Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Review - 21st Century Dead: A Zombie Anthology by Christopher Golden (editor)

Stories included:
Biters by Mark Morris
Why Mothers Let Their Babies Watch Television: A Just-So Horror Story by Chelsea Cain
Carousel by Orson Scott Card
Reality Bites by S.G. Browne
The Drop by Stephen Susco
Antiparallelogram by Amber Benson
How We Escaped Our Certain Fate by Dan Chaon
A Mother's Love by John McIlveen
Down and Out in Dead Town by Simon R. Green
Devil Dust by Caitlin Kittredge
The Dead of Dromore by Ken Bruen
All the Comforts of Home: A Beacon Story by John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow
Ghost Dog & Pup: Stay by Thomas E. Sniegoiski
Tic Boom, a Love Story by Kurt Sutter
Jack and Jill by Jonathan Maberry
Tender as Teeth by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski
Couch Potato by Brian Keene
The Happy Bird and Other Tales by Rio Youers
Parasite by Daniel H. Wilson

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: 21st Century Dead is, as it says right on the cover, an anthology of zombie stories. The definition of "zombie" used in the collection is very loose, in some cases stretching the definition to the point where it is unrecognizable. This doesn't really degrade the quality of the book, because most of the stories are pretty good, even the stories that feature "zombies" only in name.

The first story in the volume is Biters by Mark Morris, which has a fairly standard take on zombies, depicting them as mostly mindless remnants of humans infected by some sort of virus that can be passed via biting and scratching. But although the depiction of the zombies is standard, the story itself takes place in a society that is adjusting to the reality of living with the zombie plague. Rather than people holed up in malls and bunkers shooting waves of ravenous undead, the story posits a society that had managed to get its zombie population under control and is now trying to figure out a way to manage the crisis, or reverse it. Told from the perspective of a elementary school aged girl undergoing basic education about zombies, the story is intriguing, albeit a little bit maudlin at the end. Another story that imagines a world in which zombies have become an accepted party of the landscape is How We Escaped Our Certain Fate by Dan Chaon, which deals with the complex relationship between those that are alive and those that are not quite alive. The story is decidedly darker than Biters, but does have a kind of oddly sweet ending. Well, oddly sweet for a zombie story.

The most "standard" zombie story in the volume is The Dead of Dromore by Ken Bruen. The story is a stylized depiction of the efforts of an elite team of mercenaries hired to rescue the daughter of a billionaire from a town overrun by the walking dead. The story starts off like a typical action movie with bluster and heroics, but because it is a classically plotted zombie story, it ends up bleak and desolate. On the other end of the scale is Ghost Dog & Pup: Stay by Thomas E. Sniegoiski, told from the perspective of a dead dog viewing his grieving former owner deal with the loss, but also confronting an ancient evil that he must help hold at bay. The story is one of letting go: for the living to let go of the dead, and for the dead to let go of the living. It is one of the longest stories in the book, and it is also one of the most moving. Another interesting take on zombies is found in Parasite by Daniel H. Wilson, a story like The Dead of Dromore with all of the trappings of a tale of military action, but which flips everything upside down so that the story is told from the perspective of one of the living dead. But in Parasite the living dead are made so by machines programmed to fight a long forgotten war, and which armies seem to repeatedly and unknowingly stumble into, only to be slaughtered and absorbed. In some ways, Parasite is the story of the Borg told as a zombie tale and set in a bleak and frozen Earth.

Some of the zombies stories are mostly excuses to engage in macabre humor. One of the best examples in the book is Why Mothers Let Their Babies Watch Television: A Just-So Horror Story by Chelsea Cain, a brief little darkly funny story about a mother dealing with a difficult child. Also darkly humorous is Reality Bites by S.G. Browne, a story involving a television producer considering the possibilities of reality shows with zombie cast members. The story is a brutal take upon the television industry and a pretty accurate representation of where interns fit into the workplace pecking order.

There are several stories in 21st Century Dead that play with the idea of what "zombie" means. The Drop by Stephen Susco deals with people hopelessly addicted to the online game Cynapse waiting for the "drop" of the expansion Revenant Pack that turns out to be much more than anyone bargained for. The story first takes two metaphorical takes on "zombie" to lull the reader into a sense of security, and then shows that things can get much, much worse. The story is exceptionally unsettling, and one of the best in the collection. Another story that plays with the idea of what "zombie" means is Antiparallelogram by Amber Benson, which deals with a future society in which people are defined by the clothes they wear, and if one is condemned to wear Pink, Purple, or Orange, then one might as well be dead. Against the background of this dystopian vision, Benson weaves a tale involving designer drugs for the rich that let them emulate various creatures of myth leading to a brilliant story of conspiracy, thievery, and rebirth. Down and Out in Dead Town by Simon R. Green also deals with those who are treated as the disposable refuse of society, comparing the homeless with the walking dead. But the story also throws in real walking dead, but in this case, the walking dead are indifferent to humanity. It turns out that even being the detritus of society is preferable to being among the uncaring dead.

One of the most potentially tragic things about a zombie story is that the monsters are not merely ravenous flesh-eating monsters, they are also the remains of people, and in some cases, people the protagonists know and may have loved when they were alive. A Mother's Love by John McIlveen deals with just  this kind of tragedy, as a mother struggles with caring for her undead child. It is a story of bitter choices and, by the end, insanity. It is also deliciously disturbing. Like many of these type of stories, All the Comforts of Home: A Beacon Story by John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow is a tale of loss and regret as a man who has settled into a safe haven with his daughter grapples with the pain of losing his son in the throng of desperate humanity outside. In the end, the story is bittersweet, full of hope for his living child, but anguish over his lost one. The most brutal of the stories that deal with a survivor caring for his loved ones in a world overrun by zombies is Tic Boom, a Love Story by Kurt Sutter in which a man with Tourrete's Syndrome must find food to feed his starving family. Once again, the strain of a post-zombie world has driven the central character insane, but in a touching, loving way.

Of course, knowing who the zombie in front of you was does not always mean that you thought highly of them when they were alive. This is the truth at the heart of Devil Dust by Caitlin Kittredge, a brutal tale of violence and coldly calculated revenge. Although Jack Porter in Jack and Jill by Jonathan Maberry is not out for revenge, he is one of the walking dead. Sick for much of his life with incurable cancer, he is doted upon by his mother and smothered with care. But like most stories in the volume that play with the idea of what it means to be one of the "walking dead" there is a twist in the story and Jack gets his secret wish in the end. Straddling the line between serious and humorous, the story is the best of the collection. One of the most painfully sad stories in the collection is Couch Potato by Brian Keene, told from the perspective of a young girl with a mother addicted to drugs and daytime television. The waves of zombies that overcome the outside world don't change Adele's life - her mother is just as neglectful as she was before the plague struck, and even after her mother has been afflicted herself, Adele's life doesn't appreciably change. Of course, her mother, despite being dead, hasn't changed her habits at all. Zombie stories are, at their heart, social commentary, and Keene cuts to the core of the modern obsession with junk television by making the living television addict essentially indistinguishable from the same television addict after they have been changed into a member of the living dead. And, pointedly, it is the child who suffers.

The zombie story is given a different face in Tender as Teeth by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski in which a former zombie who has been cured must deal with her own past as a baby-eating monster. This story is probably the second-best in the book, and deals with the very core of the idea of personal responsibility: could you live with knowing that for a time you were an uncontrollable creature that fed on the flesh of the living, and if you could, how would society react to you. A similar question is raised in The Happy Bird and Other Tales by Rio Youers, a horribly devastating tale of a man who has lost his family to the brutal soldiers of a vicious dictator. In this story, the "zombies" are soldiers who had been given a drug that deadened their humanity so that they could be more pliable tools of oppression. The protagonist, seeking to exact revenge, has captured one and spends much of the story trying to make the almost insensate zombie-soldier feel something, so that he could extract his revenge from something more than a mere automaton. But his own rage has distanced him from his own core of humanity, making him as much a zombie as the dead-eyed soldier he seeks to torment. In the end, he rediscovers his own humanity after reaching past the hatred and anger that has consumed him, and is able to rejoin the human race.

As usual, Orson Scott Card's fiction seems to be infused with his Mormon sensibility, and as a result, Carousel is probably the first Mormon-influenced zombie story. Except it isn't so much a zombie story as a story about what would happen if there was a God who simply gave everyone what they wanted and arranged so our loved ones never died. This is sort of a zombie story, but is mostly just a vehicle for Card to push some fairly odd theology. This is the weakest story in the book, which is unfortunate given that it comes early in the book and is by one of the most prominent big "name" authors who contributed to the collection.

With the exception of the Card story, 21st Century Dead is packed full of strong zombie stories. Some are interesting and inventive. Some are comfortably cliched. Some are bleak and disturbing. Some are twisted and darkly funny. But almost all of them are good, while a few are excellent. There is a little bit of science fiction for the science fiction fan, a little bit of fantasy for the fantasy fan, a little bit of humor for the humor fan, and a whole lot of horror for the horror fan. In the final analysis, 21st Century Dead is a collection that any zombie horror fan will love, and which almost anyone else with an appreciation for genre fiction will enjoy.

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