Friday, 10 October 2014

Why I Won't Survive the Zombie Apocalypse

My name is Steve Cotterill and I will not survive the zombie apocalypse. Despite what an online test
says (Play Buzz's quiz reckons I would survive for a year), and despite the fact that I know enough about zombies to survive, more than they ever seem to in zombie films anyway: the odds of my turning into zombie chow are pretty high in the unlikely case of an outbreak of a revenant pandemic.

This is why.

Warning, spoilers ahead.

Before we go further I would like to clarify what I mean by ‘zombie apocalypse’. I am assuming a situation where the undead are everywhere, where government has been rendered pointless and the armed services are seriously hampered by their own people turning zombie. A complete breakdown in other words, with a global emphasis that means no chance overseas aid.

This means I am going against the grain of a lot of the pieces I have read or seen, where it is assumed that some sort of authority remains and that with manufacturing and the army more or less intact order can be restored. That may be an outbreak or epidemic, it is not an apocalypse. An apocalypse would mean everything we know changes and we have to rewrite the book we live by from page one. Playing X-Box with your zombie mate is not something you could do... if only because there would be no electricity.

Anyway, back to my little tale of woe.

Realistically, I am a white Caucasian male in my late thirties. I do not exercise apart from for walking. I am not strong or fit. I live in a city and even though I can reach fields in about half an hour to an hour of walking, everybody else is going to be doing that so it’s not a fool proof survival tactic. Even if I were to get outside the city I would have to come back in to gather food. In fact I’d have to stock up on supplies before I went south into Worcestershire: I do not have canned food, or an axe for chopping wood. In fact I do not have any of the basic tools I would need to even set up a basic camp site (humans start to forget skills if we do not use them for ten days and I have not been camping since I was a teenager). So I would have to go into the city in order to get what I needed to get safely out again anyway.

This is the tragedy of modern civilisation, arguably of all civilisation. We can go to the gym all we want, diet and train but unless you're willing to work out the way athletes do the fact is that in a Darwinian fashion you're not going to be a survivor. Our marvellous creations that keep us warm, light our work and entertain us only serve to divorce from nature and lessen our chances of survival in the worst case scenario.

Memo to self: get fit.

The alternative way to find food, foraging in the countryside, is where the first of the non-zombie issues comes up. I am lost when it comes to knowing what is safe to eat and cannot tell a deathcap from a mushroom that will just be good to eat. I am too soft hearted to kill cute fluffy animals and too squeamish actually skin and gut them to be ready for food (the kid in Biology that went green with nausea during the 'how the human body works' classes; that's me). I worry if one of my cats is out when I come down to serve their breakfast for goodness sake: tough minded individual I am not.

I suspect a lot of the enthusiasm for the zombie apocalypse stems from a vision we have of supermarkets stocked with free food, without realising that everyone will be stripping them bare and that the vast majority of produce won’t keep. And when humans abandon a place, nature moves in.

Within weeks supermarkets will transform into havens for rats, flies and other things that humans, rightly, like to keep at arm’s length. How long would it take for animals, abandoned in the rush to the countryside, to turn feral? How long before humans were just another thing for them to hunt? There are already news stories about dogs attacking children, and as the recipient of two dog bites in my life from supposedly docile dogs, I can envisage the old instincts reasserting themselves all too easily.

Canned food would become the main staple of our diets and as a result, carrying weight becomes an issue. With petrol going off after three weeks, cars would become little more than convenient sources of metal, if a way to break them up and turn them into something useful can be found. In the search for food this limits the range I could travel and the amount I could carry. Suddenly the prospect of finding food becomes not a ‘go once and stock up’ but the more daunting task of making small trips every few days. Pedal power then is the most efficient way of getting anywhere, though oddly I can’t think of a single zombie book or film where the protagonists opt for the humble bike; even if Tyres from Spaced was one of the zombies in Shaun of the Dead.

Memo to self: buy tools and supplies.

And a bike.

The other problem, of course, is the threat of violence. Zombies are not usually depicted as peaceful hippy types, content to get high and stare at the stars. They are predators, even if their method of hunting relies on standing around waiting for prey to come to them, which hardly seems like an effective strategy. I cannot shake the feeling though that in reality the zombies would be least of my worries. I am more concerned by the prospect of other humans however.

There is an old saw that humans are only nine meals away from anarchy which has a ring of truth. More tellingly, for all our brains, we gravitate to strength. The man with the biggest stick wins. When real world countries and cultures break down, one of the most consistent effects is the growth of violent gangs who stamp out opposition in the most horrible fashions. In the absence of a central authority and even the notional following of the Rule of Law, suddenly the vision of gangs of people running around with weapons (or at least gardening implements that have been re-purposed for the purpose of causing damage) seems far more threatening, and likely, than the shambling masses of the undead. And, sad to say, it’s quite likely that men would be the targets of these gangs. Most street violence in the UK seems to be male on male violence and whilst a lot of that is fuelled by alcohol not all is. Worse, it seems to be expected, we wax lyrical about how terrible violence against women is without pausing to consider that the people filling A&E are often young men who have been victims of violence. It is normal, another part of the despicable 'boys will be boys' bullshit. It is the kind of thing that makes me wary, I hate being followed by groups of men unless I am in a well populated area and I find it hard to relax around people who are intent on getting drunk: a legacy of being the outsider too many times I suppose.

Did I mention that I am unfit and a bit of a weed? If I was not bitten in the first few weeks a bullet or modified spade would probably put an end to me (and I would be lucky in those circumstances, I am fully aware that it could be far worse).

This is assuming mass panic would take hold of course, rather than a sort of solidarity and cooperation as people pulled together. The economic downturn in Greece a few years ago led to people supporting local farmers, cooperating to grow food and generally a much stronger community spirit emerging. There’s no reason why it could not happen elsewhere, even if zombies were rising from the grave and the inevitable paranoia about infection arose. Humans are troop creatures after all, cooperation is in our nature.

Except. Except. It is an unwritten law of the apocalypse genre that when things fall apart it is every person for themselves apart from in the most tightly knit communities, which by law almost always harbour horrible secrets.

Memo to self... I have no idea. Spears maybe?

After this we come to two of the bigger problems. First there’s the issue of how much the world we live in now would affect the post-apocalyptic world. Having discussed the issue of nuclear power with friends it sounds as if most nuclear power stations would simply shut down if they were left untended for a period of time, but they would be a ticking time bomb in many respects (remember I am looking at this as a worst case scenario where we’re irretrievably bumped back to the pre-industrial age). As we struggle to survive information that is not immediately useful is bound to be lost, which means kissing good bye to those nuclear physics textbooks. The technology we have created has not only made us great, but in some ways also enslaved us. It is not just a case of us being dependent on it, the cost of de-commissioning it safely is extremely high and the by-products from chemical plants, nuclear power stations and the other things that allow us to live so far from nature are harmful not just to the planet but to us as well. This, incidentally, is one of my bug bears with climate change deniers; even if they don't believe human behaviour can adversely affect the ecosystem, its proven fact that the things that spill out into the atmosphere can damage human health. Surely that's enough of a reason to clean up our act?

Sadly, as things stand the zombie apocalypse would probably only be the first of many. As human infrastructure corrodes, the more terrible the dangers we leave behind become. It might take decades, possibly even centuries but the probability of something awful happening with the technology we leave as a legacy will slowly creep towards one. It may not be as bad as if an asteroid hits Earth or a super volcano erupts (catastrophes that also have an eventual probability of one), but the sheer volume of sites that once breached or compromised will start to poison the world around them means that the chances of long term survival become sketchy, to say the least.

Lastly, we have to consider the vectors for zombie infection. The tradition is that a bite from one of the infected is the thing to make you go native. Indeed, that has been the hallmark of the zombie ever since the Romero films, and has its origin in the narratives concerning vampires in the Medieval period, before that monster was twisted into a commentary on depraved sexuality – it was no surprise that the first aristocratic vampire in literature, Lord Ruthven, was modelled on Byron whose profligate sexual appetites were legendary at the time. However, this is not the only way that the condition can be spread. In Mike Carey's breakout novel The Girl With All the Gifts the factor that transforms people becomes airborne, in Stephen Jones' mosaic novel, Zombie Apocalypse, it begins with fleas. Even Hollywood has tumbled to the idea that the apocalypse cannot simply begin through biting. The Living Dead films deal with toxic waste; 28 Days Later with infected animals in a testing laboratory. Whilst biting is required for zombies to spread the condition, it is telling that it is not the only factor in the rise of the zombie, and that often the main thing that creates the problem is man made.

It is not always the case of course, World War Z contains a fairly obvious SARS analogy; from memory there's a viral element to how the disease spreads. Many works dispense with the origin all together, The Walking Dead simply borrows its beginning from The Day of the Triffids, allowing the protagonist to wake in a hospital bed and discover that the world has gone mad.

My point here is that we should not presume that just because we cannot be bitten that all is safe. A gust of wind could bring disaster in the form of tiny floating flakes; a beloved cat could bear a traitorous assassin. A sneeze could lead to the worst fate imaginable. How tame the Voudon zombie, returned from the dead by the machinations of a Bokor seems in comparison.

Memo to self: Find gas mask and full body hazmat suit, just in case.

With all these factors survival would be extremely difficult, even without the obvious threat (the ones who say 'braaaaiiiiinnns and if we are lucky shamble). Certainly I do not think I would survive, even for a year.


And, frankly, neither would you.