Central North Carolina near the small town (distant bed room community to the State Capital, Raleigh) of Angier, North Carolina.  The main protagonist, and our point of view, Captain Lee Harden of the United States Army, is on a post collapse recover and reorganize mission, after society has collapsed.  It's a triumph to the forethought of our current politico/military system.......not going real well.  The book is an extended series. The author had left the length of the series open ended, but recently announced that the 6th volume in the series would be the conclusion.
 
The cover on my book
 


D.J. (Daniel) Molles is (I am pretty sure) a native of North Carolina, and lives in one of the (what is now a) bedroom communities just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife and young daughter.  He is a police officer in Charlotte,  (~7 years) and was at least one point was working on the door busting drug squad. To se the type of mess he might have to deal with see pdf here (Molles shows up briefly on page 8). His wife is a photographer with her own studio, and does the cover work for his novels.  Per the Goodreads blurb, prior to this series, he had published two short stories, "Darkness" and "Survive," which won a short fiction contest through Writer's Digest. The Remaining was his first novel which he self published.  He has since signed a deal with Orbit.  He has some nice interviews out there (here and here) out there, and an interesting post on post on tactical skills.
 
As a note, back in high school, I used to live just outside the bedroom community that the author does, and live somewhat near the setting of his current novel.  The author is about mid-point of native authors not understanding the distinctive nature of their native foliage/topography.  You do get sense of the woodsy, but still relatively densely populated nature of rural North Carolina. But I don't think many of the readers will realize that these woods are almost always tertiary growth with a huge number of relatively thin, but tall trees fairly tightly spaced.  Because of North Carolinas acidic (granite based) soil, pine trees often predominate.
 
A fair amount of the action develops on the Southern edge of Raleigh.  Both the Raleigh, and Charlotte urban areas have experienced huge growth, pulling in folks from all over the United States.  So the rather  'vanilla' residential locations, and folks with no particularly Southern style of speech pattern are not at all unusual.  Also rather accurately, with Fort Bragg about an hour south of the location, and Camp Lejeune about less than 2 hours to the southeast, you would expect to see lots of retired, or simply footloose, military people in the area.  I wrote about a home invasion case a while ago, where the invaders got into a loosing (they ran away) fire fight with the ex-special forces neighbor.  So the inordinate amount of military hardware, and capabilities that show up are pretty much on target.
 
So here is the deal.  The U.S. has set up individual agents with military, and military-social (think Green Beret) skills in command bunkers.  One for each of the 48 lower continental States.  Why only one man, why one per state.  Because as the book sort of implies, that is the silly, political way that government-military decisions get made.  Someone had a little black box money left over and thought it was a good idea.  They didn't have enough money except for small bunkers, and to keep themselves out of trouble, they spread around the money.  With the breakout of the "disease" , mistaken as a form of y. pestis (black plague), it is clear that the folks that told him to batten down in his bunker, are just going through the motions.  To them, it is likely to be just another false alert.  But it isn't.
 
So he heads out into the world, roughly 30 days after having last heard from his government project manager, and finds things a little different.  He is a little slow to catch onto the zombie nature of the infected.  But then again, these are somewhat different zombies.  They are more like hyped up crystal meth users with their forebrains eaten away.  At least some of them are more clever than typical zombies, and can open doors, and use weapons.  A very tiny minority are not even particularly interested in being violent.  On the plus side, it is difficult, but not impossible, to kill them with something other than head shots.  These aren't magical zombies. 
 
Even though these are very dangerous zombies, and they have munched through a lot of people, there are still a fair number of survivors: The government's worst case expectation from the disease alone was 7%.  So, as with many of the best zombie-novels, both nice and very dangerous humans are intermixed with the ghoulish biters.  Did I mention there might be a lot of heavy firepower in this neck of the woods?  "I'll see your grenade, and raise you an RPG!"
 
As a police officer, the author has a very fine eye for details.  Just enough detail to make you feel as though you are there, but not so much that it bogs down. These small details extend to the point of giving the zombies a little bit of an individual personality so that they are not always just stock monsters.
 
One item to note, is that this is a very intermingled series.  I get the sense that the author keeps writing until he gets a long enough sequence to publish, and then chops it off at the start of the next "action phase". In other words, with a milder form of the cliff hanger.  Since most of the six-book series is already published, availability/delay isn't so much the issue; just don't expect a major wrap up at the end of the book.
 
So did I like it?  We'll being the first novel that is actually set in areas that I have travelled around (mostly for work) frequently, it would have a relatively high appeal in any case.  I could tell the hero where there are some huge pv solar farms in his neck of the woods.  But even beyond that, I really did like it a lot. A slightly slow startup to build tension and attachment to the character.  Competent good guys against very serious bad guys.  The men are the primary combatants, but the women aren't relegated to the helpless status either.  If beat reporters understand human realities of a slower pacing, a police-author is also going to see the tears and pain, but at a much faster pace. Emotional trauma is not ignored, even as everything goes by in a whirlwind. 
 
In this 5-book batch of zombie stories, it is the second novel that has struck me as being a particularly good read.  Granted, you expect some genre fun from zombies, but this matches up well with your various action-adventure stories outside the genre.  It seems very similar to the time coming out of the early 1970s when you had so many of the new authors turning to science fiction/fantasy.  Zombies are attracting some of the best talent, and if you look hard, you are going to find some very well written novels.
 
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
 
Realism with zombie novels is difficult.  As I have noted before, there are lots of unrealistic disasters that can get you to a collapsed state fairly quickly so that the author can then move on with his apocalyptic story: but to quote myself, "those zombies just keep biting".  Still, as dangerous as the zombies are the bad guys are worse.  The zombies are smart as zombies go, and the bad guys are too.  Prepper Tip! If you don't want the bad guys to track you back to where you live, don't leave the registration in you vehicle!
 
It is also nice to see a somewhat more nuanced version of the collapse of authority.  The police might not be particularly effective, but they don't all go running for the hills either.  The main character may be overwhelmed with difficulties, but it is a nice change of pace to see someone who has a greater goal than either simple survival, or the conceit of the cozies which has the survivors "building a better new world": now that all the inconvenient folks are gone.  Issues with supplies are not ignored, the fast collapse, and short time frame (30 days) has some useful stuff still around, but most of the easy pickings are gone.  Another fairly realistic zombie novel: a five.
 
Readability is easy.  At 308 low-word-count pages, it is set up as a page turner.  Each page being a quick turner, and leading into the next action sequence.  A very fast read.  The military jargon is kept to a very low level, enough for credibility, but most folks will have reasonable concept of what he is taking about.  No esoteric, higher-logic symbolism to confuse the issue. It is a seven.
 
The original cover: the suit - which our hero gives up on pretty quickly is to protect him from the zombie-plague

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Coldbrook: A Review


Tim Lebbon's Coldbrook, is a zombie-apocalypse that starts off in a secret scientific base in the Appalachian mountains. It is noted that Interstate 81 runs somewhat parallel to the local access road (page 405), so it is likely somewhere around the North Carolina/Tennessee border northwest of Asheville (page 87). 
 
The perfect bound cover - the one that I like best.
 
 
Tim Lebbon, (1969-) is from Wales, Great Britain and currently lives in the village of Goytre in Monmouthshire with his wife and two sons.  He is a New York Times bestselling author.  Most of his novels appear to be of some sort of horror/fantasy mix: this is not his first zombie-novel. He notes Stephen King as an influence, and while there is no intentional duplication, he also comments that he liked the "realism" of Max Brook's World War Z.
 
I am going to try and limit spoilers beyond what the author has noted in interviews and the book blurb.  The story has much of World War Z's world collapse scenario, but is much more tightly written, and there is quite a few well done surprise plot twists.
 
You have your tucked away, not that secret, base in the mountains.  It is working on opening up a gate into other dimensions: and fairly quickly into the story it succeeds.  The gate is designed to kill anything down to the microbial level that might get through.  But much as Monte Python said about the Spanish Inquisition, nobody expected a zombie!  Much like the Python Inquisition (see previous video link), the Zombie's main weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthlessness.  It works pretty well.
 
These are fast moving, fast turning biters.  In an interview, the author noted a similarity to the movie, 28 Days Later in so far as the zombie disease exists primarily to spread: snacking is limited.  The entire novel extends over a ten day period.  By the end of the period, the zombies are pretty much world wide, and what they don't wipe out, various government efforts (Russian nukes, Chinese bioweapons) complete.  I, along with some others, had questioned how the zombies get from the United States to Europe. The authors comment in an interview.
We do live in a very, very small world, where communication through roads, rail and air are extremely quick. One infected passenger on a flight to London and that’s it.  One infection in Europe and the spread is rapid. I did research disease spread when I was writing the book.
Maybe there’s a bit of artistic licence at work here, but I think it works OK.  And let’s face it, we all hope there’s never a chance to test the theory
I suppose that is fair enough.
 
The author notes a debt to Stephen King, but the overall arc of the story felt somewhat Cthulhu-esque.  As with H.P. Lovecraft's writing, we are very small part in an enormous Cosmo.  If you open the door a crack, you might not like what you find on the other side.  Since we are talking about parallel worlds here, presumably or current fascination with zombies could be seen as a bleed over from multiple alternate realities.
 
The author does a limited amount of narrative point of view (pov) shifting to expand his storyline.  Most involve the scientists and engineers involved in the research effort, but the one outlier, a young lady with a debilitating disease, is very well done.  To a varying extent, all of the major characters have serious personality flaws, and these flaws are not ignored.  But there is enough of the good, in with the bad, to make this novel a poster child of how to engage a readers interest in less than perfect protagonists. 
 
So obviously, I liked the book.  The author, in that interview, also thought some religious folks might get angry with him, but I didn't view his one case of a negative depiction of a religious hierarchy to be targeting that particular institution. It struck me as a very real depiction of dangerous mission drift  and misalignment in any "cause" driven bureaucracy.  The novel has received a number of comments about it being a very bleak story throughout:  an amusing comment about an apocalyptic novel.  To my mind it is appropriately bleak, without that Rah-Rah survivalist silliness of "We beat the zombies" that occurs from time-to-time.  However, it does show people in very difficult circumstances attempting to mitigate the damage: sometimes, that's all you can do.
 
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
 
Zombies have an obvious realism problem compared to other less-than-realistic-causes of the apocalypse: they keep on biting.  The story also has a science fiction element in the exploratory opening into a parallel world.   Balancing that is the very here and now setting.  The very accurate depiction of institutional and government denial, and then panic, in the face of adversity.  Although the novel only lasts 10 days, issues of supply and infrastructure are addressed. Within the group setting, a very realistic mix of folks with differing abilities come to the forefront.  The folks who can make the plausible head shot are obviously very useful, but so are the folks with brains, the brawn, and also just folks who can act as the glue to keep people working together. For a zombie-novel where the zombies stick around, I am going to call it a very realistic 5.
 
Readability is high for a relatively long (509 pages) novel.  There are some confusing, but relevant dream sequences.  I put it down a couple times out of exhaustion.  Balanced against that is some fairly tight writing.  The character development is a tad bit lengthy on a few points, but is arguably necessary to explain the characters actions at others.  I am going to call it a 5.
 
I think this illustration was used with either the hardback, or British, release
 
 
 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Wormwood: A Review

Michael James McFarland's Wormwood is a zombie apocalypse set on a small cul de sac in a small bedroom community in (likely) Central Washington State.

Cover art "The Visitor" (circa 1980) was by author. I kind of like it.


Michael James McFarland (1963-) was born in the small town of Colfax, Washington. He lives in the small Central Washington State town of Selah, with his high-school sweetheart wife, and two children.  The novel appears to be based on a small suburb/bedroom community in Central Washington: much like where the author lives.

In an interview, the author sites Stephen King's The Stand for his fear of pandemic viruses and John Skipp and Craig Spector’s (editors) short story anthology Book of the Dead (1989) for its structure. To continue:
My fears of epidemic, of social breakdown, come out of its pages, and that’s what my novel ‘Wormwood’ is chiefly about. Zombies linger about the edges and then jump in with both feet around the halfway mark, but for me, the most frightening aspect is the panic generated in anticipation of the plague. People are capable of doing the most terrible things to one another, especially when they don’t think there’s any future.
Fairly typical for these apocalyptic novels, a lot of action takes place in somewhat rural surroundings.  Yet also typical of these novels, the author, writing about an area he is very familiar with, doesn't think to give us much of an idea about the topography, vegetation, or ground cover. If you look at some birds eye views of central Washington state, he area is hillier and dryer than I understood from the author's description.  The lack of trees means that site lines are going to be a lot further than I understood.  Although maybe not as important, I have also noticed that a lot of residential structural styling has a very different look throughout the country.  When he talks about nice, upper-end suburban homes, I tend to think of traditional east coast, two story homes. But even on the east coast there is a lot of variation.  My guess is that, because it is so much taken for granted,  a lot of authors don't have a huge vocabulary at hand for describing their own environment to outsiders.  But the hills and woods where they live, aren't likely to  be the hills and woods I live in.  And if your running around in them, it will make a difference.


Orchards near Selah, WA (from Wikipedia here)

The novel is a fairly "typical" zombie story.  Through a government accident a weaponized U.S. satellite has released a toxic yellow cloud over the United States.  The cloud, for some odd reason, is moving West (reverse of usual weather pattern), and it has the full cinematic "Romero" zombie effect of raising the otherwise innocently dead to life, and of course those bitten by these animated folks will also become walking dead.  The folks catch the news reports from Chicago, and now what is headed their way.
 
Now within the novel, there are some pretty well thought out zombie attack scenes.  Nothing to exotic, but solid mayhem. As such,  it does a fairly good job of soothing that fix for zombie survival action.
 
There is a nice realistic element to this novel.  The folks of our story live in a tiny, slightly remote cul de sac, just outside of town. Just far enough that folks on foot would have to make an effort to get to you.  There is a creek along one side of the road with only one bridge, and a high blocking hill on the other side.  So the folks decide they are going to batten down the hatches and try and ride out the storm.

The realistic element, what the novel does extremely well, is to explode all those cul de sac preeper fantasies (examples: Lights Out, Holding Their Own) of fighting off the barbarian hordes. In these  fantasies, a little out of the way neighborhood, with the insistence of one dedicated in-the-know (aka prepper) neighbor rallies his little group of suburbanites into a some 21st century version of a colonial settlers blockhouse, and rides out the oncoming hordes (zombies, bikers, United Nations, inner city evil-doers) as the spear tip effort into rebuilding a new and better civilization. This zombie-fest does a pretty good job of highlighting the weaknesses of the scenario. 
 
Modern Americans are about as far from being in a combat mindset as you can possibly get.  Our neighborhood does board up the houses (all individually), and even have a safe house fallback planed. They setup a watch on the roof of one of the homes, and they make the plot-required one adventurous quick run into the edge of town for some last minute supplies.  A pretty normal setup, and some of this helps them a little bit.  But they simply have no capacity to think in life and death terms.  Even in the pre-Zombie looting period, they run into some grave difficulties.  Kids get to wandering around.  Major breakdowns in security occur. It is a high casualty environment, and almost from the start there are hints that group survival is going to come down to individual survival much sooner than later.
 
So did I like it?  Yes, it was up and down at times.  I am not a huge fan of the revive the already dead version of zombie action, particularly when the scenario is described in pseudo-scientific terms. But the characters were well drawn out, aven with all the mayhem, there is some redemption.  It's not perfect, but it is entertaining, and actually even a little thoughtful at times.
 
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
 
The author seems to understand weapons far better than most.  Folks know that they are supposed to go for headshots, but that is easier said than done. That along with the fact that we have medium speed zombies, who will typically at least injure someone if they get into a scuffle with them, and you have a high casualty count.  The author does shift the protagonists viewpoint throughout the story, which allows him to kill off any and all major characters as we go along.  So, while the dead coming back to life doesn't make for high realism, it is in some way more realistic than some of the prepper style novels which are written (supposedly) with an idea toward education.  For a zombie novel, a very high 5 in realism.
 
Readability is straightforward.  For a listed 333 pages, it moves pretty fast.  A little too much early contemplation and commiserating to call it a page turner throughout.  It is geared slightly more toward a horror novel than an action-adventure story.  The wormwood reference comes from the Bible (KJV Lamentations 3:15 "He hath filled me with bitterness, he hath made me drunken with wormwood"), so the external to the story symbolism is laid out fairly obviously:  it's a 6.