Posted in book lists, musings

zombies, democracy, and the definition of humankind

Having made my first foray into the world of zombie fiction, I am struck by the idea that zombies are the end product of dysfunctional democracy.

In a democracy there is rule by the many, leading to decisions that may be good for individuals in the majority but not so good for individuals who are part of minority groups. As social structure and community connectedness decreases, more and more people feel that democracy is failing them by its inability to address their needs (since, as people splinter away from each other, almost everyone is bound to end up in the minority with regards to at least one significant issue in their lives). They observe society crumbling and blame the vast hordes of their fellow citizens – not without reason, as those vast hordes are the decision-makers of a democracy!

Similarly, in the zombie apocalypse, society breaks down (in very dramatic ways) at the hands of the vast masses of humankind. We, the reader, identifying with the main characters of the book or film, see ourselves as the rational few who still cling to sanity and good judgment, while the rest of the world is wildly destroying itself around us. And since our democracy is so huge (at least here in the US) that there isn’t much we can do to tangibly alter its course, zombie fiction allows us an escape into the lives of people who are even more horribly stuck – but who aren’t limited to polite social mores in their methods of dealing with their frustrations and problems!

Of course, I have no idea if this idea has any basis in reality, but it was interesting to me ­čÖé

If you’re wondering how I decided to make entry into the world of zombies, I did it by reading┬áThe Girl With All The Gifts, by M.R. Carey, on the recommendation of my boss. The introduction is brutal, mysterious, and haunting; the end is absolutely perfect. The middle feels rather stereotyped or trope-ish: you have the tough and experienced military man, the disposable underling, the obsessive and unethical scientist, and the bleeding-heart who is sympathetic to the zombies’ plight. However, I still definitely enjoyed it! As a science nerd, I particularly enjoyed the description of the source of the zombie plague (for reference, Cordyceps is a fungus that attacks ants, infiltrates their nervous systems, and controls their behavior for the purpose of spreading its spores; most species of Cordyceps are specific to a single species of ant):

“At some point a┬áCordyceps came along that was a lot less finicky. It jumped the species barrier, then the genus, family, order, and class. It clawed its way to the top of the evolutionary tree, assuming for a moment that evolution is a tree and has a top. Of course, the fungus might have had a helping hand. It might have been grown in a lab, for any number of reasons; coaxed along with gene-splicing and injected RNA. Those were very big jumps.”

It made me happy that they acknowledged the implausibility of the fungus mutating that much on its own – but also the possibility of some scientist designing it to do so. It reminded me of the professor of my senior capstone class, who told us that we now knew everything we needed to create a bioweapon that would devastate humanity, and were responsible to conduct our science ethically. If humanity is wiped out by some pathogen, I won’t be surprised to learn that humanity had created that pathogen to begin with.

I also appreciated that this book was not overly graphic (this is the reason I’ve avoided zombie films in particular). It allowed me to enjoy the concept and implications without having to deal with excessive violence and gore! So I recommend it for anyone wanting an action novel that will, if you permit it, also raise the question of what it means to be human.

Posted in musings

choice, identity, fatalism, and change

Sometimes the homosexual movement (and, I think, our culture as a whole) strikes me as a bit fatalistic – as if our identities were set in stone and nothing we do or choose can change them, only repress and mask them.

There is a sense in which this is true, of course; I doubt that I could change my sexual attractions, or my intellectual curiosity, or my Jekyll and Hyde combination of loyalty and jealousy. Those things form part of my personality and natural identity. Further, the core tendencies of our being seem to remain constant factors over the years. My primary identity no longer rests in my intelligence and academic prowess, but I still value my intelligence and operate out of confidence in it; on the negative side, I am no longer so frequently controlled by my anger, but it is still an ever-present struggle to be master over it. So both my strengths and my weaknesses remain with me, and although I try to favor the former over the latter in how I live and in what I express outwardly, they both form part of my essential personal identity.

On the other hand, there are deep things about myself that are chosen and could in theory change: namely, my religious and philosophical beliefs, my worldview. These beliefs are what informs my identity and causes certain aspects of it to develop and mature (or, on the contrary, atrophy and fade) over time. A belief that integrity and courage matter pits itself, in the core of my being, against my innate shyness, distaste of conflict, and anxiety. The belief of a Catholic nun that she has been called to celibacy for Christ sets itself against her natural sexual desires – for even the celibate have sexual identities, that they choose to set aside in the service of some belief. The belief that humility is valued by God over pride wars within me against my self-confidence, arrogance, and secret insecurities. The belief of an atheist in the value of independent free-thinking might war against his inner desire for an authority to trust or a guidebook to follow. So too, I would imagine, for the traditional Catholic or conservative Evangelical, the belief that homosexual actions are inherently disordered would set itself against some of the deepest desires and attractions within them.

These deeply held beliefs are not able to change our identities like a switch, or even, in many cases, like the gradual dawn of the sun. But they are able to guide and shape those identities – to prune and direct them as we grow. In my examples above, most of the traits and aspects of identity being fought against are not inherently bad and could be considered good given a different set of core beliefs (it is not hard to think of cultures and religions that place a much higher value on harmonious conduct than on the confrontation brought on by principled courage, or to call to mind worldviews that consider respect for authority far more important than critical thinking). So why choose to not embrace those aspects of our identity just as much as some other aspects? Again, it goes back to the framework of belief, the set of principles, that we have chosen to believe and to take as our truth. And that can change. It very often does change over the course of a person’s life!

So the language of identity need not be as fatalistic as it sometimes sounds. Perhaps we cannot ever truly change our identities without some great trauma or damage to ourselves, but we can shape their trajectory, giving more weight to some aspects and less to others. We can still choose the beliefs we hold, even if we cannot choose the components that make us up. For me, this is a great hope! I am not bound forever to the shyness, the anger, the jealousy, or the intellectual impatience that form a part of my identity, personality, and character – or, more accurately, I am not bound to be forever ruled by them. Their share of my life can decrease as the things I value more are increased.

What I have left out in this consideration is, of course, the reality of the changing power of the Holy Spirit, and the ability of Jesus to make us truly new creations in Him. I wanted to try to look at the questions of identity and choice from a less uniquely Christian viewpoint. But where I do find the most hope for personal change, as well as (rather surprisingly) the most grace for what I am right now, is in the transformative and redemptive plan of God. For that is what Christianity proclaims: that from the inside out, in the very center of our identity, we shall be changed, and everything that is wrong or disordered or confused or dead within us shall be removed, and what is good shall be made to flourish in ways we never dreamed.