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A Story With Zombies

(inspired by Zombies: Seriously, Enough, Zombies Are So Overdone, and Scifi/Fantasy Stories Editors Are Tired Of Seeing: Zombies)

He walked into my office and threw the manuscript on my desk with a thud.

“It’s called Thankful For Zombies. A zombie story where…”

“Nope,” I said.

His face deflated like a balloon. “But I didn’t even…”

“Zombies are overdone,” I said.

“But this is a zombie story with a twist!”

“Zombie stories with twists are super overdone.”

“But this is a story about an extended family who get together for Thanksgiving dinner, only to be interrupted by a zombie apocalypse. It’s a Thanksgiving story about zombies. You have to admit that the combination of zombies and Thanksgiving has never…”

“Done,” I said.

“Wait, really? The family starts out estranged and suspicious of each other, but then when they all have to work together to…”

“Done,” I said.

“How could that have been done?”

“Listen. I know you won’t believe me, but for the past ten years or so, the best literary minds of our generation have been working on creating zombie stories just different enough from every other zombie story around to get published. First the clever and interesting twists got explored. Then the mediocre and boring twists. Then the absurd and idiotic twists. Finally the genre got entirely mined out. There is now a New York Times bestselling book about zombies invading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. If your idea isn’t weirder than that, it’s been done. And that’s the logical ‘if’. If your idea is weirder than that, it has also been done.”

“I will get Thankful for Zombies published,” he said.

“You won’t,” I advised him.

“I just have to think of an original angle.”

“You really won’t,” I told him.

“The zombies are the good guys,” he proposed.


“The zombies are smarter than humans.”


“In the end, we ourselves are the zombies.”


“A human girl falls in love with a zombie.”


“Okay, fine. Toss the Thanksgiving angle. There’s got to be some zombie plot that will be fresh and new.”

“I promise you, there’s not.”

“Zombies in space.”


“Zombies from space.”


“Zombies are space.”


“Zombies in Victorian England.”


“Zombies in Edwardian England.”


“Zombies in Shakespearean England.”


“Shakespeare was a zombie, and all of his plays are just the word BRAAAAAAIIINS repeated over and over again.”

“Done, for some reason.”

“A young zombie comes of age.”


“A middle-aged zombie wonders if her single-minded focus on career success has prevented her from becoming the kind of zombie she wanted to be when she was younger.”


“An elderly zombie contemplates death.”

“Zombies are already dead.”

“Then I can…”

“…and yet it’s still been done.”

“A zombie in the Vietnam War.”


“A hippie zombie at Woodstock.”


“Strong female zombies.”


“Jewish zombies.”


“Black zombies.”


“A gay zombie struggling to fit into a homophobic zombie society.”

“Come on, this is the 21st century. Done like ten times. One of them won the Booker.”

“Gender-questioning zombies.”


“An immigrant zombie comes to America, with nothing but the decaying shirt on his back, knowing only a single word of English.”

All zombies only know a single word of English. Also, done.”

“Nazi zombies.”


“Vampire zombies.”


“Pirate zombies.”


“Obstetrician/gynaecologist zombies.”


“Zombie Hitler.”


“Zombie Henry VIII.”


“But what if it was told from the perspective of Anne Boleyn?”


“Zombie Leonardo da Vinci.”


“Zombie Jesus.”

“Done. By three guys named Matt, Luke, and John.”

“Zombie Buddha.”


“Zombie Mohammed.”

“Done. As is the author, if you get my drift.”

“Zombie Zoroaster.”


“A parody subverting zombie stories.”

“Super done.”

“A parody subverting zombie stories lampshading how overdone they are.”

“Super duper done.”

“Hmmmm.” He thinks for a second. “Hold on, I’m remembering something from my college math class that might work here. You take all the zombie novels ever written, and you put them in some well-ordering, for example from first to last published. Then you make a new novel, consisting of the first page of the first novel, the second page of the second novel, and so on. But you change each page just a little bit. Since we know the first page of the new novel is different from the first page of the first novel, and the second page of the new novel is different from the second page of the second novel, by extension we know that there is at least one page on which the new novel is different from each zombie novel currently in existence. That means that the new story is provably original.”


“I don’t think you understand; it’s mathematically impossible for…”

“No, I mean there’s a story about a zombie doing that.”

“Oh.” He furrowed his brow. “A zombie superhero.”


“Steampunk zombies.”

“Done. I think now you’re just trolling me.”

“Motorcycle gangs of zombies.”


“A zombie story that’s a metaphor for how…”


“I didn’t finish!”

“You didn’t have to.”

“A zombie gets cancer.”


“A zombie gets depression.”


“A zombie tries to write zombie fiction.”


“A zombie tries to write zombie fiction about a zombie trying to write zombie fiction.”


“A zombie tries to…”

“It’s done all the way down.”

“Young free-spirited zombies trying to see America.”


“A story that starts off as being about a fantasy society of knights and damsels, but at the very end it’s revealed everyone is a zombie.”


“A story that starts off as being about a young woman’s struggle to succeed in 1980s Wall Street, but at the very end it’s revealed everyone is a zombie.”


“A story that starts off as being a paleontology textbook about the fauna of the Lower Cretaceous, but at the very end it’s revealed everyone is a zombie.”

“Twist zombie endings are done.”

“A zombie…a zombie riding a giant purple emu through 17th century Ireland teams up with the pre-ghost of Thomas Jefferson to investigate a crime in which time-traveling flamboyantly gay sapient hippos have murdered the Secret Protestant Pope in order to initiate the Jain apocalypse, with liberal quotations from and allusions to the works of Edgar Allen Poe Thomas Pynchon and the medieval Rolandic cycle, and also the whole thing is a metaphor for Republican resistance to climate change legislation.”

I thought for a moment. “Okay,” I said. “That particular plot has not, technically, been done. But no one would read it.”

“They will,” he said.

“You’d be wasting your time to write it.”

“I’m writing it,” he said.

“Suit yourself. Put it on my desk when you’re finished, and I’ll take a look at it. But your chances aren’t good.”

“I don’t care,” he said, and left.

I sighed, finished up my last couple of pieces of paperwork, and shambled home from the office. On the way out, I ate my secretary’s brain.

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186 Responses to A Story With Zombies

  1. Tom Hunt says:

    And that word no longer looks like a word to me. Congratulations.

  2. Christopher says:

    “A man tries absolutely everything to come up with an original story relating to zombies, and everyone around him gets sick of it. Later he becomes a zombie, and people think it’s just performance art, so he kills and kills and they do nothing to stop him.”

  3. Deiseach says:

    I’ll pass over your comment on the Synoptic Gospels 🙂 But there is a story by a Russian author, Leonid Andreyev, about Lazarus post-resurrection which could be read as a zombie Lazarus.

    • Anonymous says:

      but it wasn’t about the synoptic gospels.

      • drunkenrabbit says:

        Yeah, for some reason poor Mark got overlooked.

        • Anonymous says:

          perhaps because the resurrection isn’t in the earliest manuscripts?

          • drunkenrabbit says:

            Well, sorta. The oldest version of Mark ends abruptly with the empty tomb, and an angel saying that he would meet them in Galilee. I don’t know if that counts as “zombie Jesus” or not.

          • J. Quinton says:

            The angel(s) appears in the gospels subsequent to Mark. The person at Jesus’ tomb in Mark is a “young man”, or neaniskos. The only other time that neaniskos is used in Mark is when the “young man” runs away naked right before Jesus is arrested, which probably means they are the same person.

          • Jaskologist says:

            That feels like a classic case of reading too much into the Original Greek. Mark is short; the fact that “young man” is only used one other place in it doesn’t mean it must refer to the same person. It could just as easily mean that a need for the word simply didn’t come up anywhere else.

          • J. Quinton says:

            Mark *is* short, and he is pretty deliberate about his word choice… *especially* when naming characters/places. He’s not just picking terms out of a hat.

            Since this post is about zombies, note that the Lazarus equivalent in Mark is the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Jairus is derived from the word “he will awaken”. So we have a guy whose name is “he will awaken” who asks Jesus to wake his daughter up (“the child’s not dead, just asleep”).

            There are tons of other deliberately used names.

            Bethany is where Jesus is being mourned by an ironically nameless woman (Jesus says she’ll be known for all time due to her actions). Bethany means “house of mourning”.

            Jesus is around the area of Bethphage where he curses an unripe fig tree. What a coincidence that “Bethphage” means “house of unripe figs”.

            Barabbas — the guy who was behaving like the typical messiah/Joshua figure (the same sort of behavior that led to the first Jewish-Roman war) and was about to be executed for sedition who the “Jews” wanted released — of course means “son of the father”. It was the sort of switcheroo that looks a lot like the scapegoat ceremony in Leviticus 16.

            Everything in Mark is done with a poetic/allegorical (or theological) purpose. It should be read as a work of art like Shakespeare. The majority of is is written in chiasms fer chrissakes.

          • drunkenrabbit says:

            Not to go too deep down the apologetics rabbithole, but some of those translations are pretty fraught. They’re not wrong, per se, but “Bethany” could mean anything from “house of dates” to “almshouse”, Jairus also means “whom God enlightens”. Obviously if you’re reading it as a work of literature you’d assume whichever translation made the most sense as a literary device. Which, given the colloquial and awkward style of Mark, isn’t the safest bet.

        • E. Harding says:

          Mark technically doesn’t describe anyone actually seeing the risen physical body of Jesus.

    • J. Quinton says:

      Zombie Lazarus? See: Fist of Jesus

  4. Dominik Peters says:

    I liked the diagonalisation argument. You should delete the words “there is at least one page on which”, though. Not quite correct otherwise.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I changed the word “every” to “each” because I think this was a misunderstanding. I wasn’t saying “There is a particular single page, such that the new novel differs from every other novel on that page,” I was saying “For each novel, the new novel will differ from it by at least one page.”

      • Decius says:

        But, the number of zombie novels with at most X pages exceeds X, for all X less than the maximum number of pages in any one zombie novel.

        • Trivial fix that doesn’t affect the argument — pad each zombie novel with fewer pages than there are existing zombie novels with blank pages, so all zombie novels are of the fixed length $numzombienovels.

          • Decius says:

            Obviously you would have to append those pages to the end, or else there’s nothing preventing the generated novel from being identical to the novel before padding.

            And there’s nothing preventing the final novel from having the X pages be identical to the first X pages of a book that has X pages; that’s not a unique zombie novel, that’s an omnibus sequel!

  5. NonsignificantName says:

    Some zombies are infected with a mutated strain of the zombie virus which causes them to eat zombies instead of humans. The humans ally with these zombies to fight first-order zombies but soon, there are reports of a kind of third-order zombie, which eats second-order zombies. Eventually, the world devolves into a war between even ordered zombies and odd ordered zombies, each searching for their ever-more-specific prey

  6. Nitpick: The Reality Dysfunction isn’t about zombies in space (the Amazon blurb is wrong). It’s about, um, the dead returning to possess the living. For example, Al Capone comes back and tries to set up the mafia in the 26th Century.

    Leviathan Wakes is about zombies in space.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’ve read Reality Dysfunction, and although you’re right that it is not exactly traditional zombies, I still think of it as mostly zombies in space.

      • If we were in the pub I would now drag you into a pleasant argument on this subject. I will not do so here because I would look like a crazy person.

        • drethelin says:

          As I don’t really mind looking somewhat crazy, I’ll say that I think you’re both kind of right. While examples like Quinn and Capone are very clearly “Dead Posses The Living”, most of the behavior and activities of the possesed/returned in the books are a lot closer to Zombie-Like than they are to classic possession. The spread through contamination and constant violence especially. This is followed through in many of the attempts to defeat them, since they almost all rely on simple violence instead of negotiation or banishment.

      • lmm says:

        They don’t shamble, or eat brains, and they’re not in their original bodies. There are other kinds of undead than zombies, y’know.

      • Peter says:

        The Reality Dysfunction: a story where a hard science fiction universe gets invaded by monsters from another genre.

    • Nick says:

      I think Scott Westerfeld’s Succession duology is technically also about zombies in space.

    • Matt C says:

      Stross’s Neptune’s Brood has zombies in space.

    • alexp says:

      I wouldn’t say Leviathan Wakes is about zombies in space. There are zombies at some point, and the novel takes place in space.

  7. w says:

    The most interesting zombie concept I’ve seen in the past decade or so was about zombies that are mentally and (generally) physically identical to regular humans. So basically, they’re not zombies.

  8. drunkenrabbit says:

    Scott, any theories as to why people beat the undead horse of zombie stories so thoroughly? Fads come and go, obviously, but I can’t remember any other genre getting this treatment.

    • Ialdabaoth says:

      Fads come and go + internet weirds memetics –> there will eventually be a fad whose rise coincides with the internet’s maximal ability to sustain it.

      This fad happened to be zombies. It’s pure path-dependency.

    • Susebron says:

      To quote David Wong: “The zombie looks like a man, walks like a man, eats and otherwise functions fully, yet is devoid of the spark. It represents the nagging doubt that lays deep in the heart of even the most zealous believer: behind all of your pretty songs and stained glass, this is what you really are. Shambling meat. Our true fear of the zombie was never that its bite would turn us into one of them. Our fear is that we are already zombies.” It’s appealing to a lot of people to believe that they are the one thinking person left in the world, the sole survivor amid the mindless hordes.
      Zombies also make good enemies for video games. There’s no need for complicated AI, you can just throw them at the player. There’s no moral ambiguity with killing them, in a world where people notice when you try to demonize any specific group. This is why a lot of shooters have terrorists or Nazis (or even Nazi zombies) as the enemy: they’re acceptable to portray as pure evil.

      Also what Ialdabaoth said.

      • drunkenrabbit says:

        Is that from “This Book is Full of Spiders”? It reminds me of The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. It inspired Rust’s brand of nihilism in “True Detective”, which makes me think that the recent zombie trend might be part of some bigger, societal fears about the meaninglessness of “humanity” and consciousness.

        • Susebron says:

          Yeah, it is.

          It’s also, I think, inspired somewhat by the advance of technology. Someone who’s texting appears nearly mindless, transfixed by the screen instead of directly interacting and talking with another human. Technology opens up a massive range of ways to interact with vast numbers of people, but humans were shaped by evolution in an environment where interaction was face-to-face. Interaction over the Internet doesn’t always have the same vitality as in-person discussion, and it makes it easier to see others (especially ideological opponents) as faceless, mindless puppets. The zombie apocalypse reflects the alienation and isolation that results.
          Of course, the Internet isn’t all bad. The vast expansion of potential communication is a great thing, and I would personally be significantly worse off were it not for the exposure to the opinions and ideas of others that it allows. Online interaction isn’t as good as direct interpersonal interaction, but it’s better than total lack of interaction. It’s the best solution we have to the lottery of fascinations.

          • drunkenrabbit says:

            “28 Months Later”: A man goes into a coma in 2009, and wakes up a couple years in the future, to find everyone around him has been turned into mindless, shuffling automatons. Then he gets a smartphone for Christmas and joins them.

      • Anonymous says:

        There’s no moral ambiguity with killing them, in a world where people notice when you try to demonize any specific group. This is why a lot of shooters have terrorists or Nazis (or even Nazi zombies) as the enemy: they’re acceptable to portray as pure evil.

        ^^ This. I would go further and posit that the major driving force is actually Apple’s appstore policies which makes is hard to predict whether your game will be approved if you chose any humanoid villain except nazi zombie terrorists. I seem to recall that a game about WWII in the Pacific was turned down because you might be killing Japanese people if you played on the Allied side.

        • Susebron says:

          I don’t think it’s just Apple. The app store may be a large market, but zombie games predate that, and there are plenty of non-phone-app zombie shooters.

          • Deiseach says:

            Plants versus Zombies. Or at least the first game, which was fun and original. The much-delayed sequel was not so great, in my opinion.

          • Susebron says:

            Plants vs. Zombies came out in 2009. I don’t know if the zombie genre was as popular back then, but it wasn’t the first zombie game by a long run. Half-Life came out in 1998, and that’s just the first zombie game I can think of off the top of my head.

          • Nornagest says:

            Half-Life features zombies as enemies (as do many early shooters, including Doom), but I wouldn’t call it a zombie game in the sense of inheriting significantly from the zombie genre. Resident Evil came out two years earlier, however, and that’s unambiguously a zombie game.

          • Susebron says:

            Point taken.

    • Sylocat says:

      You get to fantasize about shooting your annoying neighbors and coworkers in the head and/or running over them with tanks, then rebuilding society with the chosen few you’ve protected as the new leaders of the Earth.

    • Anonymous says:

      One of the reasons is that they are still pretty recent, I think. Wasn’t the beginning of the modern zombies in 1968 (George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”)? Previous zombies (e.g.Haitian) weren’t similar to modern zombies. Undeads such as vampires or ghouls aren’t really zombies.

      Thus, if you were born before 1968, you can claim to be younger than a modern zombie 🙂

      • elementary_watson says:

        Two words and a number: Black Smurfs. 1959.

        Damn, I would leave the room whenever the Smurfs cartoon episode was on …

      • Deiseach says:

        Zombies (and werewolves, come to that) are not my monster; my first exposure to zombies was the classic voudoun kind, both in horror fiction and in the movies.

        Jacques Tourneur’s “I Walked With A Zombie” and the Bela Lugosi B-movie “White Zombie”, before getting to see the first “Night of the Living Dead”.

        It’s interesting how zombies seem to swing in and out of popularity; back in the 80s/90s there was a raft of zombie movies. And now there are zombies all over the television , from “The Walking Dead” to “In the Flesh”.

    • Tarrou says:

      Eschatology and the repressed desire to kill roughly 80% of the people you meet in a given day.

    • Whateverfor says:

      Because Zombies are the lower-class made monsters, and we can’t write stories directly about the low class brutes so we have to use indirection. With the upper class we can insult them directly, so we can just make Wolf of Wall Street instead of endless vampire stories.

      (I’m at least half joking)

      • Nornagest says:

        Werewolves are the lower class made monsters. Zombies are mass culture and conformity made monstrous. There’s a reason Dawn of the Dead takes place in a mall.

        (Vampires are vaguer — they’ve pointed to a lot of things in various media, and the only real constant is that they’re something sexy and forbidden. That goes back as far as the genre does — Dracula is fear of foreign influence, while Carmilla is all about lesbianism.)

        • drunkenrabbit says:

          Yes, but when people attack conformity, they attack its manifestation in an outgroup. Malls and mall culture tend to be identified with middle and lower-class America (whereas conscious, free-thinking individuals all individually decide to shop at Whole Foods and farmers markets).

          • Nornagest says:

            Sure, but the target audience for zombie movies is largely also middle- and lower-class: the grindhouse cinema that the zombie genre comes out of was very much not an upper-class phenomenon. A lot of the horror payload comes specifically out of the fear that you too might be, or become, a mindless culture slave.

            It’s playing on what you see of your own demographics outside the 150 people in your Dunbar group, in other words. For a lot of people in the last forty or so years that hasn’t been a pleasant mirror to look into.

          • drunkenrabbit says:

            Those are both really good points. I’m trying to think of analogues — in terms of fiction that plays on what you see in your own demographic when you look outside your Dunbar group.

            I think the bulk of dystopian “young adult” fiction probably comes from teenage feelings of personal specialness, and unwarranted persecution by peers and institutions.

            Also, the recent conception of vampires (as morally ambiguous or good, rather than purely evil) might represent a subconscious defense of privilege, as well as an increased willingness to break sexual taboos.

            But those are both more examples of fiction that’s designed to flatter the reader’s feelings and prejudices, rather than play on their fears about themselves.

          • Susebron says:

            Lone-survivor zombie stories are designed to flatter the reader’s feeling of being the lone thinking individual in a world of mindless automatons, and, as Sylocat said above, their desire to kill annoying people with no fear of retribution or moral ambiguity.

        • Multiheaded says:

          Werewolves are, if anything, bourgeois, because 1) repressed desires, and 2) women.

          I mean, come on.

        • Mary says:

          “Vampires are vaguer — they’ve pointed to a lot of things in various media, and the only real constant is that they’re something sexy and forbidden.”

          Nope. Medieval vampires were about as unsexy as you get — about, actually, the least pleasant form of modern day zombies.

          I blame the fluttery little fairies with wings. Shakespeare had good reason to heavily emphasize that Oberon and company were harmless — witches were burned at the stage for consorting with the, ehem Good Folk — but making them tiny and fluttery did mean they moved out of the demon lover slot, leaving it open. Something had to move it. Looks like it was vampires.

          • Nornagest says:

            When I say “vampire”, I mean vampires in Victorian and post-Victorian media, roughly starting with The Vampyre (1816) and Varney the Vampire (1845; swear I’m not making that name up). I’m quite aware that mythological/folkloric vampires are much less seductive (a better word than “sexy”; Dracula isn’t described as remotely attractive, but what he represents has a certain kind of appeal), but in terms of themes and story structure they’re essentially a different beastie entirely. I think they’re pretty cool, actually, but they haven’t gotten much of any exposure recently.

            I lump them in my head with the draugar of Norse folklore, but that probably has more to do with my choice of reading than anything else.

          • Deiseach says:

            (1) You forgot the subtitle: “Varney the Vampire, or, The Feast of Blood”. Does what it says on the tin 🙂

            (2) Re: witches consorting with fairies and being burned at the stake. There’s been a whole lot of crap written about both ‘the witchcraft craze’ and the burnings (as one form of execution), e.g. “Nine million murdered in the Burning Times!!!!”

            As ever, it depends where you were and when you were. Irish folklore is replete with people associating with the fairies; often, these men and women were treated as having secret knowledge of cures and the like, not as conspirators wtih the devil. There was one case of witch-burning in Ireland; it wasn’t about consorting with the Daoine Sidhe but with the devil, it was part of the tension between the new Norman-Irish colonisation and the native Irish (part of which was the imposition or introduction of English secular-church structure to replace the Irish monastic-based government), it happened in 1324 and it was the servant, Petronella de Meath, of the main accused Alice Kytelerwho was executed rather than Dame Alice (who fled to England and so far as we know didn’t end up burned anywhere).

            Witchcraft was lumped in with heresy, the execution for which was burning. James VI and I may have had a very strong interest in witchcraft but at the time Shakespeare was writing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Elizabeth was still on the throne and belief in fairies was already changing – witness the satirical poem “Farewell, Rewards and Fairies”:

            Witness those rings and roundelays
            Of theirs, which yet remain,
            Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
            On many a grassy plain;
            But since of late, Elizabeth,
            And later, James came in,
            They never danced on any heath
            As when the time hath been.

            By which we note the Fairies
            Were of the old Profession.
            Their songs were ‘Ave Mary’s’,
            Their dances were Procession.
            But now, alas, they all are dead;
            Or gone beyond the seas;
            Or farther for Religion fled;
            Or else they take their ease.

            Granted, attitudes amongs the educated were different to those amongst the peasantry and lower classes, but consider that Spenser felt in no peril about writing “The Faerie Queen” and identifying her with the monarch, or invoking the myths of the Trojans and fairies as founders of London and England.

            Depending on the time, and what part of Europe you were in, belief in fairies fluctuated; it wasn’t consistent across the Continent (Irish and Scots fairies are not German fairies are not Scandinavian fairies); witchcraft was always more linked to heresy and paganism (or what were considered pagan/diabolic beliefs) rather than ‘pure’ fairy lore and so became more of a problem in areas during the Wars of Religion where Protestantism was struggling to establish itself or was newly established as the dominant power – suddenly all the old traditions and charms were gone and you were left with a strong belief in the powers of evil but were now stripped of all the traditional remedies and left only with ‘the power of your faith will protect you’. Invoking the power of the state to protect you from evildoers and ‘fifth columnists’ was just one more stick in the bundle of transferring authority from The Church to The State.

    • Dan Simon says:

      any theories as to why people beat the undead horse of zombie stories so thoroughly?

      I assume it’s that a large fraction of contemporary artists and intellectuals can’t help feeling a strong sense of kinship with mindless, plodding creatures who have nothing to say, no goal but to advance, and no project beyond removing other people’s capacity to think…

  9. Ronak says:

    The knights and damsels thing reminded me of this:

    The GameWorld trilogy by Samit Basu is an epic fantasy parody whose recent history is a mix of the world wars and Indian mythology, where the orcs are the good guys and the elves want to destroy the world – and everyone is a player in a game being played by variously shaped gods.
    At some point, they get bored and turn everyone alive into a zombie.

  10. Shmi Nux says:

    I was expecting a “…, said Tom Zombie” line.

    • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

      “If I had a neuron for every zombie pitch … ” Tom mumbled mindlessly.

      • Anthony says:

        Zombies with autobiographical stories storm the publisher’s office, only to discover that nobody there has a brain, Tom suggested querulously.

  11. Paul says:

    “A science fiction novel with ‘zombies’, humans fitted with a reversible consciousness-bypass switch to enhance combat efficiency. Also vampires, as an extinct predator-species cloned from fossil DNA with brains that glitch when exposed to intersecting lines at right angles.”
    “Done, now you’re just describing Peter Watts’ Blindsight.”

    “How about a zombie civil war? Zombies are only the first post-dead evolutionary stage, and they’re fighting what comes next while the human survivors watch from the sidelines.”
    Done, as a script for a trailer for a nonexistent movie that I honestly would love to see made.”

    • cassander says:

      It is worth mentioning that Peter Watts’ Blindsight is about much more than zombies. In fact, it is one of the best science fiction books ever written, and cannot be recommended highly enough.

    • jpt4 says:

      A friend recently introduced me to Peter Watts via “Blindsight”; I do so enjoy sci-fi prose with the aggressiveness of William Gibson, yet erudition of Neal Stephenson.

      It seems as if Watts is building a larger interconnected ‘verse for his writings, with his website [0] now focused on “Echopraxia”, his newest long-form meditation on sentience-as-a-dysgenic-spandrel and the military application of P-zombies.


  12. Mary says:

    The real irony is that “zombies” in pop culture are much closer to the folklore of medieval vampires than the folkloric zombies. There was nothing much horrible about meeting a zombie.

    In the United States, at the Emancipiation, there were ten times as many slaves alive as had ever been imported. In the Caribbean, they regularly imported enough slaves to entirely replace the slave population every five years. When slavery is that harsh, the nightmare is even death is not a door marked “Exit.”

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Seen on Futility Closet:

      “In the West Indies, according to the Spanish historian Girolamo Benzoni, four thousand men and countless women and children died by jumping from cliffs or by killing each other. He adds that, out of the two million original inhabitants of Haiti, fewer than 150 survived as a result of the suicides and slaughter. In the end the Spaniards, faced with an embarrassing labor shortage, put a stop to the epidemic of suicides by persuading the Indians that they, too, would kill themselves in order to pursue them in the next world with even harsher cruelties.” — Alfred Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, 1971

  13. File 13 says:

    Zombies terrorised by humans?

    Worth watching if you can spare the seven minutes IMO 🙂

  14. Sylocat says:

    How about a story where a plucky hero has to run from a massive tidal wave of zombie games, zombie movies, and zombie-themed reinterpretations of classic literature? We could call it Critical Zombie Mass.

    • Anthony says:

      Critical Zombie Mass would be the zombie bike ride every last Friday of the month during rush hour.

    • beleester says:

      Done (sorta). Yahtzee used almost exactly that comment as a lead-in to a review of yet another zombie game.

      He suggested the title “Enough with the Fucking Zombies Already!”

  15. I hate you.

    (I also saw it coming about 2/3 of the way through.)

  16. Carinthium says:

    This actually makes a nice challenge. I’m going to assume somebody’s already done the obvious but not mentioned Zombies as a way to explore the philosophical argument of Soulnessness v.s non Soulnessness with a war between intelligent Zombies and intelligent religious fanatic Humans, but it could be made slightly original (if not very plausible) with a twist ending of the Aristotelean concept of the Soul as a compromise when the Zombies have won and try to accomodate the humans.

    I’d also guess somebody’s done the more realistic zombie story where the military or even the police simply slaughter them, plus the zombie story where everyone is Genre Savvy.

    Narrowing myself to ideas that aren’t completely silly, and which might not have been done before. Not that I hold out much hope.
    -A zombie invasion story mostly by the book, except that zombies are a metaphor for the baggage of past civilisation.

    -A zombie story as a metaphor for the problem of how old people run society.

    -A story where domesticated zombies are used for war as a metaphor for how society claims ownership of people and their accomplishments beyond the grave, implicitly pro-capitalist and pro-libertarian.

    • beleester says:

      >the zombie story where everyone is Genre Savvy.
      The Newsflesh Trilogy (Feed, Deadline, and Blackout) has this one covered. Several characters observe that the zombies behave pretty much like they do in the movies, and in fact it’s very common for kids to be named “Shaun” or “George” or “Georgia” in honor of that. Also, most characters know what happens in the movies when you get bitten and try to hide it, so they instead generally say their last words and let someone shoot them instead of infecting all their friends.

      >I’d also guess somebody’s done the more realistic zombie story where the military or even the police simply slaughter them

      Relevant XKCD:

    • scav says:

      I think the problem with “zombies as a metaphor for…” is that even if the metaphor itself hasn’t been done, every zombie-related element of the story has been, and getting your reader to see past that to enjoy your brilliant original metaphor is going to be a challenge.

      It’s rare enough for the reader to “get” a theme, metaphor or other bit of literary wank when what they want is a good story.

      • Carinthium says:

        Which is why you have to strike a fine balance between metaphor and beating the reader over the head with it. I’ll give an example below.

        If zombies are a metaphor for the baggage of past civilisation, then they should be summoned by an ancient curse made in, say, 1900, summoning all those who believed in the values of the time to strike down and destroy the invaders.

        The attack is in response to some major ‘progressive’ step or modernisation project. Barrack Obama’s election, for example, makes a good possibility. The media publicises a warning that happens thanks to the curse saying what happens.

        These zombies would be only the very ancient graves. They would be unable to turn people, but to compensate they’re a lot tougher and are experts at playing dead. Their enemies are mostly the young and progressives (by coincidence on a literal reading). Finally, the sucessful solutions to defeat them throughout the story (both minor victories and the ultimate victory) involve a mixture of innovation, open-mindedness, and the willingness to realise Society’s understanding of a thing may be wrong.

    • Anonymous says:

      A story where domesticated zombies are used for war as a metaphor for how society claims ownership of people and their accomplishments beyond the grave, implicitly pro-capitalist and pro-libertarian.

      I’m curious. Do you envisage this story as being pro- or anti-copyright protection, particularly copyright-beyond-authors’ death? And does this story equate society with government?

      • Carinthium says:

        The story would treat government as the main single organ of the tyranny of Society, but not the only one. The story would be mostly pro-copyright, with the very minor exception that copyright would be a right both sellable and renouncable.

    • Mugasofer says:

      >I’d also guess somebody’s done the more realistic zombie story where the military or even the police simply slaughter them, plus the zombie story where everyone is Genre Savvy.

      David Wong’s This Book Is Full Of Spiders is arguably both at once.

      • Susebron says:

        TBIFOS is also a commentary on the media, mass panics, and human inhumanity, while still managing to be funny. It’s rather impressive.

    • Doug S. says:

      I’ve seen the zombie story as a metaphor for feminism… The zombies have taken over and live humans have to do things like wear all-concealing clothing so zombies aren’t tempted to take a bite out of them.

  17. Uncle Fungus says:

    Oliver Cromwell is a zombie.

    After conquering Ireland, he sings the title song, “Oliver Zombie is here to stay”, then eats Elvis Costello

  18. DrBeat says:

    A zombie story where a zombie points out that everything has “been done” to some extent, depending on how strongly the judge wants to sneer at something for having “been done”, and how well it is done is really all that matters.

    Also there are Moon Nazis.

  19. Princess Stargirl says:

    Quote from “Zombies seriously enough” ”

    “With the honourable exception of King’s Pet Semetary – which is not really a zombie tale at all, anyway – I can’t think of anything with zombies that isn’t basically copying the template Romero laid down. Shaun of the Dead was a funny take on the mindless drones satirised in Dawn Of The Dead. Dead Set updated it for the Big Brother generation. But they’re still retreads, however well dressed, and the points they make aren’t new. The fast zombies of 28 Days Later were seen as a reinvention of the genre, but they were just the same zombies as before, except they could run fast and they died a little easier. Nothing too groundbreaking there.”

    Couldn’t one make roughly the same argument about the fantasy genre. Except replace “Dawn of the Dead” with “Lord of the Rings.” I do actually think fantasy has been absurdly LoTR “inspired” for decades. But this hasn’t stopped me from enjoying fantasy, even if the core elements are mostly very old hat by now. I love fantasy! I could easily imagine a person who feels about Zombies the way I feel about fantasy. So I really don’t see the problem with the proliferation of Zombie stories with the same core elements.

    Not every stories core elements need to be new. There is plenty of good stuff that is “Genre fiction.” Imo one should just consider “Zombie Apocalypse story” a genre.

    • Ialdabaoth says:

      Fine, but can we mix up genre a little? I’d like to give Giant Robots a try for a few years.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      If you go back to before Romero there are some decent traditional zombie movies. “The Plague of Zombies” is pretty good. “I Walked with a Zombie” is basically Jane Eyre with voodoo. “White Zombie” and “The Zombies of Mora Tau” aren’t exactly good but they are interesting.

      “The Serpent and the Rainbow” is a post-Romero zombie movie that follows the original legends more than it follows the Romero style.

    • Anonymous says:

      There’s an argument, I think I read it in something by Heinlein but it wasn’t new to him, that there’s only three plots ever:
      “Girl meets boy”
      “The clever tailor” (basically someone solves their problems through ingenuity).
      “A stranger comes to town.” (something new happens, and people respond, this story obviously covers the zombie genre).

      With every single story being just some combination of one of those three. And certainly I have an unending appetite for The Clever Little Tailor stories with new ingenious solutions.

      • Mary says:

        Actually, Heinlein’s three plots — which are actually the three categories of character change — are
        1. Boy meets girl: character develops an emotional attachment
        2. Little tailor: character develops new abilities
        3. Man learns lesson: character learns something new

        • Carinthium says:

          There are exceptions to those rules. Death Note’s protagonist develops no emotional attachments, learns nothing, and new abilities are far from the centre of the plot.

          A plot like Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Three Kingdoms 2010 would be too disorganised to fit into any of those categories.

          Finally, plots on the nature of My Immortal and Light and Dark the Adventures of Dark Yagami (see are definitely exceptions.

          • hawkice says:

            I think the styles of character change are pretty spot-on. Death Note is interesting because it is, despite not having the genre-specific vernacular, essentially Science Fiction. The whole story is about exploration of a concept and how it interacts with humans. The people are important only in-so-far as they give us a lens into the artifact / phenomenon. You change the wording from a detective novel and it would be completely at home next to Neutron Star by Larry Niven — or just make it less dark, and you get the feel of The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov. Amazing stories, but they don’t revolve around the characters as much as the phenomenon and investigating it.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Perhaps due to his bias towards books, he forgot the two most important plots:

        1. Explosions
        2. Man punches things

        The best of these breeds would of course be everybody’s favorite Christmas move, Die Hard.

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        I remember reading a quote (I think it was by Kurt Vonnegut but I can’t find it at the moment) that mocked this tendency to reduce plots to basic components. It goes (I’m paraphrasing):

        “There’s only one basic plot: ‘The main character gets into trouble. Then he tries to get out of trouble.'”

  20. Ken Arromdee says:

    We’ve had the concept of robots for longer than we’ve had modern zombies. Yet stories about robots continue to be published, and it’s a stretch to say that they’ve all been already done. We’ve had Westerns, or romances, or detective stories for longer than zombies too. Is it therefore impossible to have an original idea for one of those?

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      Robots are very versatile in that they can have many shapes and personalities. Zombies can usually have only one shape (human) and one kind of personality (mindless ravenous beast). This is a lot more limiting. You could expand the horizons a lot by making the zombies have a wider variety of personalities (i.e. “intelligent zombies”) but at some point you’ve probably changed the original concept so much that you need a different word to describe it besides “zombie.” Like “lich” or “ghoul.”

      There’s probably more that you can do, but it’s harder to think a high concept one can simply develop. It might be better to focus on compelling characters than on an idea-driven zombie story,

      • Ken Arromdee says:

        So instead of robots substitute “spaceships”. Spaceships usually have no personality at all. Or horses. Or guns. Or automobiles. Surely you’re not going to claim that all stories involving an automobile are already done.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Most stories about spaceships aren’t about spaceships; they just have a spaceship. Stories about spaceships (There’s a proton flux in the starboard warp inhibitor! We have to reverse the polarity before the core breaches!) are indeed overdone.

          • Ken Arromdee says:

            Whether a story “has zombies” or “is about zombies” is mainly a marketing description, not a way to provide meaningful information about the story.

          • dirtyHippy says:

            As mentioned above, Half Life is a game that heavily features zombies but is absolutely not a ‘Zombie Game’. Its plot would be very different if it were about zombies rather than merely having them.

  21. lmm says:

    Been done, man. Been done. And you can hardly plead ignorance of that, under the circumstances.

    • anomdebus says:

      Since the author gave the role of the echo antagonist to the zombie, one might come to the conclusion: that position is mindless.

  22. Anonymous says:

    There must be a special section in the library of Babel dedicated to the zombie fiction and zombie non-fiction 🙂

  23. Anonymous says:

    La petite mort is not a metaphorical death, it’s a literal one. Everyone who ever experienced it is a zombie.

  24. Lee Kelly says:

    Zombie literature majors everywhere disagree.

  25. BenSix says:

    A publisher being a zombie I can deal with but a publisher giving so much time to would-be novelist strains credulity.

    • John Schilling says:

      He was giving the time to a potential meal, evaluating the nutritional and gastronomical potential of the novelist’s frontal lobes. Hence the decision to eat the secretary’s brain instead.

  26. FullMeta_Rationalist says:


  27. Anonymous says:

    This is great. 🙂 It’s good to see more fiction from you.

  28. MadSat says:

    Actually, I rather liked the one where the zombies are used as a self renewing totally clean energy source by putting them in a big hamster wheel and having a pretty girl sit in front of them behind bullet proof glass.

  29. FullMeta_Rationalist says:

    The year is 2435. Humanity has upload the entirety of its consciousness into Urbit. Each individual was granted a destroyer. Unfortunately, [magic happened] and one em named Scott went rogue. Ze (does a program have a gender?) began infecting other ems’ hardware. By the time cyberspace became aware of the threat, it was too late – the carrier had already been compromised. What remained of the Dark Enlightenment fled to the Dark Net.

    Our story follows a band of ems who communicate via PvP. The Scott Bot Codex incident pushed the group onto the same battleship by circumstance, and none of them get along easily. Despite their differences, the ems continue live out their virtual lives as best they can… until one of the members forgets to sanitize their inputs. Their entire Closed Local Area Network is forced to relocate to another battleship. To accomplish this, they’ll have to learn to trust not just their private keys, but one another. And all the while, Scott continues to hunger for brain emulations . . .

    Zombie in the Shell: Cthulu Swims

    • Anthony says:

      This story is six thousand pages long.

    • hawkice says:

      > Ze (does a program have a gender?)

      So, obviously tangential to your focus, but it turns out we have a singular third person pronoun for objects, ‘it’. Appropriate for use with your Skynets / Terminators, Matrix Antagonists, malevolent forces of nature, etc. The impulse to get weird with it is pretty strong, I know, but I thought I might as well counterpoint on this one.

  30. Matthew says:

    Still waiting for dyslexic mobzies.

  31. Anon says:

    Five hundred years after the invention of the printing press, and we finally lower the barrier to entry, making the novel-writing a popular phenomenon. The result is a deluge of zombie novels. Somehow, I’m not surprised.

  32. James says:

    While I was reading this, I was thinking, “please don’t give this an ironic zombie twist ending, Scott.” But then when you did, it was sufficiently blasé and tossed off that I still found it funny, anyway.

  33. “You take all the zombie novels ever written, and you put them in some well-ordering”

    Hold on there!

    Presumably there are still only a finite number of zombie novels. Therefore any total order of them is also a well-order. So why are you saying put them in a well-ordering instead of just put them in an ordering. It makes it sound like you think there might be an infinite number of zombie novels. Is that what you think? Hmmmm?

    • TeslaCoil says:

      Worst of all, the property of being a zombie-novel is not necessarily preserved under diagonalisation. E.g.
      if the first page of the first novel does not contain zombies,
      the second page of the second novel does not contain zombies,
      and so on…

      • NonsignificantName says:

        Change each page to include one more zombie than it did in the original work. Every page of every novel includes zero or more zombies, so the resulting work will necessarily be a zombie novel. More seriously, if more than one person tried this, they would end up both publishing the same novel with the last page of one duplicated with errors.

        • Luke Somers says:

          They COULD do this, but they could also use different orderings, and produce a (large) number of different books.

  34. DrBeat says:

    Also, reading these comments has inspired me to pen a new rule of critique.

    If you are coming up with a reason why people enjoy some fictional thing, and the reason you come up with is an insult, then you aren’t just wrong, you’re probably an asshole.

    • Protagoras says:

      I’m usually on the side defending the social justice types, but I definitely think there are radical feminists and other far left cultural critics to whom this applies.

    • Nicholas says:

      Snuff Films

      • Protagoras says:

        An actual snuff film wouldn’t be fictional. If you’re just talking about film which portrays somebody dying, there are quite a lot of those, and they’re not usually called snuff films.

    • Susebron says:

      It depends on what qualifies as an insult, though. Is “people are scared of ” an insult? Some people would consider it to be one. Is “people appreciate martial glory, but dislike moral ambiguity” an insult? Is “people want to defect against all of society, and (as above) dislike moral ambiguity” an insult? Is “people see themselves as better than others” an insult? Where is the line drawn?

  35. Clever Name says:

    “Okay, fine, I give up, I won’t do zombies. But what about vampires?”

    But this does raise the question of how do you convince the publisher that you /really do/ have an amazing book about zombies that /really will/ go down in history as a classic?

  36. A zombie story where in the end it is revealed that everyone was a human.

    • drunkenrabbit says:

      Wait, has that been done? A guy is the lone survivor of a zombie apocalypse, kills scores of zombies only to be taken down, and then it switches perspective to another narrator and turns out he was just a demented survivalist killing his neighbors?

      • Nornagest says:

        In all seriousness, I’d be astonished if that hasn’t been done. I don’t think I’ve read it — quite — but it seems like the kind of thing that you’d see a lot in slush.

        The Twilight Zone style of plot twist is pretty common.

    • Jaskologist says:

      I am Legend (the novel) is pretty close to this (according to summaries I’ve read).

      • Anonymous says:

        No, no, that’s vampires.

        • Deiseach says:

          Yeah, but you try peddling that twist on the zombie novel to a publisher, and the first thing they’ll say is “It’s been done, and it doesn’t matter that it was with vampires, we publish this and Richard Matheson’s estate slaps us with the plagiarism suit to end all plagiarism suits”.

    • Martin-2 says:

      Spongebob Squarepants season 4: “Once Bitten”

  37. Luke Somers says:

    “Zombie-ism is a sexually transmitted disease?”


    (yup. It has been)

  38. Anonymous says:

    Allow me to be the first to take the metacontrarian stance, and say that I’m done with people being done with zombies.

  39. Vanzetti says:

    I wonder I anybody tried to return to the roots and have a story about the original voodoo zombies (the version where they aren’t actually dead, but just think they are).

    I bet it’s been done as well.

    • Jaskologist says:

      Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides revolves around voodoo, though it isn’t too heavy on the zombies.

      All of his books are excellent, and involve interleaving some sort of occult system into real historical events to show what really happened.

  40. Somebody says:

    Publish this comment or don’t. Track me or don’t.

    If at First You Don’t Succeed, to Hell with It!, by Charles E. Fritch!/download/vmgBxT6L_0x/_JxkEyAvVAyXxFV8

    • Doug S. says:

      I found that book in my high school library and read every single story in it. That was indeed one of the gems.

  41. Martin-2 says:

    What a twist! I can’t believe [ur jnf n mbzovr].

  42. grendelkhan says:

    “It’s gwern’s “Culture is not about Esthetics”, but with zombies!”


    “It’s a self-referential comment about–”


  43. Steve Sailer says:

    Everybody is influenced by the zeitgeist. I suspect in 50 years it will be obvious how bizarre America’s assumptions about reality were in 2014 (e.g., look how 99% of the media who took a stand endorsed the Rolling Stone Fraternity Gang Rape hoax for the first 12 days it was out), and how much crimestop limited our imaginations.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Did you just use a humorous short story about zombies as a segue into a debate about media portrayal of false rape accusations?

      I’m too impressed to be mad, but I request you don’t do it again. I like to have some non-radioactive spaces here, and if I let it, everywhere is going to degenerate into a discussion on feminism and rape and maybe occasionally black people.

  44. Anonymous says:

    Please, write more zombie stories!

  45. Sniffnoy says:

    The “giant purple emu” example made me think, I’d bet a story based on Joust but with zombies hasn’t been done. Mind you, I think writing a story based on Joust at all would be hard. Also, please nobody do this, because that would involve writing more zombie stories.

  46. Matthew says:

    Quantum zombies. (Because everything sounds better with “quantum.”)


  47. Doug S. says:

    Even Terry Pratchett did a zombie story! (A sub-plot of Reaper Man.) There’s even a shopping mall involved!

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  49. no-name mcgee says:

    Has “On the Road” with zombies been done? Perpetually ecstatic Beat zombies who pretend a cross-country brain-eating-and-other-crime spree is a new American religious pilgrimage?

    • Susebron says:

      Mix it with Red Plenty. Perpetually ecstatic Beat zombies eating brains and stealing cars (except when the tire factories are forced to shut down) all across Soviet Russia.

  50. My favourite zombies are in Greg Egan’s Schild’s Ladder, even if I’m kind of amused that I only just recently mentioned this book on Ozy’s blog in a completely different context.

    (SPOILERZ // They’re not technically zombies, but they register that way when you read the book. They’ve sort of self-lobotomised themselves; it’s pretty freaky even though he’s basically describing regular human beings. He just happens to do this in a transhuman setting. It’s quite distressing. // SPOILERZ end)

    Though with ‘favourite’ I mean ‘what’s the fuss about all the others?’. It’s not really my genre/topic, but I’m glad others are enjoying it a whole bunch.

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  52. The Sun says:

    “Humans” are overdone. Every conceivable story involving humans has already been written with all the new stories just being rehashes of old stories you’ve never heard of due to your youth.

    What complainers tend to forget is that they really aren’t tired of a particular subject matter, they’re just tired of how many writers use the same concepts in the subject matter. Sure, zombies who are actually smarter than humans may have been done, but is it really the choice in monster that makes the story a turd rather than the plethora of stories that follow the same old Romero model for zombies?

    So, we just change “zombie” to “vampire.” There, new story! Fear the legions of day walking vampires who grunt, groan, and scratch at windows because they’re too stupid to turn a door knob, climb a rope, or just pick up a gun and shoot. Why, I can even explain that the vampires are wearing suntan lotion, and subjection to UV light causes them to become mentally incompetent.

    See, not zombies… VAMPIRES! They don’t want to eat your brains, they just want to drink your blood and convert you into more vampires who horde and turn everyone into zom… ahem… vampires!