Choose Your Doom

Bet you thought this was going to be a NaNoWriMo post.

I mean… come on: Middle of the month? Ironic yet clever title? Something about conserving ammo, checking your exits, and knowing when to double tap your closest friends to maximize your own life expectancy? Clever analogies… OR ARE THEY?

But no.

Today, I don’t want to talk about writing; I want to talk about reading.

Specifically, I want to talk about Choose Your Adventure books and the cultural wasteland of my youth.

Where the Outbreak Began

A few things that have always been true: from as early an age as possible, I’ve been storyteller, a reader, and a gamer. Also, I grew up deep, DEEP in the heart of the Great Plains about an hour from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s old place (seriously). My only playmate for five miles in any direction was my sister.

We got in a fair amount of trouble.

And by “we” I mean “I”, and by “I” I mean “I’m still really very sorry about accidentally spraying that superglue in your eyes, sis.”

My parents (and my relatives, and our neighbors) were very enthusiastic about anything that might keep me busy for a few hours that didn’t involve me trying to construct a functional airplane from a 2×8, our welcome mat, and a plugged-in battery charger I was about to clip to my belt buckle. (True story! Short, but true.)

As a result, people got me copies of every Choose Your Adventure book ever printed. In some cases, I had two. In the eyes of my gift-givers, they were the perfect combination of elements: a story! but a story he made up himself (kinda)! and you choose paths, like a game! Seems an obvious choice, really: I can see why folks picked them up for me by the five-pack. There was only one key bit of trivia they overlooked.

They were positively execrable. Holy pinball-tilting buddha, they were bad.

You know what I used to do with the CYA books? (Never did a three-letter acronym serve multiple masters so admirably.) I used to read them in page order. Not because I didn’t understand how they were meant to be consumed, but because digesting the elements of the product as a mishmash of unrelated plot points, sappy successes, predictable reveals, and weak failures was not, on the whole, any worse. Also, when I did it in that order, I could make up the interstitial stuff that lay between each page so that the whole thing still (or, finally) made some kind of sick sense.

That was my experience with Choose Your Adventure books when I was a kid. (A few years ago, someone gave Kate a copy of a CYA reprint at a book fair. It did not encourage me to revise my childhood impression.)

The Infection Spreads

You can, given this background, imagine my terrified caution when I learned of a new book coming out. It’s called Choose Your Doom: Zombie Apocalypse, and it looks like this:

Take a look at that cover. I’m not really qualified to discuss nuances in a piece of art, but I feel compelled to point out it’s got zombies in it. I believe my love of zombies is well-documented.

But then there’s this cover copy.

You control the fate of Tobe, a teen-aged slacker living in the shadow of the Cheyenne Mountain military complex. When a secret experiment goes awry, the citizens of Colorado Springs are exposed to an alien mold that turns those infected into zombies. With your help, Tobe must battle the newly undead, wild animals and the most dangerous creature of all: Man. Will your decisions help him save the city, or lead him to certain doom?

Obviously, I was torn. On the one hand, you have this:

But on the other, this:

I think you can understand my concern.

Clearly, there was only one thing to do: for my sanity, for your safety, I had to read the thing.

“But Doyce,” (you ask), “how can you have made this sacrifice for us? The book doesn’t come out until November 26, 2010.”

Obviously, I am a time tra–

Err. No, wait. You don’t know about that yet. Paradox. Right.

Obviously, I used my many nefarious contacts within the underworld and put out the word that I needed a copy of the book a few weeks earlier than the unwashed masses. I was eventually put in contact with De Knippling, one of the authors, and we met for some unpronounceable yet delicious coffee in her home town.

“Your city,” I said. “Nice place.”

“Err,” she replied, “thanks.”

“Be a shame if anything… happened to it,” I cliched.

“”Umm…” She raised an eyebrow in my direction, obviously to conceal her trembling fear. “Dude, do you want the arc or not?”



Conversion is Complete

Following that exchange (or one almost exactly like it in all ways except the actual words spoken, and the location, and the coffee), I set in to ‘read’ this ‘book’.

I died. Then some other stuff happened. Huh. Cool.

I read it again.

Dead. Some entirely different stuff happened. Heh. Funny.


Dead. (A hippo?!? What the hell?)

And again.

Dead… and this time I felt the slightest tug of… sadness? Was that a real moment of touching humanity there? Why yes, yes it was.

People, I’m horrified.

You know what the authors have done with this thing?

They’ve destroyed a (literally) life-long prejudice; my well-considered and heartfelt disdain lies dead and mouldering while a category of books that died in the mid 1980s shambles upright and stumbles back into the light. Worse, they’ve taught this unholy creature about humor and pacing and suspense and the tragedy and joy of the human condition. They made it good.

That’s what Choose Your Doom: Zombie Apocalypse is: it’s good.

I wanted it to be bad. I needed it to be bad so that I could continue to cling to my childhood, but this book denied me — it pulled my tattered copy of Inside UFO 54-40 out of my hands and turned my eyes toward the light.

Then it ate my brains.

I suggest you check this thing out. Sincerely. It’s fun romp, a number of entertaining yarns, some surprising depth and (if you know the authors) unsurprising humor, and I think most of the people I know will like it.

And don’t worry about the way it makes your eyeballs itch; the infection only burns for the first few minutes, and zombies are always more effective as a horde.

“The Image may be Closer than it Appears” – Mira Grant’s Feed

Fact One: I like zombies.  I like considering the ramifications of a zombie outbreak as a mental exercise, and sometimes even use that as an excuse to buy pretty things. None of this is a surprise to anyone who knows me.

Fact Two: I like Mira Grant‘s new book Feed. Again, this should also come as no surprise to anyone who’s been around me for the past week or so; I can’t shut up about the damned thing. The query-pitch summary for the book might go something like this:

Somewhere around 2014, some genius came up with a viral cure for cancer. Some other genius came up with a viral cure for the common cold. Neither of those two things were bad on their own, but when they met one another in a human host – bam, zombies. The infection spread, leading to the psuedo-death of a massive chunk of the population of the planet. During the first year of “the rising”, bloggers came into their own, providing survival information while the news networks were still making jokes and pretending it was all a prank. As the book opens it’s 25 years later, humanity has survived (so far) and so have the infected. This new reality affects virtually every aspect of daily life (the repercussions woven in a wholly believable backdrop throughout the book). We get to experience this brave new world through the eyes of George and Shaun, a professional brother-and-sister blogging team who ride around in a well-equipped van with a blonde poetry-writing tech-nerd named Buffy. [*]

But I’ve mislead you.

I’ve let you think, based on Fact One and Fact Two, that I like this book because it’s a good zombie story, but that’s too simple: my enjoyment and admiration goes beyond an affection for the walking dead, and Feed is more than a (really, truly) well-done story about zombies.

It’s about fear.

The trouble with the news is simple: People, especially ones on the ends of the power spectrum, like it when you’re afraid. The people who have the power want you scared. They want you walking around paralyzed by the notion that you could die at any moment. There’s aways something to be afraid of.

What does that have to do with the news? This: The truth isn’t scary.

It might (I said might) surprise you if I said that one of my most frequently visited newsreader feeds are for sites like FreeRangeKids — sites that look at activities that should be perfectly normal and perfectly acceptable which are instead seen as horribly irresponsible simply because there’s a one-in-sixty-thousand chance that something might go amiss and a kid could skin their knee. It’s sites like those where you can hear about schools that won’t “risk” kids playing tag anymore… or allow kids on a jungle gym… or a seesaw; where you can read hysterical, screaming comments from people who want parents to spend time in jail for letting their kid ride a bike to school.

(I also make sure to stay aware of examples of politicians and other folks in power using fear to leverage their current or nascent control of the general population, but I don’t feel as though I need to link to a specific site for this — just stay abreast of current events and examples will readily present themselves.)

But… that’s just the world we live in, right? One more thing we can’t let our kids do that we did when we were little; one more activity that used to be okay and now gets you a drive-by visit from the local sheriff’s deputy; one more security checkpoint where we used to be able to walk through; one more (and one more, and one more, and one more) cctv camera on the drive into work. We can’t look at the situation entirely clearly anymore — we’re too close to it, and the background roar (“threat level has been raised to orange”) is so loud that the only way to examine it is to make it much bigger — to zoom in. To turn the dial to 11.

What sort of thing could do that?

Zombies could do that.

Zombies turn up the dial on parents overprotecting their kids to the point where they grow up hopelessly and helplessly phobic. Infection gives government agencies the ability to shoot anyone at the merest suggestion of a threat. The walking dead allow politicians to base their campaign on a platform that would get even the most fringe right-wingers laughed off the stage today.

Zombies let us look at an incredibly paranoid, over-careful, insular, suspicious, stranger-dangered, xenophobic world… and realize that it is not actually very far away from where we are today. Not very far at all. Not far enough.

Not by half.

Beware: you are looking at this through my eyes.

Far, far be it from me to say that this is specifically what the author intended; I’ve had too many people talk to me about theme-stuff in my stories that I’d swear I didn’t put in there — there’s no way I’d assume that what I see in Feed is what Mira Grant intended to package in the tin.

It could be that this is merely an excellent zombie story with compelling main characters, believable politics, well-envisioned technological advances, tight and suspense-filled pacing, masterful use of foreshadowing and misdirection, and an ending that left me not-so-subtly pining for an ARC of the next book in the trilogy. Merely.

There is only one way to tell.

You must read it.

You must read it.

“This is the truth: we are accustomed to being afraid. It’s an addiction. People crave fear. Fear justifies everything. Fear makes it okay to have surrendered freedom after freedom, until our every move is tracked and recorded in a dozen databases. Fear creates, defines, and shapes our world, and without it, most of us would have no idea what to do with ourselves.

“We took a world that was huge with possibility, and we made it as small as we could.”

Your plan for the (probably not) coming apocalypse

In the coming apocalypse, you will still be fined double for speeding in construction zones. We have to have order, dammit.

There are doubters among the readership, but I’ve long-since agreed with the theory that zombie movies, stories, and games flourish when the chips are down in the real world. Lots of wars going on that no one wants to fight? Zombies. Economic Uncertainty and Upheaval? Zombies.

Vampires are a monster that comes out when smooth and shiny predators are on the loose in the real world. Werewolves… well, when was the last burst of werewolf horror? It’s been far enough in the past that I think it’s engendered by something we don’t fear much anymore.

But when there’s upheaval and collapse? Zombies.

Now, I’ll admit that I play the genre of zombies a little loosely here and essentially mean Survival Horror (whose main concept can be summed up as “they just keep coming, and we’re running out of ammo.”), but the basic conceit holds, as does the trackable correlation to real world events.

Then again… what if it’s predictive? What if the zombie outbreak is imminent?

*long, uncomfortable pause*

Okay: no, not really, but… come on; we’re all geeks here. Who among us has NOT contemplated, at least briefly, a survival plan in case of a zombie outbreak? Show of hands.

Those of you who did not raise your hands are either fibbing, or you’re my wife. She’s apparently counting on me to get us out.

And, to be fair, I’ve given it some thought.

Variation A: I’m at work when we hear the news.

This is actually not a bad option, due the fact that I work with a lot of gun-toting libertarians that take their families to the shooting range for Quality Time Night. My first order of business would be to raid their F-150s for a spare rifle (no shotguns, please) and ammo.

Step Two, depending on panic level, is to stop at the Army Surplus store and grab a few things like jerry cans and a machete or two.

Step Three, get home.

Variation B: I’m at home when we hear the news.

Step One: curse myself for not stopping and replacing my long-lost machete and/or hatchet the dozen times I’ve thought of it.

Either Phase A or B: Hold up

The whole thing might not be that big of an outbreak. Wait and see. Stay quiet. Luckily, we can barricade the front of the house fairly easily, using spare lumber in the garage that can be moved to the house via the backyard. Our dried goods supply is solid for a week or so, and by then we should be able to tell the way things are going. We lock up and shut down everything upstairs and get into the basement, which has most everything we need for the time period, plus an escape route that leads right to the garage.

Last Phase: It’s bad: get the heck outta Dodge.

If the outbreak is going wide, or even looks like it is, we leave. We can stock up Sherwood (Kate’s Forester) without going to the front of the house. While the gas mileage is much better on my vehicle, the Subaru’s all-wheel drive, sturdy construction, ability to swing weapons at attacking undead while standing up through the moonroof, and increased storage space makes it a no-brainer. Don’t forget to pack:

  • The gas jerry cans I *do* already have.
  • A couple baseball bats and the semi-truck “Tire Tester” for melee weapons. Also, the two aeration forks, for simply shoving creatures away from the car as we flee.
  • Once again, bemoan the lack of appropriate edged weapons – and the fact that I don’t have a firearm in the house at this time.

The goal: get to my family’s house in South Dakota. The (lack of) population density is a benefit (unless the outbreak goes extremely wide, at which point hordes of the undead will sweep across the great plains like pre-colony herds of buffalo), and all the things I *don’t* have close to hand (ammo, weapons, defensible positions with self-sustainable food supplies) they do.

The trip needs to avoid major highways, so it’ll probably take about 15 hours and we’ll need at least a couple stops to refill gas – events which will be fraught with peril, unless I was able to snag those extra jerry cans – so figure it’ll take a full day, which I already know can be driven without rest if necessary.

This route is one of several that avoids all major interstates, which will become zombie buffet lines within the first few days.  As an added bonus, we'll be able to visit the World's Largest Ball of Twine.
This route is one of several that avoids interstate highways, which will become zombie buffet lines within the first few days. As an added bonus, we'll be able to visit the World's Largest Ball of Twine.

Now, if things are getting REALLY bad and those buffalo-herds of zombies are coming, we head north as a group, armed to the teeth and aiming for tundra. The frozen winter months will give us respite from daily attacks, and if we get REALLY remote (an environment I fully trust my family members know how to survive) we won’t have to worry about the other major threat – desperate strangers.

WOW, that’s grim.

PROS: Flexible, with enough detail to hang other plans on.

CONS: We lack sufficient supplies to make it to the boonies without stopping for gas and other necessities, thus increasing our danger by exponential numbers.

How about You?

Don’t tell me I’m the only one who’s ever given this more than a few seconds of passing thought. Reveal your plan for surviving the undead plague in the comments.