Horrible Review: “Military Zombie Novels”

Enjoy this Monday with Mildred!

Carol from Walking Dead reading.

Because Carol. Also this image came up in the Military Zombie Novels image search.

Military Zombie Novels

Day by Day Armageddon

Feed

Omega Days

Plague of the Dead: The Morningstar Strain

Z-Risen: Outbreak

Extinction Horizon

From the gushy sentimentality of Rhiannon Frater’s As the World Dies series, I turned to a fast growing sector of the zombie fiction genre, the military zombie novel. I had preconceived notions of this sub-genre because I’m as prejudiced as the next person, despite not having read many of them before my recent marathon.  Earlier in Chick Flicking I said, “A sub-genre is making a strong emergence, the military zombie apocalypse (MZA) novel, in which hardened white men sneeringly swagger through the dead hordes, spraying them with hot lead and not getting the girl. Girls?  Why would there be girls at the end of the world?  The manly men in these books are the cool setting, and could be why I haven’t read many of them.  I might possibly need to read a few more to check my data.”

Well it turns out I actually was wrong.  There’s a good chance I got my preconceived notions from the book covers, which look exactly as I described MZAs above.  Crack them open and you’ll discover it’s not entirely like that.  As well, I had had only the small sampling of Plague of the Dead: the Morningstar Strain by Z.A. Recht and Day by Day Armageddon by J. L. Bourne.

In my original review of Bourne’s book I began by saying, “This zombie book is BADLY WRITTEN.  It is one of my favorite zombie books.” It was the first, and for a long time the only, “military” zombie novel I’d read and I thought it was an archetype.  The main character does do all of the things I’ve come to expect in MZAs and both that book and Plague are not well written, so I made assumptions. I have now read a few other examples and discovered some interesting things.

First, the genre is attracting better writers.  People who understand the meaning of the words they use, and who put them together smartly creating interesting plots.  My sampling has grown to include Extinction: Edge by Nicholas Sansbury Smith, Z-Risen: Outcast by Timothy Long, Omega Days by John L. Campbell, and Feed, by Mira Grant.  The last is often included in MZA lists, but I feel it’s the weakest example of my lot.  It’s really more of a political thriller with zombies on the fringe.

They’re highly serialized by nature, so if you’re going to try an MZA make sure the series is complete or nearly there if you’re impatient like me. Most of my samples compress time quite a bit, but can nevertheless go on for several books.  Extinction is the story of the ubiquitous Delta Force team trying to nip a highly secret and world killing virus in the bud and of course not succeeding.  You see, only the best of the best of the best, of the best, beefy military men star in MZAs.  Deltas, Alphas, whatever Greek alphabet soup kind of Force battle the zombies, will be composed of almost always men, and almost always white.  They’re the best, though.  (Did I mention that?) They have to be, because the zombies in these book tend to be much faster and stronger and smarter than the ones in more generic works. This of course makes for gorier, scarier books with lots more shooting and stabbing that a typical zombie novel.

There is the preconceived notion that an army marches on its stomach, but in MZAs, they live and breathe lists.  How many rounds of ammunition are left?  What kind of guns (full specs, please) are they carrying? Is there enough diesel fuel (Don’t say “gas”!) for the Humvee? Do they have three or four cans of spinach? Z-Risen obsesses over that kind of thing to the point of having the main character, who is writing a journal much like the lead in Day by Day Armageddon, fully list every bit of stuff they have at the beginning of each chapter.

The Z-Risen series is also quite funny, though, so I’d like to believe it’s Long’s in-joke about the MZA.  His novels follow the travails of Navy Machinist Mate First Class Jackson Creed and his bff Marine Sergeant Joel “Cruze” Kelly on the mean undead streets of San Diego. One look at the colored testosterone watercolor book covers might give you the impression (as they did to me) that Long’s books are only about burly men shooting Zulus (Don’t say “zombie”!), but he has several women characters who range from super adept, best of the best women grunts to normal people.  You can tell they’re above average military by how well they weave profanity into their language.  These books are uniformly naughty with the language.  Really MFing naughty. I like the relationship between Creed and Cruze, because it’s a rarity for MZAs – two guys who learn to work well together and become friends over the course of time.  Most of these books might have a large cast of supporting characters but the lead is often a lone (and lonely) alpha male.

Women in these books tend to be either scientists or generally smarter people than the burly military guys, and as mentioned before, they are rare.  If they aren’t scientists they are fellow soldiers, able to throw around their own hot lead and foul mouth bantering.  Guys with breasts, in other words. As with all the co-stars in Bourne’s books, women generally don’t speak much, don’t know how to do anything “important” and must be protected to the detriment of “the mission” which in all MZAs are essentially survival.  With time compressed so tightly, the average MZA can go on for three or four books and only cover a few months, or weeks of time passed.  So the “girls” don’t generally have enough time to learn how not to be a burden, since it’s tough enough just to find a safe(ish) place and scavenge a bite or two of food.  Even when the women characters, as in the Omega series, tend to be pretty darned tough and actual women type people, they still end up on the sidelines somehow stripped of their power or left behind in the plot. It’s terribly frustrating having to settle for female characters who are horribly treated victims or “one of the guys”, and then have even that bit leak away as the page count grows.  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is all I have to say about that.

When not counting ammunition, MZAs are all about the procedure.  This happens and then that happens, and there’s not much time to think about the future or work out a strategy for doing more than running and gunning. The social commentary a good zombie fiction should provide doesn’t happen often, but occasionally you’ll get a paragraph like this worn message from Extinction: Edge.

“He knew better than anyone that it was likely a seventy-year-old general with a chestful of ribbons ordering the attacks, impervious to the ripple effect that came with the decision. At that point, commanders were so far removed from war they didn’t really think about the average grunt or civilian. The endgame was all that mattered and in this case, it was to stop a microscopic enemy.  Total annihilation was the only course of action for these men who had lost touch with what it meant to be human.”

Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus* tried to warn us about all that, but we’re still afraid of what can happen with too much power in the hands of the wrong people. We’re still making the dead walk, too.

The author is speaking about The Bad Guy.  There is always one, or several, in every MZA because millions of souped up zombies aren’t enough antagonist, there must always be an extra dose of human evil to contend with. Between the hunger and the constant danger and the taking care of the women and the running out of ammo and fuel and the zombies, there’s always an extra threat, someone who doesn’t understand we have to work together to survive.  Reading these books will make you physically tired.

I know it sounds like I don’t like these books but I have been enjoying the reading. Omega Days has kept me on the edge of my seat more than a few times, Extinction: Edge has some really gnarly zombies, and Z-Risen is constantly humorous and sometimes hilarious. If you’re looking for a large series with lots of action sequences and gritty situations, if you like reading about the weapons and obsessing over counting shots and gallons of fuel and cans of spinach, if you don’t mind a lot of bad language and can live with authors who try to write women but really don’t have a clue, then the MZA may be for you.

LINKS:
Picture of Frankenstiein from 1831

Illustration by Theodor von Holst from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition.

*CFR: In Addition: Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus was written by a woman, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Frankenstein is credited with being the first science fiction novel and sometimes as the first horror novel. Note and respect.

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

 

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