Why We Love Zombies

Photo by Jean-Philippe Delberghe on Unsplash

It’s been building for years. A zombie apocalypse was getting ever more popular in movies, games and books, long before Trump and the pandemic. It’s not just zombies, of course: we’ve been lapping up every kind of dystopian future, from The Hunger Games to Children of Men and The Handmaid’s Tale. Why do they appeal to us more than any utopian vision? The answer lies with the zombies.

However good some other apocalyptic renditions may be, zombies are killing it. It’s not just luck and Milla Jovovich that have enabled the Resident Evil movies to gross over US$1.2 billion. The Zombies’ global success reflects our real world social divides, in which we have increasingly come to regard other tribes of humanity as mindless sub-humans.

We want to blow them away, by the thousands and millions. The Walking Dead expresses this perfectly, in the callousness of the survivors towards those they slaughter. After all, they’re already dead, aren’t they? It’s not like they’re human.

No, they’re Trump supporters. Or the Liberal Elite, or Commies, or Zionists, or Muslim Fundamentalists, or LGBTQVWXYZ…  It’s endless. We’ve segmented humanity so far that every other group can be categorised and dismissed as sub-human objects of hate. The idea that every person is equal has been totally subverted. We now fear the others even more than our primitive ancestors did.

Violent video games that objectify the enemy can tell us what’s really going on here. They provide the superficial catharsis and ultimate sense of futility that I first recognised while watching Aliens. That wonderful rollercoaster of a movie revealed a dreadful truth: no matter how many you kill, they just keep coming.

That captures another aspect of our present malaise: the feeling of impotence. The world is going to shit all around us and there’s nothing we can do. So what the hell, let’s at least take as many of them with us as we can. It all turns to rage: the 28 Days Later rage that boils inside us. That rage is turning us all into killer zombies in real life, even as we fight against them in our fantasy lives.

How can we not love zombies? They are us: and the apocalypse is of our own making. Pass me another ammo clip, I’m almost out…

Unless we can find a cure. Something to inoculate the whole world, starting with ourselves. Some natural or God-given remedy that has been with us all along. And then of course we will have to persuade everyone to take it.

After the Event, my novel-in-progress, sees the anti-vaxxers fight desperately to avoid being infected with something that will cure their hate. Their excuse is that it’s an alien virus but that’s not their real reason, just as we all know the cure to what ails us and yet we still fight against it. We would rather kill or die than be cured. You can lead a human to the cup of life but you can’t make them drink.

Upgrade Yourself

Davros, inventor of the Daleks. Not all upgrades are a good idea.

If you could upgrade your brain, what would you change?

In my forthcoming novel, an alien virus infects humanity, with an effect rather like uploading a new software version to our brains. Memory and personality are retained – we are still ourselves – but some of our capabilities are upgraded. The virus is benign: but what should it improve, to optimise us?

I would not rush for higher IQ, which is a two-edged sword. Even when not socially dysfunctional, people with MENSA level IQs walk a tightrope between being thought arrogant and wearily helping others catch up. Besides, there was a good reason for humans to evolve with varied attributes. Any upgrade must preserve variety, or lose a key advantage of the human tribe.

There are of course many types (and definitions) of intelligence. Which would you boost in yourself? Empathy and social intelligence? Sporting intelligence and the rewards it brings? Artistic intelligence and the resulting creativity?

Or would it be intelligence at all? Perhaps you’d prefer to improve some other aspect of your mental capability, like memory (but would you actually want total recall?) Would you do a Solomon and choose wisdom? Even my clever aliens would find it tough to deliver that. How about greater sensory perception? In his book Life 3.0, Max Tegmark suggests that AI-enhanced brains could vastly broaden our experiences by processing data from sensors covering e.g. more of the electro-magnetic spectrum.

In fact the electronic upgrading of our brains has already begun. Elon Musk has made characteristically bold pronouncements, on using electronic implants not only to help repair brain damage but also for communicating wirelessly without speech. This raises the prospect of human interactions becoming universal, with inbuilt language translation programs.

Any development of telepathy raises profound questions about how far we want to go. I am too individualistic to willingly merge into a hive mind. But a cloud mind, perhaps… provided we can choose what to upload. My best thoughts I want to share with the world; my worst I want to delete unseen.

Yet my alien upgrades target something different. By enhancing our ability for objective self-criticism, they improve our competence and give us a higher level of self-awareness. We need this to combat the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby people with low ability in a task think they’re doing great.

In contrast, competent people are stern critics of their own work. That’s such a key quality for a writer that I’m probably programmed to pick it out. Even more than criticism from others, it enables writers to improve: and it underpins good and bad performance in everything from driving a car to being president.

So my choice for an upgrade is self-awareness. It’s an ability that cuts across all others, preserving the variety of the human tribe in all other respects and boosting performance in most of them.

That an alien virus might do this for us is wishful thinking: but AI may get there before we do. The ultimate choice we face may be about upgrading ourselves into a hybrid form, before autonomous AI outstrips us.

If we go hybrid, how do we avoid a split between those who want to upgrade and those who don’t? In my novel, that leads to civil war. Obviously it’s analogous to what is happening right now, in the growing war between those who revel in their ignorance and those who recognise their faults and wish to improve. In the book, The New Enlightenment wins. In reality, it hangs in the balance.