Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Review: Generation Dead by Dan Waters

Generation Dead by Daniel Waters was recommended to us by one of our readers, and after enduring this book, I have no idea what this person was thinking.  As you may have guessed by the title, Generation Dead is a zombie story.  In the movies the zombie is usually the antagonist, who spends most of its time trying to eat living humans; however, in Generation Dead, the zombies are trying to integrate into society.  At this point the only zombies are teenagers, who come back after dying.  Science cannot explain why they come back to life or why some of them are more animated than others.

As you might expect, there are some who are happy to have their loved one back and others who quickly abandon them out of fear.  Preachers are actively saying that the dead are a sign of the coming apocalypse based in the idea that zombies are unholy.  Because zombies have been declared dead they have no rights and this means that killing them is not a crime, nor is discriminating against them in many forms.  

This is a book primarily about discrimination and prejudice. I don’t think it’s especially a love story (though there are elements of that) or even a YA school story - this is about discrimination, how people deal with bigotry, how bigotry affects people and the different forms of bigotry.

I’ve said before that the whole “fantastic” prejudice theme is overdone - and it is. But I’m not going to slam a book for that because I also think it can be a decent way to explore prejudice if it is done right.

Sadly, I don’t think this book did that.

It touched on many issues but didn’t really explore them. It’s also a book about prejudice told entirely through the eyes of people who don’t experience the prejudice - and oh boy have we seen them before. But it also covers a lot of issues very shallowly

It touches on reclaiming slurs - but encourages the living (i.e. people who aren’t zombies) to do it as well - and the people urging the reclaiming are also not zombies. It talks about using slurs not mattering without the negative intent behind them (yay! Magic intent!) and how it wouldn’t matter if friends used them (a note to my friends: Do. Not - not unless you wish me to apply a large, wet fish to the head, repeatedly). Their friends make frequent tasteless jokes that are supposed to be completely ok - and feel its perfectly ok to ask them what should be very personal questions

We poke at how the living guy selling merchandise for zombie rights and earning lots of money off it is a little skeevy - but never outright call him out as the arsehole he is

We touch on the nature of being a more societally acceptable member of a marginalised group - and even how that’s not easy because privilege people expect you to conform to stereotype and how not doing so can make people aggressive - but completely miss the internal policing and shaming and rule following the come with “aiming to please”. We even touch on using privileged people to be spokespeople because more listen to them - but never cover how silencing this is, especially since the story is told through the eyes of the living, again.

But more than any of this, there’s a great big elephant in the room crapping on the carpet - Waters uses this premise to compare zombies to historically marginalized people in a manner than can only be called an appropriation lalapoloza.

“You know you’re supposed to call them living impaired.” pg 5

“Prior to the events of recent years, the term ‘diversity’ had been most typically used to describe a diversity of culture, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.  Today the term may also be applied to diverse states of being.  Alish Hunter and his daughter Angela have created the Hunter Foundation for the Advancement and Understanding of Differently Biotic Persons, and are here today to discuss an exciting new opportunity that you will have here at Oakvale High.” pg 55-56

“The people that we at the Hunter Foundation refer to as differently biotic are those people that most of you would refer to as living impaired.  They are the people that some of you, and many outside the walls of this school, would refer to as zombies, corpsicles, dead heads, the undead, worm food, shamblers, the living dead, the Children of Romero, and a whole host of other pejorative names designed to hurt and marginalize.” (pg 56-57)

“We are the Hunter foundation feel that even the term living impaired, although created I’m sure with the best of intentions, is in fact pejorative, as it implies that people who are no longer alive but still with us are broken and or defective. In much the same way that the term handicapped was widely recognized as being insulting to differently abled persons, so too is living impaired an insult to those who live differently biotic lives. (pg, 57)

“Being differently biotic puts these people in a very small cultural group.  They are a true minority -- and the minority status is one that is sure to have deep psychological implications” (pg 57)

“One cannot help but think of the American athletes of the past who overcame obstacles of injustice and hate to go on to greatness.  I am thinking of people like Jesse Owens, Greg Louganis, Billie Jean King.  These people were willing to suffer through adversity and discrimination to participate in the sports that they loved and in doing so, left a legacy that is an inspiration to all who would walk -- orrun -- in their footsteps..”(pg 76-77)

“No, not … differently biotic. Dead  … is fine.” Angela arched her eyebrows.  “You don’t mind being called dead?” “Zombies is fint too,” Karen said.  “We call each other zombies with affection.  Sort of the way … people … in culture and ethnic ...minorities... take back certain pejoratives ...to me us among themselves.”  (pg 88)

“And a biost is like a racist but hates the dead folk.” (pg 91)

There was a bill calling for the mandatory registration …” The Undead Citizens Act Angela said.”  One of the first of many fear inspired bills to be shot down in Congress, Senator Mallory from Idaho Introduced it by comparing differently biotic people to illegal immigrants.”  (pg 150)

The aforementioned are simply the ones that struck me as the most heinous appropriation, however they are only amount to a fraction that is laced throughout the book.  

If you are going to include “fantastic prejudice” then it’s vital that you don’t draw direct comparisons to actual marginalised people and actual marginalised groups. Doing so appropriates the experience of marginalised people, appropriates their movements and draws inappropriate comparisons between actual monsters and marginalised people. Use the themes, yes, if you must, but not the actual movements. From the disabled, gays and lesbians to people of colour, Waters appropriated willfully thus mocking the true nature of oppression that these groups face for the sake of a cheap plot trick to make his zombies appear to deal with actual injustice.  Nothing is like racism except racism and nothing is like disableism but disableism, and nothing is like homophobia but homophobia.  Waters had no right doing what he did. I don’t think I have read a better example of appropriation in the genre than this book.

I also can’t say I was happy with the big-bad guy being so borderline out of touch with reality, especially against a backdrop of other people who hate/fear zombies coming round once they get to meet them. I wish bigotry worked that way, I really did, but the violent bigots being close to insanity (which is, in itself, a problematic trope) and the rest just needing some quality time diminishes bigotry and excuses bigots.

Other than trying to impress upon the reader that the zombies were in fact oppressed, Daniel Waters spent the majority of Generation Dead, trying to interest in a teenage love triangle.  On one side there is Adam, a young football player who is trying to make changes in his life and on the other Tommy a zombie who seems to be more biotic than the other zombies.  In the middle we have Phoebe a goth girl who is fascinated with Tommy and a life long friend to Adam.  In typical fashion, though Adam and Phoebe have been friends since childhood, Adam has never had the courage to tell Phoebe how he feels about her. As teen love triangles go, this one isn’t terrible but it is far from engaging.  

Outside of the appropriation, far from engaging is the best way to describe this book.  It is only a little over 200 pages and yet it still manages to be terribly over written.  He seems to come from the Cassandra Clare school of writing, never use 1-2 words when 10-15 will do, for instance, why was it necessary to constantly describe the characters and the colour of their eyes?  How could we possibly forget what the characters look like in a book that is just over 200 pages?

I would say the concept was appealing but overall it isn’t especially since there’s not a lot of explanation or exploration of this world. It’s just our world with zombies brought on by unexplained woo-woo. It could serve as a very good exploration of prejudice - if it had been deeper, if it hadn’t included so many excuses for prejudice and it if hadn’t had so much gross appropriation. It would also have done better having greater diversity than 2 walk on POC and no GBLT people (I’m told that this changes in later books - but so far, so bad). Phoebe herself isn’t a particularly powerful protagonist. She spends most of her time musing about Tommy and occasionally Adam. Occasionally having tantrums but otherwise pretty much drifting around. She is pulled into the undead equality groups more from curiosity about Tommy and guilt over Collette than anything else. Otherwise she just drifts, following other people’s decisions then wondering about them. Margi spends her time being a rather vapid gossip or having the screaming meemies about the dead people and Adam has an ongoing girlfriend called Whatshername because she’s that empty a character. We don’t get to see any real, strong women here except maybe Karen - and all she does it walk around being a zombie in a short skirt.

This story could have been a lot better than what it was. It could have really explored these issues in depth, it could have introduced people to prejudice they never considered. It could have at least been interesting. But the characters were unappealing, the prose overwritten and the messages imparted were flawed and so stalked by appropriation as to make it a generally unpleasant read. I’ll read the full trilogy, but I have to say I’m not eager at the prospect.