Tracking the zombie outbreak

Who doesn’t love a good zombie story? I know, not everyone does but I like to pretend they do. From George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to the AMC channel’s The Walking Dead, zombies have been a staple of the horror genre for half a century, with no sign of them being killed off anytime soon.

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But who knew that zombies could be a topic worthy of honest-to-goodness scientific inquiry? I sure didn’t. I was wrong.

A team of researchers from Cornell University used a combination of US Census data and statistical probabilities regarding disease outbreaks, coupled that with some zombie lore, and created an interactive map that allows you and me to watch our own little zombie outbreak as it filters across the US.

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The map, which you can find here, lets us control a few of the parameters to make it interesting:

–how easy or hard it is to kill zombies

–how fast the zombies move

–where the outbreak originates

I tried a couple of simulations, and watched as a chilling red crept across the map. for both simulations, I had the outbreak start in Miami, because all the weird stuff happens in Florida.

In simulation 1, I had slow-moving zombies that were relatively easy to kill. While the zombies zipped up the east coast of Florida, it took them a full 16 days to conquer Florida, and after a month, they were still bogged down in the deep south. The zombies2takeaway? Under these conditions humans would have a good chance of surviving — the threat could conceivably be contained.

Then I tried a quicker, nastier simulation, with faster zombies that were harder to kill. Again, I started in Miami. And the results were scarier, at least for those of us on the East Coast. By the second day Florida was completely overrun. After 4 days the south was gone. On day 5, zombies were attacking New Orleans and the Midwest. Day 6: Washington DC, Baltimore were decimated, followed quickly by Philadelphia, and as the day ended, New York City fell victim, with Chicago, Houston and Detroit next to fall.

The good news? The outbreak had a hard time spreading through the rural areas of the Western United States. So if you want to survive the zombie apocalypse, go west.

Genre TV: a golden age or too much of a good thing?

It is a sad fact that there are too many great books in the world, of all genres, that I will never have time to read. I’m sure that I’m missing out on some life-changing classics, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

Star TrekWhen it comes to TV, though, there used to be a time when you could be up on all the great TV shows. For fans of all things sci-fi/supernatural/horror like myself, it wasn’t that hard, because there were so few TV shows that had a sci-fi or supernatural theme. Back in the 1950s you had The Twilight Zone and in the 1960s came The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and in England, Doctor Who. Along the way there were a smattering of other TV shows, notably the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the ’90s, but with only a handful of networks (and the BBC in England) the options were severely limited.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

That’s all changed. Now there seems to be a new network popping up every week, along with new TV shows. When Lost premiered, it reinvigorated the genre by making it commercially and critically viable. As flawed as Lost was, the emmy-winning series showed the powers that be that genre shows could make money and win awards.

Lost

Since then, there’s been an explosion of genre shows. A few decades ago, who would have predicted that two of the most hyped television shows would include dragons and zombies? These two shows, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are worldwide cultural events. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead bring more than just supernatural/fantastical/horror elements: they have high production values, are well acted, and have great writing.

Walking Dead

And these are just two of the latest and greatest. The past couple of decades have given us so many great genre shows, from SyFy’s Farscape and the Battlestar Galactica reboot, to BBC’s relaunched Doctor Who and BBC America’s Orphan Black. I should be happy, right?

Orphan Black Tatiana Maslany

In a way, I’m not. There are SO MANY genre shows out there I can’t keep up. And neither can the people who are writing them. The Walking Dead has given us the derivative Z Nation. The second season of SyFy’s Helix was a mess (a glorious, batshit crazy mess, but still a mess). And Netflix’s Hemlock Grove was half-baked camp. We’ve got a glut of genre shows out there, some of which should have never been made, and others that could have used a little more seasoning.

helixNot to mention that I don’t have the time to watch the vast majority. I’d love to watch The Strain, and there’s a new Salem TV show with Lucy Lawless that looks interesting. But between work, writing, play, family, how could I possibly fit all these shows into my life?

Maybe Hollywood needs to scale back a little — if not in the number of shows, then at least in the number of episodes. In the UK, it’s a common practice for TV shows to be short runs. Each season is perhaps six episodes, and the TV shows only run for a few seasons, if that. What you get is concise storytelling that does not require a lifetime commitment of the viewer. I’d fully support this idea; even the best shows suffer from episode bloat and could use some trimming (I’m looking at you, Walking Dead).

It Follows: hype and (no) story

I’m a sucker for a good horror movie. Give me some chills and thrills, but not too much gore, and I’m into it. but good horror movies are hard to find. Too often the thrills are just obvious and trite. Every scary story has seemingly been told.

it-follows-movie-posterThat’s why when I caught word of the new horror film It Follows, I was excited. io9.com, one of my go-to websites, called it absolutely must-see horror flick. They gushed over this movie so much (as did other media outlets) that I couldn’t wait to see it. So I forked over $14.50 and went.

First, the premise. Set in a typical middle America suburb (in Michigan), 19-year-old Jay (played by Maika Monroe) is dating a mysterious guy named Hugh (played by Jake Weary). After they have sex for the first time, he ties her up and tells her that he’s passed on a curse to her. A mysterious, slow-walking demon-like creature that can take the form of any human will follow her, and if it touches her, she will die. If she dies, then the curse will revert back to Hugh. The only way she can survive is to pass the curse on by having sex with someone else.

A killer premise, right? But premise doesn’t equal plot.

Before I deconstruct the hype, I’ll talk about what works.

It Follows is beautifully shot. It comes off like an expertly made indie flick. the imagery, from dull suburbia to decaying Detroit, are all lush and inviting.

–The soundtrack is both jarring and creepy. It Follows is scored by Disasterpiece, and it is filled with sudden electronic bursts, thumping synth beats, terror and pounding hearts gone ragged.

–The cast is generally appealing. This movie is not filled with the too-pretty Hollywood types we’re used to seeing. They’re good looking enough to be believable, and the actors all do fine jobs.

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–The pace of the movie is steady. I never felt bored or hurried.

–There were some genuinely creepy elements. The way the creature would stalk Jay was unsettling, and it stayed with me long after the movie ended.

–Early in It Follows, after Jay is first infected, she is scarred by the fact that Hugh attacked her and tied her up. The actor who plays Jay relayed the shame and horror of that all-too-real occurrence in a way that left me shaken.

it follows jay

But while watching the movie I was acutely aware of the fact that while the premise was strong, and the production was excellent, the plot was thin. Many horror movies fail when it comes to crafting a compelling narrative. Too often the movies simply turn into repetitive scenes of the hero trying to elude or battle the monster, a back-and-forth that just ends suddenly, leaving the viewer unsatisfied. It Follows fell into this trap.

Part of the problem was that the characters were underdeveloped. It took me a good 45 minutes before I realized that the blond girl’s name was Jay — and she’s the main character! There is no backstory, and the movie suffers as a result.

Then there’s the theme. All horror movies have a theme, a primal fear that the writer and director exploits. For It Follows, it was clearly sex. The curse is passed on through sex. But this is a well-worn trope that has almost become a cliche. In my opinion, the writers missed a great opportunity to offer a twist on this. As I said earlier, I was moved by Jay’s traumatized reaction to her attack. It was real and visceral. What would have It Follows been like if they explored the theme of sexual trauma?

Maika Monroe and Jake Weary in It Follows

One of the most compelling scenes is when Jay and her sister and friends track down Hugh, the one who passed the curse along to her. The group sits in the grass as Hugh explains what happened to him. Rather than a villain, Hugh came off as a tortured, terrified soul. I couldn’t help but wonder what this movie would have been if it had spent more time on the characters of Jay and Hugh, and explored the repercussions of their sexual/relational traumas. There were also hints of a Freudian/Oedipal undercurrent, as the creature takes the form of parents of two of the characters. But this was too fleeting to leave much of an impression.

I wish that the writers had gone through a few more drafts. This could have been a truly great horror movie. As it stands, I’m going to buck the hype. It Follows, while well made, is not a brilliant horror film, and not one of the best of the decade. It is well made, chilling, but ultimately unsatisfying. Watch it on Netflix, and save your $14.50.

Read this book: Rendezvous With Rama

The beauty of fiction is that when it’s done right, it is timeless. Think of books ranging from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled noir novels. Both writers are coming from very different worlds, yet their works contain a human element that transcends their eras.

Science fiction writers including Philip K. Dick, Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, and Ray Bradbury also transcend not only their genres, but the times in which they lived and wrote.

RamaAnother writer to add to that list would be Arthur C. Clarke. I started reading him early, but somehow I missed Rendezvous With Rama.

This book is brilliant in the sense that although it was written in the early 1970s, it reads pretty fresh to someone living in 2015. What it lacks is the modern trend for hyper plotting (yes, there is too much of a good thing, in my view). What contains is a blueprint for hard sci-fi done right.

The basic plot: in 2131, an erratic asteroid is detected by astronomers, This asteroid, named Rama, turns out to be not an asteroid but a spacecraft of some sort. The manned ship Endeavour, helmed by Bill Norton, is sent to approach Rama with the intent of studying it. What they find is an immense, mysterious craft, mind-bogglingly large and packed with unexplained features.

If there is one fault with Rendezvous With Rama, it would be that the characterizations are on the thin side. But Rama is the main character, not Bill Norton or his fellow explorers. And Clarke makes Rama shine. What he gives us is a beautiful portrayal of a ship waking up. Clarke deftly describes the many facets of Rama, always giving just enough information to keep the pages turning.

rendezvous with rama

Surprisingly, Rendezvous With Rama doesn’t come off as dated in any significant sense. There’s ethnic diversity, though he never lingers long on any one character to develop this further.that seem even more ahead of our times. For instance, Clarke describes a stable three way marriage between two men and a woman.

Aside from rendering Rama beautifully, Clarke also shows us a human race that has colonized not only the moon and Mars, but also Mercury and the outer moons of Jupiter and Saturn. He explains these societies briefly, though complete enough to paint a vivid picture.

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Rendezvous With Rama is simple in the best sense. It is a timeless adventure tale that will fill you with wonder. Check it out.

Designer humans: the future is almost here

Some sci-fi tropes seem too far-fetched for reality, until science catches up. Take the film Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law, set in a world where genetically approved people were given a higher Gattaca Jude Lawstatus. When the movie came out, the idea of designer babies was bizarre. How could such a thing be done, technically?

But now we’re on the verge of designer babies becoming a reality, and not everyone is eager for this to happen.

What do I mean by designer babies? Manipulating DNA to either enhance favorable qualities, or delete some bad genes though a process called gene editing. This could be good. Think of all the heritable diseases we could get rid of. Once we snip them from the gene pool, they’d be gone from that genetic line forever. An embryo that had its genes for a deadly disease extracted would never pass those genes on to future generations.

But there’s the flip side. What could we do to enhance humans? Super strength? Super intelligence? Evolution works by filtering out the bad traits and promoting the good traits. With this gene editing technique, we could make humans a whole lot better. Evolution put in the hands of man. Think of Star Trek and the genetically enhanced supervillain Khan.

Benedict Cumberbatch

And that’s what scientists are afraid of, so much so that they’re calling for a moratorium on using these amazing techniques on humans. I suppose their thinking is that if we can manipulate genes, we can create supermen, or monsters.

Personally, I don’t see the problem. Not right now, anyway. The truth is there is a whole hell of a lot we don’t know about the human genome. Scientists have not found a gene (or set of genes) that correlate with intelligence. There’s also the problem of junk DNA — strands of genes whose function scientists don’t understand. And also epigenetics: the strange phenomenon where environmental factors can change your genetics, and pass down these changes to your children and grandchildren. Right now we wouldn’t be able to do much with this gene-editing technology.

I say let’s keep exploring. Welcome to the brave new world.

Mars Alive!

If I had a hundred lives and the corresponding years, I’d spend a chunk on space travel. Can you imagine the disorienting feeling of stepping foot on another planet? I can’t but I would like to.

Mars is one of the planets on that list. Well, there aren’t that many viable options right now. Venus is a hot mess, Saturn and Jupiter are too gassy, and who would ever want to go to a place named Uranus? Mars is the best bet of a bad lot. But it is dry and barren. As it turns out, it might not always have been the case for the Red Planet.

Mars ocean

Those brilliant scientists at NASA have determined that Mars once had an ocean — a deep ocean — that covered nearly half the planet. This means it was warm enough for life (meaning us), and it may have actually been home to life.

I’m not one who thinks that Earth alone is the be-all and end-all of life. I do believe that life is special and rare, though. Could this mean that our next door neighbor was teeming with life?

Possibly. If the NASA scientists are right, then there was liquid water—a prerequisite for life—and time enough for life to develop. What that life on Mars would have looked like is anyone’s guess.

A quick and dirty guide to the YA novel

My friend Angela sent me this link some time back and it cracked me up. A young, enterprising writer named Randall Knox broke down the YA novel. His post, How to Write a Shitty YA Novel, is a classic.

Katniss_EverdeenNow don’t get me wrong. I love YA. The Hunger Games was great (even though book 3 faltered, with Katniss continually running to the closet to hide) and Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy is one of my favorites. Ness created a vivid, unique world.

But Knox’s list takes sharp aim at the tropes that plague YA novels. For example, of the protagonist, he says:

“Your main character needs to be flat and uninteresting. Save your really good and compelling quirks and nuances for your side characters, because you’ll need those in order to justify their existence in the story.”

As for plot, he writes:

“Along the way, show your protagonist going from childish to slightly less childish. That’s what we call character growth. It’s not actually, because the protagonist isn’t taking stock of his or her life, looking at the world through any lens but his or her own, or really showing any semblance of self-awareness, but the act of becoming slightly less annoying will stand in for that reasonably well.”

And he touches on the beauty of emotional manipulation:

“The world must be on the brink of destruction, every love must be the greatest love of all, and every character must be willing to pay the greatest sacrifice–except for the protagonist, because he or she is a boring, selfish asshole, remember?”

Check it out. It’s a fun read. Now I have to get back to rewriting my YA book.

The Walking Dead: Ecstasy and agony

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I’m late to The Walking Dead. It’s not that I don’t like zombies — I do, ever since I watched Night of the Living Dead as a five year old. But there are so many shows out there, as well as an endless supply of zombie-themed shows and books. When it came to The Walking Dead, I just couldn’t be bothered.

But I decided to binge watch the show last Thanksgiving, and just before Christmas I caught up. (Part Walking Dead Castof that time was spent in bed with a fever — zombie shows make for surreal fever dreams). My verdict? The Walking Dead does several things great:

–This show manages to put a fresh spin on the beaten-to-death zombie trope. How? By focusing on the nuts and bolts of survival in a slow-moving apocalypse. Zombies are only one danger. Other humans are nearly as bad (hell, they’re sometimes worse).

–Rick Grimes (as played by Andrew Lincoln) is a hero who is both resolute and plagued by doubt. He is human and relatable. This is a tricky mix that the writers, and Lincoln, pull off.

–With its ensemble, revolving cast, its characterizations can be uneven. Some have remained cardboard over several seasons (I’m looking at you, Glenn and Maggie). but then we get amazing characters like Michonne. Michonne petsShe will be remembered as one of the iconic horror characters decades from now. And then there’s Daryl, who has been consistently bad-ass, and consistently compelling. Finally, there’s Carol, who has morphed from a mousy abused woman to a woman with a backbone of steel. Carol has seen the worst of life and she has learned what it takes to survive in this horrific world.

But… The Walking Dead, like Lost, is one of those maddening TV shows that is blessed with brilliance and plagued by arrogance. This show is great, and the writers know it, which trips them up.

Take the episode “The Grove” from season 4. Carol and Tyreese are holed up in an idyllic country cottage with two young sisters. As often happens on this show, things go south. Way south. This episode was sharp and smart and beautiful. It was gut-wrenching and caught me off-guard. It was not a fast-paced episode — The Walking Dead often walks very slowly. But it was one of the most jarring hours of television I’ve seen.

And then The Walking Dead serves up an episode like “Them,” the latest in current season 5. In “Them,” the gang is reeling from the deaths of two beloved members. They’re wandering, starving, thirsty, and trailed by ambling zombies. And they have angst. And doubt. Basically nothing much of note happens for most of this episode, except for our heroes acting out in small, supposedly symbolic ways. Plus, we get a perverse motivational speech from Rick that is about three seasons too late in coming.The writers were aiming for deep symbolism and small epiphanies. They missed. Instead we got an hour of pouting and navel gazing.

Still, the worst episode of The Walking Dead is better than 99% of other TV shows. Here’s hoping the writers don’t repeat mistakes like this. Please — give us more ecstasy and spare us the agony.

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