Dread Nation: The Civil War Zombie Novel You’ve Been Waiting For

Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation is the story of Jane McKeene, a seventeen-year-old who attends the premiere ladies’ school in all of Maryland, Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls. Young women go there to learn proper tea service and the most efficient way to separate a zombie’s head from its body. It is set in the decades after the Civil War, which ended in a very different way in this alternate history. At Gettysburg, slain soldiers rose up and began eating the living, so both sides banded together to repel the zombie threat. Humanity lives in a handful of fortified cities — Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc. The West is wild and open, but dangerously unprotected. The Lost States of the South are, well, lost. The only way to live there is in a bunker. Congress signed the Native and Negro Reeducation Act, which made it mandatory for Native and African Americans to attend zombie-slaying schools and hold the line against the undead, continuing America’s history of forcing marginalized groups to perform vital nation-building services. I read it because N.K. Jemisin (who wrote the best epic fantasy of the decade) recommended it repeatedly, and because I have a weakness for postbellum alt-history zombie yarns.

If that’s all the description you need to pick up the book, you can get it here: https://www.amazon.com/Dread-Nation-Justina-Ireland-ebook/dp/B071RQX7W9/

seriously a good sci-fi book y'all
She kills zombies with sickles. With sickles! Get this book.

Slow* Zombies, Fast Pacing

Ireland’s pacing is top-notch. There’s nothing on this story but lean muscle. Each location, each character is described with only the words necessary to generate clear, vivid immersion. The narratives moves forward smoothly, impelled by alternating between the type of emotional involvement that YA does particularly well — the character you love is in a bad spot, is facing injustice or danger and you won’t be satisfied until you see how she gets out of it — and spare, bright action scenes like this one:

By the time I get to the girls I have a stitch in my side and my feet are screaming, but I push it all aside. I pick my way down the wall, jumping too early and dropping a sickle, nearly losing my balance when I hit the bottom. I grab my fallen weapon and pick my first target, a Negro girl wearing clothing that looks eerily like mine, and leap, sickle swinging to take the thing down.

Here’s the thing. If these were my sickles, my beloved, sharp, well-weighted combat sickles, they would’ve gone through the shambler’s neck like a hot knife through lard. But these are not my sickles. So the blade gets stuck halfway, the beast snapping its teeth at me and clawing at my arms as it tries to get free.

I place my foot behind the shambler’s and use my sickle to push it backward. Once it’s down I use a mule kick against the curved edge to force the blade through. The head goes rolling off down into the culvert and the body goes still.

Ireland somehow avoids breaking the sense of urgency and peril in the scene, even as the viewpoint character takes a paragraph to talk to herself about her sickles. Not quite sure how that magic works, but it does. The action is always satisfying, and each of Jane’s actions builds who she is.

* the relative speed of a zombie depends on how recently they turned — the newer, the faster

The Wind-Up Theory of Character Creation

Ireland builds her characters using minimal description. She gives an introductory sliver and then sets the character going. The clockwork engine of the narrative itself gives depth to the characters as they interact with each other. There’s the main character, Jane, who just wants to get home to protect her family. There’s her beautiful frenemy, Katherine, a fellow student at Miss Preston’s, whose dream is completing her education and becoming an Attendant (lady’s maid/zombie killer for the rich). There’s Jackson, the smuggler and once-sweetheart of Jane, who just wants to find out why his sister disappeared. There’s Gideon, the head scientist of a Midwest enclave who wants to use his knowledge to help humanity survive. Ireland introduces a character, gives a light description and an overriding motivation, and then, through interaction with each other and the narrative, who they are deepens, grows and changes. An example is the description of the white supremacist pastor who serves as the main antagonist of the book:

“The old man still smiles, thin red lips stretched garishly over large front teeth. His eyes are watery, the brown washed out to the color of a penny, his hair completely snow white and thinning. He looks like a walking skeleton, sun bleached and pale…”

There’s not a lot of description after this first introduction, but his actions throughout the book build every noxious layer of him.

It’s good to see Katherine and Jane, who start out as enemies, grow closer as they deal with the same difficulties. What’s great though is the book’s treatment of that required emotional geometry of the YA novel, the Love Triangle. It’s hilariously underplayed here. Jane basically looks at Jackson and Gideon every once in a while, thinks “they look good…” and then gets on with her life. She’s interested, and both boys are nice in their own way, but she’s got things to do. Very healthy approach compared to the general “OK sure, I have to save the world, but does he like me though?”

Original Sin

The moral shape of the book is impressive. It does not shy away from the founding sins of our nation, i.e. that most people who wrote the Constitution to ensure their own freedom thought owning people was acceptable. Even post-slavery, America is still built on the exploitation of marginalized groups. Ireland puts these concerns front and center, with “scientific” discussions from certain characters about polygenesis (the idea, current in the 1800s, that different races had different species of origin, a way to promote Othering and justify white supremacy). The main antagonist is a virulent racist. The two-tier racial system of zombie fighting, in which POCs are legally obligated to kill zombies to keep everyone else safe is most troubling, because it wouldn’t take much modification to make it work today. All it would take is a.) a zombie uprising, b.) the racial bias inherent in our legal system, and c.) a “Fight the Dead” program for convicted felons, because the 13th amendment has a hell of a loophole:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Fun, Not Fluff

Dread Nation has all the explosive, page-turning action inherent in a zombie novel, a spare but powerful style, and realistic interactions between vivid characters. It’s a great book — fun without being fluff. The foundation of its world and the stakes of its narrative are too heavy for that.

Five Bite-Sized Suggestions on Where to Get Started Reading Ursula K. Le Guin

You should read everything Le Guin ever wrote, but here are some quick options

My literary hero, Ursula K. Le Guin, creator of worlds, challenger of the pompous and complacent, inspirer of generations of writers from Salman Rushdie to Neil Gaiman to N.K. Jemisin, died. I never met her, never saw her read, never wrote her an email, but she changed my life. No other author can be as lyrical without becoming enamored of their own lyricism, as straightforward and clear without being blunt and empty. If you are lucky enough to read her, she will change your brain. Bite-sized options to follow, but here are her most important books:

  • The Dispossessed, set on two moons stuck in mutual orbit — one lush capitalist, the other desert-anarchist. It is an honest exploration of anarcho-syndicalism and capitalism, both their flaws and benefits.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness explores a world where gender doesn’t exist — the entire population is androgynous, going into kemmer (basically “heat”) once a month, with an equal chance of becoming male or female before reverting back to androgynes unless, of course, there’s a pregnancy. It’s taken for granted today that gender is a fluid, mostly societally-determined construct, but a half-century ago, Le Guin was already writing lines like “[t]he king was pregnant.”
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, aside from having the most satisfying approach to magic across all modern fantasy, is a beautiful fable on the importance of accepting change and seeking balance. Anyone who dismisses it as a children’s book (or at least only a children’s book) does themselves a grave disservice.
Four of Ursula Le Guin's books, across time
I love how Le Guin’s book covers track the changing perceptions of the wider literary world — from ultra-pulpy to super-artsy

These three are her heavy-hitters, the books that redefined what two genres and literature as a whole could do, and if you want to immediately dive into the deep waters of this literary Titan, you should get those first. However, the good news about a writer with a 60-year long career is that she wrote a lot. There are multiple smaller works for those who want to spend half an hour getting their toes wet instead. The five suggestions that follow will take between 10 and 30 minutes of your time.

Read everything, but start here

  1. “The Word of Unbinding” https://www.amazon.com/Word-Unbinding-Story-Twelve-Quarters-ebook/dp/B01N6G07B8/
    Here is the first glimmer of the Earthsea stories that would later reshape fantasy. It’s an incredibly simple, incredibly deep tale. It is the story of a wizard trapped by the minions of a dark, magic-wielding warlord, and his multiple attempts at escape, until he sees there is only one way to end the conflict. I write about it in more detail here.
  2. “Semley’s Necklace” https://www.amazon.com/Semleys-Necklace-Story-Twelve-Quarters-ebook/dp/B01NCJ1O13/
    This is the first entry in the Hainish cycle, a loosely connected series of short stories and novels that share a universe in which the ancient, highly advanced humanoid inhabitants of the planet Hain-Davenant seed multiple colony worlds (including Earth) with genetically modified versions of themselves. Their galactic Empire collapses and leaves their client worlds to evolve on their own for millennia, before a new, more democratic “League of Worlds” rises from the ashes of the fallen Hainish people. It solves the Star Trek problem (wherein every alien species is actually just a human in funny makeup) by giving all different planets common ancestry. “Semley’s Necklace” concerns the inhabitant of one of these now-backwards planets seeking to recover an important heirloom from a museum in which a League anthropologist has placed it. It follows so perfectly the fantasy convention of leaving home, changing yourself, and coming back to a changed world, but the setting is science fiction, with spaceships, lightspeed, and galactic governance. The melding of science fiction with a fantasy feel is made possible by Clarke’s Third Law, which states that “[a]ny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This interplay between the fantasy perspective (for the main character, a rube princess from a backwater world) and the science-fiction perspective (for the reader, who recognizes all the technology and conventions of SF) is delicious, and is a good example of how Le Guin uses the conventions of the field in which she works, but also reshapes them. To give a hint of this dynamic, here’s the opening paragraph:

    How can you tell the legend from the fact on these worlds that lie so many years away?–planets without names, called by their people simply The World, planets without history, where the past is the matter of myth, and a returning explorer finds his own doings of a few years back have become the gestures of a god. Unreason darkens that gap of time bridged by our lightspeed ships, and in the darkness uncertainty and disproportion grow like weeds.

  3. “The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas” https://www.amazon.com/Ones-Who-Walk-Away-Omelas-ebook/dp/B01N0PZ35J/
    This story, also known as “The One You Read in High School,” is a perfect little allegory. Le Guin describes in broad strokes the happy city of Omelas in her characteristic bright and shining prose, but also explores, in prose no less evocative, the dark bargain at the center of this perfect place. It is a wonderful answer to the moral absurdity of Utilitarianism, and an important story for everyone who lives in our current society, where most of us enjoy cheap shoes and laptops (like the one I’m currently typing on) but try as hard as we can not to think of who’s making the shoes and circuit boards.
  1. Book Reviews
    Ursula Le Guin at rostrum
    She stopped writing fiction later in life, but stayed active in other ways. Credit: Photos © 2014 Jack Liu

    Le Guin stopped writing books later in life, but she didn’t stop writing about them. If you only want to spend a few minutes getting acquainted with her analytical flair, she wrote a lot of reviews. There’s Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology (not effusively positive, but he said he’d rather be chided by Le Guin than worshipped by another reviewer), China Mieville’s Three Moments of an Explosion, and Salman Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty‑Eight Nights, just to get you started. Her opinion of these works, informed by decades of reading and writing, are some of the best examples of modern book reviews. They aren’t simple vehicles for front-cover blurbs — they fairly weigh the good and the bad of each with a clarity of prose and depth of understanding that is a trademark of everything Le Guin did.

  2. Commentary
    Ursula K. Le Guin was a lot of things, but she was never silent or out of touch. Throughout her life, she wrote about art, about politics, about people. Her fiction is the biggest gift she left behind, but it’s not the only one. My favorite is when she took umbrage at a book review that was dismissive of genre fiction and wrote a short pulp pastiche, “On Serious Literature.” Another in the same vein is when Important Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro worried that readers of his most recent novel, which uses the tropes of fantasy other authors spent decades refining, would “be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?” Her response is a delightful, bristling defence of genre. Even after the National Book Awards honored her for lifetime achievement, even after the Library of America printed her books while she was still alive (an honor shared by only one other author, Philip Roth), she was still going to bat for SFF. Her perception of the book was not kind — as fantasy, it was a failure. Her last line throws shade as only an 80+ year old grandma could, enough to blot out the sun:

    I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”

    She also commented on current events. In one letter to the editor at The Oregonian (imagine receiving a letter to the editor and realizing it’s from Le Guin), she attacked the concept of Trumpian “alternative facts.” In another, she took issue with the newspaper’s sympathetic coverage of the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Her comments apply to the equally confusing sympathetic coverage outlets like The New York Times keep giving to white nationalists:

    “Instead of parroting the meaningless rants of a flock of Right-Winged Loonybirds infesting the refuge, why doesn’t The Oregonian talk to the people who live there?”

Finally, there’s her National Book Awards Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech. Maybe some people there expected a little old lady to deliver gratitude-filled pablum, but that’s not what they got. At an event partially sponsored by Amazon, with Amazon representatives in the audience, she unleashed a Jeremiad against “letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.” She said, “[w]e live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” You should really watch the whole thing below:

Now cracks a noble heart

Le Guin is the greatest American writer of the last century. In these five suggestions, sadly too meager to get a full idea of the colossus that was Ursula K. Le Guin, there are hints of her vivid, crystalline prose and depth of feeling, of her incisive intellect, and of her unerring morality. She was a gift, a node of sanity in a world of increasing confusion, and she is irreplaceable.

If you want to go deeper, I suggest (in addition to The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and A Wizard of Earthsea) her short story collections, The Found and the Lost and The Unreal and the Real. Myself, I will soon be enjoying her definitive Library of America collection of science-fiction, The Hainish Novels and Stories.

Why You Need to Read Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage Immediately

Kindle photo of La Belle Sauvage

The first entry in The Book of Dust returns to one of the most solidly realized worlds in fiction

La Belle Sauvage is a wonderful, waterlogged fever dream built on the bones of a palpable reality. Readers who were transported by the original His Dark Materials trilogy should read it, without a doubt.

You can get it here: https://www.amazon.com/Book-Dust-Belle-Sauvage/dp/0375815309.

Pullman’s granite-solid sense of place

 

Pullman’s most impressive talent is how painstakingly he can build a place without letting boredom seep into the details. The first half of the book is an introduction to the world of Malcolm Polstead, an intelligent if unassuming 11-year-old, an innkeeper’s son who does odd jobs for the nuns across the river just outside Oxford. Pullman describes anbaric cars, naphtha lamps, and Protestant nunneries who serve Geneva instead of Rome, all those little pieces of difference from His Dark Materials that add up to a jarringly strange and exciting world. He also describes Yorkshire pudding, kitchen chores, school lessons, and reading — the standard building blocks of normal life.

For a good chunk of the book, Malcolm’s life is slow and sedate, but the things he does and where he goes are so powerfully described that it’s not boring, and suspense is always hissing at the edges of the narrative, whispering here and there like a fire just starting up — there’s no blaze yet, but the heat is there, and the first questing tongues of flame are licking the edges of the logs.

 

Without imagination, literature is nothing

 

The sheer joy of Pullman’s imagination is in full force here. The strength of his fantasy is its matter-of-factness. He grounds the fantastic so deeply in the everyday and uses it so sparingly that when it hits, it’s got the brightness of the strange but the weight of normalcy. The main action of the narrative is fleeing down the Thames in a canoe to bring Lyra to safety. Within a pile of mundane concerns — evasion of pursuers, feeding and changing the baby, protection against the weather — suddenly Malcolm and company meet a minor river-god who allows them to pass, or a child-sick faerie queen who attempts to steal Lyra. There’s the general background radiation of the bizarre — daemons, an ascendant and monstrous Church, alternative terminology (anbaric instead of electric, naphtha instead of oil lamps) — but outbreaks of the truly weird are rare, thus more powerful and believable. Pullman does not abuse the suspension of disbelief, so he can go farther when he invokes it.

 

Without realism, fantasy is nothing

 

The greatest feature of Pullman novels is that he treats children as children — that is, as complete people capable of experiencing pain, loss, courage and fear. Kids in The Book of Dust have to deal with the Real World, just like kids here do. When Malcolm is being pursued by someone who would hurt him, he beats him to death with a paddle, he feels each horrifying, grisly stroke, and he watches the blood pool out of his victim’s head. By contrast, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the most courageous thing the Pevensies do is follow Aslan around until he pounces on the White Witch for them. Narnia is about the complete abdication of personal responsibility to a higher power, and The Book of Dust is about the terrifying responsibility of making human decisions in an inhuman world. There’s actual gristle in the challenges Pullman’s pint-sized protagonists face, and the solid reality of his characters’ struggles makes this an appealing book for readers of any age or genre affiliation.