I just finished devouring – pun intended – Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy. They are, in my mind, best described as zombie-post-apocalyptic-political-action-thrillers. This series rocked my world, and I’m still trying to figure out what Grant’s secret was. Well, okay, I know what her secrets were: great writing, wonderfully unique characters, an awesome conspiracy, action-packed scenes, and really cool pseudo-science (clones, cures for cancer, and zombie grizzly bears, anyone?).
Now, I’m not the only one digging zombies right now. Warm Bodies (a movie based on the YA novel) came out a few months ago, and World War Z is coming out in June. AMC has been getting lots of praise for The Walking Dead, and the number of zombie novels is growing like crazy (check out Tor’s list of their faves here – notice that Grant’s first novel in the series, Feed, is one of them).
But you really know that zombies are popular when the Wall Street Journal publishes a piece about them. In his article, Daniel W. Drezner writes about why we are so into zombie narratives right now:
Zombies thrive in popular culture during times of recession, epidemic and general unhappiness. Traditional threats to U.S. security may have waned, but nontraditional threats assault us constantly. Concerns about terrorism have not abated since 9/11, and cyberattacks have now emerged as a new anxiety. Drug-resistant pandemics have been a staple of local news hysteria since the H1N1 virus swept the globe in 2009. Scientists continue to warn about the dangers that climate change poses to our planet. And if the financial crisis taught us anything, it is that contagion is endemic to the global market system.
Zombies are the perfect metaphor for these threats. As with pandemics and financial crises, they are not open to negotiation. As with terrorism in all its forms, even a small outbreak has the potential to wreak massive carnage.
Drezner goes on to discuss ways in which zombie metaphors have infiltrated our lives – from the CDC to political discourse. The point I found most interesting is his premise that people like to read these kinds of books – and watch these kind of movies – because we want to see human ingenuity, bravery, and strength triumph over seemingly overwhelming odds. It gives us hope for the future and eases our fears. After all, if we can survive the undead, what can’t we overcome?
Aside from reflecting our current concerns as a society, the popularity of zombie novels also reflects the fact that timing matters in writing and publishing. Would these books have sold nearly as well 15 years ago? Maybe, but maybe not. Just as the Harry Potter series came out when the world was craving a new kind of YA novel, and Twilight brought paranormal romance out from its hiding place on the romance shelves and fully into the sci-fi/fantasy genre, the zombie books that have experienced such success over the past handful of years were helped by the timing of their publication. The market was ready.
Unfortunately for those of us who are working on novels of our own, I have yet to find someone who can predict these trends. Moreover, I don’t necessarily want to. I write stories that move me and that I would like to read. Writing something just because I think it will sell well seems like it would suck all of the magic out of the whole thing. However, knowing what’s currently trending does inform my expectations of how hard it will be to stand out. My current WIP is urban fantasy with a female protagonist, which is, unfortunately, becoming a dime a dozen. Knowing that, I focus on what makes my story different as I write it, and I think it helps me create a better narrative.
So, go out and buy/check out some of these awesome zombie stories. Then let me know what you think. Right now, I’m off to wrestle a zombie moose. 😉