Man, that post title makes it sounds like I don’t think a whole helluva lot of Myke Cole, doesn’t it? That would be utter horseshit. Major shenanigans. I love Myke. Myke’s a stand-up guy, tough as nails but nice as cookies, and a helluva author, to boot. He’s living it, he’s doing it, he’s working his ass off, and so here he is to talk a little bit of shop — this time, about originality in fiction. (Er, and Myke named the post, damnit. Quit lookin’ at me.)
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My novel Gemini Cell comes out on January 27th [hint: that’s tomorrow — c.], and I wanted to come on Terribleminds to tell you that it’s absolutely unoriginal.
And that’s just fine.
If you work in any artistic discipline, you’ve had this experience: You have a great idea. Not normal-great, but GREAT-great. A thumbnail for a painting that will supplant the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. A novel plot that will make George R. R. Martin throw in the towel. We’re talking scintillating. Game changing. True genius.
And then you go to do your due diligence on the Internet, and find that it’s already been done. Not something vaguely similar. The same damn thing in every last, damnable, niggling, particular detail.
Yes, folks, it’s true, absolutely EVERYTHING has been done before. Professional artists have been burned too many times, we KNOW this. We don’t even bother trying to come up with new ideas.
And that’s okay. Because there’s another great thing happening, it’s called time. Time works hand-in-hand with the incredibly short memory and attention span of the average fan. People FORGET, and they forget quickly. Culture is organic, an ever-evolving phenomenon whose only constant is change. What does this mean? That if you wait long enough, and often not very long at all, enough time will pass, and trends will change enough that your stale idea will suddenly seem original again.
Let’s look at comics for an example. Up until the 80’s, comics were all wrapped up in a set of standards promulgated by a group known as the Comics Code Authority (CCA). Now, I’m not going to get into a history of the CCA, but suffice to say that it existed to protect all the innocent children (and adults) reading comics from stuff they already knew about anyway. Things like, you know, violence and gore, masturbation and boobies. To sum up, the CCA existed to make comic books suck.
And suck they did, from the CCA’s founding in 1954, up until the mid-80’s, when time and changing attitudes forced them to relax their standards (publishers finally abandoned the CCA in the 2000’s, but it was defanged long before that).
Now here’s the thing: you would think that there’d be some grand gesture marking the departure from the shadows of censorship and dancing into the light of depictions of dicks and severed heads and dropping the occasional F-bomb. Batman would be replaced with Buttman. Spidey would web sling his way onto a porn set in the middle of filming. Everything would change.
But that’s not what happened, and that’s okay. Because what happened was way better.
Art is in the details, in the nuance, not the grand gesture. In 1986, Frank Miller brought us Dark Knight Returns, the same Batman we knew and loved from the CCA days, but with a darker cast, updated for an audience ready to be confronted with life’s unrelenting demands on all of us, superhuman or otherwise. A few years earlier, Alan Moore had updated Swamp Thing from his neutered 70’s origins, making him a creature at once dedicated to and utterly cut off from humanity. Neil Gaiman took Wesley Dodds out of his 30’s fedora and gasmask, and made him the deathless master of dream who was as relentless and uncompromising as a hurricane, condemning people, races and worlds to destruction on a whim or at the direction of protocols only he fully understood.
None of this was new. Miller, Moore and Gaiman revived and refreshed characters they hadn’t invented. They took an old thing and played with it, just a little. Just enough.
Anyone who loves comics knows that in all three cases, the result was nothing less than revolutionary.
Zombie stories are popular enough now to constitute their own subgenre. Like most folks of my generation, I grew up on Romero flicks, the slow, dumb zombies in Night of the Living Dead, and their faster counterparts in Dawn of the Dead (the ’04 remake). I sucked down all the Honestly-These-Aren’t-Zombies-Okay-Maybe-They-Are films like 28 Days Later, Resident Evil and I am Legend (both the Vincent Price and Will Smith variants). I started reading Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics in ’03, and stuck with him when the TV series on HBO became stratospherically popular. I’ve downloaded my fair share of mobile-device zombie shoot-em-up games, which are ubiquitous on both the Apple and Android online stores. The Last of Us, which postulates fungal infection as a means of transmission, was such a good console game that I actually watched a two-hour walkthrough on YouTube like it was a feature film.
The zombie genre has been done to death. Romero has been working in the field since 1968. Kirkman has been making “zombie” a household word for over a decade now. Zombies are dead, they eat the flesh of the living. They can be slow or they can be fast. It can be a virus or it can be a bacteria. They can be easily contained or they can bring about an apocalypse. There isn’t a lot left to explore.
Except there is. And writers are doing it. Diana Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series has been well-received (won an RT Reviewer’s Choice award for best Urban Fantasy Protagonist – and that protagonist was a zombie), with the 4th novel hitting stores this past July. Rowland is asking the question, “how does a zombie get on with life after . . . you know, not being alive?” and it’s clearly resonating with readers. Mike Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, is one of the most celebrated genre novels in memory, drawing intense praise from Slate, the Guardian and Entertainment Weekly. Carey’s book is a bildungsroman for a 10-year old girl growing up in the post-apocalyptic wreckage. Like Rowland’s Ashley Crawford, she is infected, and coping with what it means to grow up when your life is already cut short.
Make no mistake, these are zombie novels. There is nothing grandly bright or new here. It’s just the lightest touch on an old, familiar standby, and it makes all the difference in the world.
Gemini Cell’s protagonist is a U.S. Navy SEAL who is killed when an op goes south. Raised from the dead, he must share his own corpse with a demon and return to the service of his country. But our hero has more on his mind than his job, he left a wife and son behind, and won’t rest until he’s learned their fate.
Gemini Cell is a zombie-novel, but it’s doing other things as well. Schweitzer’s death and reanimation is a bald stand-in for PTSD, and how it cuts those who go to war off from the rest of society, as surely as if they were dead walking among the living. He’s a zombie with a family, and his status as walking-corpse hasn’t changed his love for them, or his desire to continue on as a husband and father. It’s a light touch, to be sure. That’s by design.
If I did it right, it will play like Miller, or Moore, or Gaiman. Readers will feel rooted in the old trope, but spun in a new direction different enough to make them feel that sense of resonance and wonder that brings us to speculative fiction in the first place. If I did it wrong, it’ll be tired, or incoherent, or both.
But either way, Gemni Cell is nothing new. And that’s just fine with me.
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As a security contractor, government civilian and military officer, Myke Cole’s career has run the gamut from Counterterrorism to Cyber Warfare to Federal Law Enforcement. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. All that conflict can wear a guy out. Thank goodness for fantasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dungeons and Dragons and lots of angst fueled writing.