Classic Lit Challenge 4: Pride and Prejudice

After this post I’m expecting hordes of furious Jane Austen fans at my door.

So when I was at the used book sale I spied Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. Of course I’m familiar with Austen. She’s one of the biggies. She basically invented the romance genre. And who doesn’t love the movie Clueless (which is loosely based on Austen’s Emma)?

prideprejudice423x630I’d never read anything by Austen, though I know many writers and readers who practically worship her. Romance isn’t my thing, but not wanting to consider myself a literary snob, I handed over the dollar and set to reading.

When I was younger I had it in my head that I had to finish every book I started. As I got older and time became more precious, I tossed that useless rule. With this literary challenge, though, I told myself I’d at least read until page 50. If I still couldn’t take the torture, I’d tap out then.

For Pride and Prejudice I made it to page 38.

I don’t know what it was exactly that made me quit this book.

Was it the ridiculous, over-the-top language?

Was it the horrible stage direction, which always had me confused as to who was saying what?

Was it the fact that the most interesting scenes were being described off-camera?

Was it that the only character I liked was Mr. Darcy, who is considered the villain (as far as romances go)?

Maybe it was all of those.

I’m guessing our hero Elizabeth Bennet blossoms into a character who is 1) interesting and 2) not annoying, but I didn’t have the patience to wait for her metamorphosis. I also didn’t have the patience for the wide cast of characters whose sole purpose was to gossip and pile on the unnecessary dialogue.

Call me overly proud. Call me prejudiced. But I couldn’t find the charm in Pride and Prejudice.

Maybe I should give Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a shot instead. Who doesn’t love zombies?

Next up: a book that’s the polar opposite of a romance, and one I actually finished.

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.


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.


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.

The Walking Dead: Ecstasy and agony

Walking dead_cast_wallpaper

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.


Read this book: Black Moon

Have you ever had a wicked bout of insomnia? It’s near dawn and you haven’t been able to sleep, no matter what you do. The world outside your bedroom is fast asleep, but not you. And slowly, you begin to hate all these lucky sleepers as your mind jumps and skitters.

Imagine if that insomnia lasted not one night, but several days — and then endlessly. What would you do? How much of your sanity would remain?

Black MoonThis is the premise of Kenneth Calhoun’s debut novel Black Moon. An unexplained insomnia plague has struck. People are becoming sleepless zombies, losing their minds as they wander the landscape. A lucky few, however, can still sleep. Only they’re targeted by the angry hordes.

Black Moon is a new take on the zombie craze that refuses to die out. It includes several zombie tropes that we all know so well by now — the ravaged landscape, the plucky heroes targeted, the dystopian gloom. The fact that these “zombies” are still alive is a fresh twist.

This strong premise, and not the characterization or plotting, is what carries this book, and it’s unfortunate. Black Moon is a good book. It could have been a great one.

Time for the breakdown. First, the good:

— As I said, the premise is strong. It taps into a nearly universal experience. Most of us have been frustrated by not being able to fall asleep. And we have also had that spacey, drunk-like feeling of being sleep deprived. Black Moon raises an interesting question: how much of our daily life is simply a valiant effort to hold back the unconscious wildness that streaks through our minds at any given moment? Our dream worlds, like our inner monologues, are free flowing and chaotic. Which is our more natural state?

— Apocalyptic books can take one of two paths: the knowledgeable official (government, scientist, etc), who works to solve the problem, or the ordinary Joe/Jane who struggles to survive. I prefer the latter. Black Moon shifted between several characters — average people all struggling to cope. This book provided no answers, and it didn’t even try to. I appreciated that.

— At around 300 pages, Black Moon is short. It is a quick and thrilling read. And Calhoun can write quality prose.

And the not so good:

— Plotting is not one of the stronger suits of Black Moon. We shift between character viewpoints, which isn’t a problem, except when the shifts jump around, leaving the reader confused as to what happened and why. You may find yourself backtracking several times, and not in a good way. Calhoun had the room to explore several scenes more fully, and for some reason, he chose not to.

— The characters were a mixed bag. Biggs is one of the POV characters. He can sleep, and he searches for his insomniac wife, Carolyn. All the while, we get their back story as a couple. While I could relate to Biggs through his interactions with his dying world, I could not relate to the wife he described. I didn’t like her at all, and didn’t care. Several of the characters seemed like cardboard cut-outs, not flesh-and-blood people.

These drawbacks were not insignificant. Luckily, the premise is strong enough to counterbalance these flaws. Ultimately, Black Moon is a fun book. It’s a new take on the zombie craze that will keep you up at night as you race to finish it.

Read this story: Don’t Eat Cat

Not too long ago, short stories were relegated to specialty magazines or book-length collections. Want to read a single story? You had to buy the book or subscribe to the magazine.

Now, thanks to e-books, stories of any length now have a home, and this has led to a rebirth of the short story as a form of art and entertainment. I’m happy as a writer — I’ve been on a novella-writing kick lately. And I’m glad as a reader too — sometimes you don’t want to invest too much time in a story. Sometimes you want to dive in, read to the end, and walk away, satisfied.

Satisfied is what I felt after finishing Jess Walter’s zombie-themed story Don’t Eat Cat.

Don't Eat CatFirst, a warning to zombie aficionados. Don’t Eat Cat is a zombie tale in the loosest sense. His zombies aren’t the mindless, swarming re-animated dead. They’re self-aware — victims of a party drug that carries zombie-like side effects, such as white-to-translucent skin, mental numbness, and a taste for living flesh, especially small animals (hence Don’t Eat Cat).

Second, for the animal lovers out there, no animals are actually eaten in the course of this story. So don’t let the title dissuade you.

The plot: following a confrontation with a zombie barista in a Starbucks, Owen decides to seek out his ex-girlfriend, Marci, who willingly consumed the drug and left two years earlier before the zombie effects set in. That’s it. Not too much happens in this story.

This is not a criticism. Walter packs his pages with humor and tragedy. In a limited word count, Walter deftly creates a world of the near-future that is overloaded, cynical, and nearly broken. Walter’s prose is clean, lean and fluid.

His protagonist is a good traveling companion. From the opening scene in the zombie-staffed Starbucks to the sudden end, Owen is impatient, moody, and thoroughly relatable. We know just enough about him to willingly go along for the ride.

But Don’t Eat Cat is not perfect (I have yet to find a story or book that is). These imperfections can be simply summed up: the story is too short. I wanted more. I wanted more of Owen and Marci. I wanted more of the hilariously nightmarish world. I wanted more of the negative effects of the zombie/humans. And when the story ended abruptly, I was left wishing there was more to come.


Apocalypse obsessions

Why are we so fascinated by end-of-the-world stories? It’s personal.


Sci-fi is filled with apocalyptic stories, from asteroid flicks like Armageddon to zombie/plague movies such as 28 Days Later. And this end-of-world obsession is nothing new. Think back 2000 years ago to a book in the bible titled Revelation. What’s it about? Basically, the end of the world.

And now sci-fi themed website has a list of the most plausible ways that the world, as we know it (meaning human civilization) might end.

Their list:

1) pandemic

2) asteroid/comet impact

3) large igneous province (not a volcano, but a crack in the earth that oozes lava and toxic gases

4) climate change

5) radiation disaster, either nuclear war or a gamma ray burst from space

6) an invasive species that upsets the natural ecosystem and ruins our food supply

7) a black swan, or, something we have no way of accounting for (think The Terminator movies)

The point is we love to think about the world’s end. But why? I believe it’s because our world will truly end one day (at least on Earth). We will all die. That fact is inescapable, and it’s burdensome to think about it every day. Still, it’s there, and it seeps out into mass culture through armageddon stories.

We can’t change this fact, but at least we can have fun along the way.


Helix: the autopsy

This unexpected SyFy show proved to be worth the journey.


When I first saw the promos for the SyFy channel’s original series Helix I was intrigued. The premise: a group of CDC scientists travel to a remote arctic lab following a zombie-like outbreak. Initially what drew me were the zombies. What turned me off was the soap opera subplot: team leader Alan Farragut is joined by ex-wife Julia Walker, who slept with his brother Peter, who coincidentally is one of the infected.

It turns out I got it all wrong, and that was probably intentional on the part of the writers. (WARNING: spoilers ahead)

About the zombies. They were not zombies. By definition, zombies are the reanimated dead. Or, at the very least, they are not able to be cured, only destroyed. The writers kept us vague about the nature of the illness throughout, and once we saw the cure take effect, then I knew that these weren’t zombies. Instead they were a hive-like virus. Still damned scary.


It turns out this whole zombie plot was nothing more than a MacGuffin. Simply put, a MacGuffin is a plot device that instigates the action, but in reality bears little importance to the story as a whole. One of the most famous MacGuffins is in Pulp Fiction. What was in that briefcase? We never knew, and its identity was irrelevant. Likewise, in Helix, the outbreak was a larger distraction from what the story was really about.

And what was it about? That’s hard to tell. On one level it was all about Julia Walker, the pouty, surly cheating scientist. She became the focal point of the storyline. And it worked. Julia was complex enough to be fully believable. She, along with Sergio Balleseros, a good/bad guy, were some of the more interesting characters in a show that suffered from weak characterizations.

Not only was Helix about Julia and her relationship with her estranged father Dr. Hatake, and missing mother (who showed up all too briefly), it was also about the cryptic Ilaria Corporation, which may not really be a corporation, but a collection of 500 immortals. It turns out that Ilaria, and not the outbreak, is the true focus of this show.


So what does any of this have to do with that viral outbreak in an arctic lab? I’m not entirely sure. They hinted at population control, but that doesn’t explain the hive-mind of the infected.

Too many questions. Previously I doubted Helix would be renewed. It looks like I was wrong. In 2015 these questions may be answered (or not).

In the meantime, kudos for the writers for crafting a tightly wound puzzle of a show. There were no flashbacks, each episode consisted of a single day, and it was filmed in such a tight, claustrophobic way to keep you hooked. And it was not afraid of science. It was well worth my time.

Helix: the last spasm?

The SyFy original was more than I thought it would be, but will the lack of character (and viewers) be its downfall?


One episode left for SyFy’s 13-episode sci-fi series Helix. No word yet on whether it will be renewed. Knowing SyFy, we may never see Helix again, which would be a shame.

When Helix was first launched, I was intrigued. Was it a zombie story? A medical procedural? Knowing it was produced by Battlestar Galactica‘s Ronald D. Moore was a plus, but so what?

Over the past 12 episodes I’ve been surprised. It was not at all what I expected. The writers of Helix have seeded intrigue steadily and consistently, with more than enough plot twists to keep me coming back.

–About those “zombies” – I would liken them more to vampires in the sense that the infected don’t die and come back to life, but turn. And what do they turn into? A sort of hive collective. Think bees, or ants – parts of a whole. A snippet of dialogue explained that the virus appears to be acting in concert, across the bodies of the infected. Kind of like Star Trek‘s Borg collective. It’s a cool twist on an old trope. I loved when one of the infected spit a mouthful of blood into the Keep Calm mug.


–The writers have built layers of mythology, the most notable being the identity of the company that is funding Dr. Hatake’s research: the Ilaria Corporation. Their rep was Constance Sutton, overacted by Jeri Ryan, who didn’t fare too well against a desperate Hatake. Now we know that Ilaria is populated by 500 “immortals.” Like Hatake. And… his daughter.

–And that would be Julia Walker. Sure, it was a soap opera move reminiscent of Star Wars, but I bought it. The reveal of Julia Walker as Hatake’s daughter was telegraphed, and it made sense in terms of Hatake’s motivations and actions. It explained his preoccupation with her, as well as the fact that he rescued her from the infected-zombielike fate by making her “immortal” too.


–But what about this immortality? Is it a fact? Why? Where did it come from? And what does it have to do with the Narvik A virus, the one that’s creating the hive-minded people? Could it be that Ilaria and the 500 want to rid the world of those annoying mortals forever? But is that the best way?

–Speaking of pesky mortals, we’ve got a mixed bag of semi-developed characters, which is Helix‘s glaring weakness. Crusading CDC researcher Sarah Jordan has been on death’s door for a few episodes now, and honestly I don’t care. Peter Farragut was healed, but he was more interesting as a viral. Alan Farragut is noble but cardboard. The only characters who have moderately interested me are Julia Walker, Hatake, his stolen/adopted son Daniel, and the evil-but-trying-to be good Sergio Balleseros. Compare Helix to Lost: Lost made you care about the characters, whatever nonsensical craziness happened on that island. Helix struggles to make us care.


–But then there’s the storytelling. While Helix fails in characterization, it excels in plot and pacing. It is consistent in giving me just enough to hook me. The plot twists keep me off-balance. The visuals are stilted and creative. The music is moody and disturbing. Helix is a quickly moving story. Each episode spans single day, and it’s told with no flashbacks. The structure is bound and wound.

There is something subtly different about Helix. It’s not perfect, but few TV shows are. There’s only one episode left, I suspect not just for this season but for good. If this is the case, then Helix was a great experiment in tight, daring storytelling.