Saturday, September 22, 2012

Chauncey DeVega's World of Ghetto Nerds: A Selection From My Novella in Progress "Zombie Lives"

I was able to go to Chicon 7 thanks to the kind fans and boosters of WARN.

When my begging bowl was in hand, I offered a bargain. In exchange for your support, I would offer up a story of both lascivious embarrassment and romantic "epic fail." I would also share parts of a side project I have been working on for fun.

I like to keep my bargains whenever possible. As I mentioned earlier, I have shared portions of this project with a few published fiction writers and other folks that I trust. The response to the sample chapters range from "you got something here that is really good, do x, y, and z," to "not my thing, I don't get speculative fiction or zombie stuff," to "I like this, keep writing, you have enough chapters, and send it off with a pitch/query letter and use the feedback as advice until you get lucky."

At Chicon 7 I had the good fortune to talk to Jack McDevitt. His advice was simple. Don't be afraid. Learn to accept rejection. Listen to trusted friends and others who tell you the truth. He told me directly, in a very kind way, that I already have cashed checks (not enough) for my writing, non-fiction or not, and this means you can do something well enough to get paid by someone. As such, I am already ahead of 90 percent of those other folks who never get a check from anyone.

He asked me, "what do you have to lose?" Not much.

My, much a work in progress, elevator pitch (still too long) is something like this:
Zombie Lives is a work of speculative fiction that is a combination of George Romero meets No Country for Old Men. Zombie Lives is set in the near future where the undead, called "Grabbers," have come to rule most of the world. However, the living have adapted to their existence, residing in fortified cities and communes in relative comfort. 
For most people, the idea that people die and that some return to eat the living is simply a fact of life. However, the vast majority of human beings have never seen a Grabber. As the generations pass, most people become comfortably numb to the fact that they are a minority in the world, forever imperiled.  
Written as a series of interconnected stories, the central conflict in Zombie Lives revolves around how an ensemble of characters, a college aged student, a bounty hunter, a group of constables, and a self-style religious mystic turned street preacher, have come to realize the absurdity of their lives. While they have come to accept the truth--that humans are a minority in a world now ruled by the walking dead--most other people are in denial. 
Ultimately, this culture of denial and lying will destroy them all. The Grabbers are coming, and what were once just phantom bogeymen will soon make themselves all too real for the denizens of the community known as Low Town.
Most of the current books about zombies are all about blood and guts and don't try to use the genre to say anything substantial about our human condition, existential dilemmas, or society at large. Zombie Lives is of course a good old fashioned zombie story where the undead walk the Earth, wreak havoc, but where we, the living, are as always, the real monsters. It is also a meditation on politics, culture, race, and emotion which reflects a political and social moment where citizens have lost faith in government and its ability to solve shared problems.

Have fun at my expense. For obvious reasons, here is just a small excerpt that makes sense on its own, and teases what is to come. If you want more, are curious, have suggestions, do chime in.

Chapter Two: Toro the Constable

Toro knelt on one knee, eyes looking up at the seams of the door. Light crept from out and under them, dust fluttering about. Only five foot six in his biggest and most imposing pair of combat boots, his mom thought it good luck to give him the family name, handed down from her great great grand-mom back in Aztlan to her daughter Kikoko and then all the way to him.

“Mariposa” doesn’t fit too well with boys. And even accounting for the absurdity of a world in which the dead had long ceased dying, being named “butterfly” (even if it was given the masculine edge of "Mariposo") was an indignity that resulted in many a fight and none too few a black eye.

Toro even went by the name Mothra during his teen years (a gender mismatch given that the famed monster was female...but few knew such details); re-christening himself after the great kaiju monster he grew up watching on the old holovids his mom had spoiled him with as a young boy. Mothra only lasted for a few years though, discarded as soon as he left his old clique turned street gang at 18 to move into a new living community with an ailing mom, two younger sisters, a cousin, three very wizened and old, but still quite tough dogs, and one semi-feral cat named Trina.

Thus, Mariposo, a male butterfly, turned Mothra a female kaiju monster, turned Toro a bull, found himself in a household of women.

Toro wondered if Kikoko had infused some secret wisdom in his name. Or maybe it was just a perverse joke? One day he would have to muster the courage to ask her.

Either way, the here and now demanded absolute attention even as Toro’s mind often wandered to different places in the quiet seconds before his unpleasant work called him back to practical Earth.

Toro had done this many times before, but each moment such as this he still fell back on his "real world" training, and the virtual practice he received each day in the Modern Warfare Battlefield combat sim back at the station.

The Constables looked at one another, crouching down, breathing in unison, each with their hand on the shoulder of the officer in front of them.

They could only see each other’s goggles--a motley assortment of colors--adorned with markings and decorations to add some hint of individual personality to otherwise undifferentiated and bulky uniforms, so enveloping the protective clothing was, that the race of its wearer could only be figured out at the mesh seams of the neck or wrist, where a little bit of brown, chestnut, olive, or light beige skin would occasionally peak out, visible only to a quick and keen eye.

Captain Stella’s combat goggles were yellow and decorated with black wasps; Lieutenant Trevor’s were camouflage with a Mickey Mouse charm hanging down around the elastic strap; Sergeant Patel had taken part of the delicate panty of a lover and wrapped it around the bridge of his protective eye wear. Sergeant Toro had a hybrid and interlocking set of white bull horns, Maori and Filipino tribal tattoos, and barbed wire embroidered into his goggle’s black elastic.

The local authorities had been informed that there was an unauthorized religious gathering in this sector of Low Town. By itself, that would not have warranted more than a pat on the back and perhaps a few extra credits in the monthly per diem for the resident snitch if the lead panned out.

In most areas of life, the State frowned upon religion. But, the government also saw religion as a necessary form of relatively benign mass psychosis and self-therapy, one that more often than not kept the peace. And after the first Outbreak in 2015 grew into a pandemic, religion had ebbed and flowed in popularity, but remained, to various degrees, a part of social and political life in the years and decades to follow.

In those first years, tens of millions were attracted to religious fundamentalism as End Times, Judgment Day, and other eschatological fairy tales called to them as a way to make sense of a civilization at its apotheosis. Others fled to atheism or agnosticism figuring that God had fucked humanity, so why give Him or Her or It the satisfaction of their getting on two knees to worship an entity that cared not if they lived or died?

As faiths which emphasize the spiritual over rites of ritual, rules, and structure often do in moments of cataclysmic change, the Buddhists, Whitman Transcendentalists, Protoculturalists, Bahai, Zoroastrians, Jedi, and the radical Wiccan environmentalists somehow found a way to keep hold of their numbers, and in some cases, even grow the ranks during those difficult first years.

And of course, the real crazies strapped bombs to their bodies and killed non-believers in the name of God, politics, and faith, in a holy war jihad. Their respective leaders having reasoned that the rising of the dead was the ultimate sign from Providence to finally begin settling millennia old scores in a 2nd overtime sudden death battle royale between the “great” religions of the world.

A tip about an unauthorized religious meeting was attention getting because the rules governing such matters in an age when dead folks rose from the grave, and actuarials--fancy insurance agents who were really just math geeks--had figured out decades ago that too many people together in one place was just too dangerous.

Bites, and the disease, travel fast.

A version of the multiplicative rule that school-aged children learn--and then conveniently forget later on--applied here. One Grabber becomes two becomes four and so on in ad infinitum. As such, any gathering of more than 10 people, in any given space, for any purpose, had to receive pre-approval from a block captain.

But what did that mean in practice? Were five gatherings of two people plus one in the same room a breach of protocol? Two gatherings of five plus three? In Toro’s mind, the mathematical permutations were clearly not infinite, but they spoke a basic riddle: who decides when enough is enough? And why go through the trouble of not reporting a meeting if you were up to no good? No one is likely to care either way, so why risk getting caught?

In this case, matters quickly became more complicated.

Children and young women in the area had come up missing.

Although people came and went all the time, some migrating to other communities, others wandering out into the wastelands never to be seen again, a few dying of natural causes or somehow getting themselves killed, the weekly census showed a consistent pattern. People were disappearing at a constant rate every so many weeks. A few here, a few there. It was the forced and feigned randomness of the disappearances which made them all the more noticeable.

When the local record keeper for the sector put the data into his computer a clear pattern emerged: on the flickering green magazine screen, crumpled like paper until it was activated and spread out across table or other flat surface, an increasingly small series of concentric probability circles appeared.

Each one narrowed down the disappearances to a three block area.

In a world where reliable sewage systems were long a thing of the past, the Highwood neighborhood of Low Town just stank. It was not the normal stink of shit, piss, and a heavy phlegmatic air that reeked of pollution from cars with broken catalytic converters, burning trash, and methane. No, it was something else.

The cadaver dogs went crazy, yelping and howling when they walked past the old multilevel structure. Something was horribly wrong and amiss. While no Grabbers had been seen in the area, the Constables by habit, and as learned through hard taught lessons, always assumed the worst.

Toro and his team were immediately dispatched. Arriving via a plain, white, battered panel van that was gimmicked to look as though it were part of the local transit service, following the lead of a fully muzzled, and thus quieted cadaver dog, the Constables quickly focused their search on the fifth floor of the Bully Arms.

The Bully Arms was an old apartment building that had been divided and subdivided again and then once more to house many more people than originally intended when it had been built back in the mid 20 teens during President Obama’s third Work Progress Administration program.

She was still a grand old lady, lots of heavy cinder blocks mixed with then state of the art reconstituted plastics and other environmentally friendly materials, put together in an aesthetic reminiscent of the early twentieth century. Time had not been kind to her. The building was now water stained and the outer facade was falling apart.

As the team entered the Bully Arms that late evening it became apparent why a call to the local authorities had not been made days or even weeks earlier. The foul smell at the outside of the building gave way to heavy air that was a mix of cheap patchouli and sandalwood perfume, aromas such as curry and jerk, a smattering of old frying grease, and the essence of soy…along with a healthy dose of mildew.

When the front set of doors opened outward to the street, the Bully Arms would exhale, letting out its stink much to the misfortune of anyone who happened to be walking by.

A person living here would have no choice but to quickly get used to a synergy of odors that would be noxious to any person’s sensibilities, however hardened or unrefined the latter may in fact be.

Stella tapped Toro on the shoulder. She was giving him the signal to go.


Tigs said...

It's a fine start. You need a writers group to help you streamline and to push you in the right direction, but this is a solid early draft.

chaunceydevega said...

@Tigs. Thanks for the overly kind words ;) This is a snippet as you know so we don't get dialogue and there is a bit of exposition/world building. I have three chapters done and am going to take that advice as time permits. One of my friends, a fair reader who has been successful with her fiction said the three together read pretty well and just write up a pitch/query and send it out. I ain't gonna do that for a variety of reasons as you pointed out.

thanks though.

Unknown said...

I'm sorry, Chauncey. Your premise is a good one, but this is damned dull and too self-consciously mullti-cultural. Multi-cultural is GREAT, but this is really heavy-handed. Reading the background of Mariposo made me want to stab the writer for his preciousness.

The prose is overstuffed with detail and parentheticals and pedantic explaiantions. Also, why use words like "multiplicative" and "eschatalogical"? I feel like I'm reading somebody's thesis.

Simplify. Add some dialogue and action. Skip the history lesson. Bring us into the moment and explain the world (and how the world has changed people) through action, not exposition.

chaunceydevega said...

@cw. thanks. that is what i am talking about ;) as i said some folks liked, others said not my thing, others said good, others said this is good, fix that, etc.

as i mentioned earlier this is a few pages of 3 sample chapters. but balancing prose, character, and the like is one of the challenges.

the action, people doing stuff, and the like comes after the break. you are correct though, you don't want to read a 200 page book and have the first 20 pages be exposition. regular folks can't get away with that; famous ones are indulged. this one section is about 4 printed pages out of 90, so i am going to keep cutting it down.

i write non-fiction/cultural essays and the like--as you know--so developing this voice is a challenge i am looking forward to. my goal is to write something that is direct but not dumbed down. certainly not young adult which is all the rage these days. so yes, there will be some language such as that. if a reader doesn't know what "eschatalogical" means the work may not be a good fit. how would you suggest balancing that?

i don't know what self-consciously multicultural means. Is that a parallel with unintentionally eurocentric? re: world building and the history lesson. i hear you.

one of characters is actually reconstructing this history so part of that will move there. but, part of what i want to do is explore that history through the characters and the details of the world they live in and through the exposition when necessary.

but then again, maybe i will stick to writing my graphic novel :)

thanks for the kind and honest insight.

Unknown said...

I'm glad you were okay with the criticism. I guess if you want this to be self-consciously intellectual, then you are moving in the right direction, but the whole explanation of Mariposo's character was a heady mix of pedantry and nerdiness that took me out of the story. Maybe instead of doing that, just have the charcter have a tatoo or a T-shirt with a description that a reader would recognize as Mothra fighting Godzilla or attacking Tokyo, but also explaining that maybe people have a weird idea about the source of the image.

As for word choices, can't you just write "destiny" or "apocolaypse" or "doom" instead of "eschatalogical"?

I was looking for more action that shows how the world has changed, like the vampire novel "The Passage" or "The Reapers are the angels." How to do this?

Start with a scene that is normal in their world but strange, horrifying, or sad in ours---something that shows these people are a bit alien. Use dialogue. Show how they talk and interact. Has the slang changed? How have gender roles shifted? Or not shifted? Show this through action and dialogue.

As for the multi-culturalism---I guess I meant that it felt like the begininning of a video game or a shitty action movie, where all the characters have super-cheesy-ethnic names that are a place holder for character. Here's the Asian! Here's the Latino!

chaunceydevega said...

@CW. Thanks again. I like honest, direct, and substantive feedback on all my work. You never want to be the person who thinks they got something and end up being raggedy and looking like hot garbage when they thought they were gifted cause folks told them so. I am also very hard on myself and will likely take the three chapters cut them down again and then move on to workshop them.

Trust me there is quite a bit of action here, as well as slow meditative sections, and parts where I try to use the character of the college student's thesis as epigraphs which help the reader make sense of this world.

I like the Passage (who doesn't) and the world of Reapers are Angles a good deal. The writing and tone of the latter, even with all the religious stuff going on, is a real joy.

I am trying to walk a line between a world where nothing happens--which is the point except for those in the know--and where there are moments of fear and terror. "Inevitability" is probably a better word for it. That is the existential dilemma. All these people are dead--for the most part--and only a few have realized it.

You are right, lots of what I am doing are explicit winks at certain ghetto nerd geek conventions as a way of playing with those tropes of shitty action movies, overwrought video games and the like. I am very interested in zombies as a genre. As such, some of this work is synthetic but is also trying to make an intervention by telling a good story--we all hope--in a genre that is getting overplayed.

Showing characters doing things, which is how you learn about them, as opposed to saying what they are is always the challenge, no?

As I said earlier, I like playing with different voices and styles of writing as they are all tools in among a collection of weapons you can bring out as necessary and needed. Working on a voice that I am still developing is helpful and an asset long term.