The trouble with zombies

(As a note, I am probably not saying anything terribly new about zombies here, but it’s something that struck my mind after seeing a comment on Twitter today.)

I’ve never been comfortable with most zombie apocalypse stories, but it’s always been tough for me to explain why. I definitely get the appeal: the me-versus-the-world aspect, the sudden transformation of a recognizable home environment into hostile territory, the whole of society turned upside down… That’s all thrilling stuff.

So why don’t I like modern zombie stories that much?

For a while I thought it was the idea that zombie scenarios put the audience in a situation where it’s acceptable to murder countless civilians and dodge all moral consequences. Ever wanted to shoot your neighbor, your boss, your coworkers, random people in the street? Well, now it’s not only okay to do so, but it’s demanded of you. You can’t not shoot random people – you have to in order to get by in this world, thus indulging, however peripherally, countless murderous fantasies.

But this conclusion felt rather trite, and I didn’t think it really scratched the surface of my issues.

Then today I read a tweet by John Perich that analyzed the zombie scenario in racial terms: to an affluent white person, a constantly hostile environment is a surreal nightmare. To a black person, or any other minority, there’s a much greater chance of it being a reality.

This struck me as somewhat right, but it was the subject of “nightmare” that I found struck a wrong chord: because the more I thought about it, the more I felt like the idea of a constantly hostile environment was less of a nightmare for the common affluent citizens today, and more of a paranoid fantasy.

Think about it – most affluent Americans live in the suburbs today, so think about how the suburbs are structured: they’re advertised and designed to be communities separate from the city. Some of them are gated communities, but even if they aren’t, that gate is often metaphorical: there is some kind of barrier there, keeping strangers out. I grew up in Houston, where many suburban communities are ringed with high, high stone walls, with only a handful of entrances and exits. These rare apertures suggest, however subtly, that you wouldn’t think of coming in unless you knew you were supposed to – unless you’d been invited, in other words.

And on the inside of these larger barriers, what do you see? Fences, and lots of them. Usually smaller ones, cordoning off each plot of land. And though we might like the idea of looking over your fence and having a conversation with your neighbor, I think to most people this might feel like an intrusion: “This is supposed to be my space,” they’d think. “I don’t want just anybody sticking their head in here.”

That’s why people buy houses and yards, of course: to have a piece of property that’s their own, to do with as they please. It’s the American Dream.

But ingrained in this perspective of “my own” is the concept that you have to keep the world out. To express true ownership, true control, you have to wall yourself off, draw firm boundaries around your property, and you have to be ready and willing to defend it. Your home is your kingdom – why else do the wealthy buy ranches, besides to maximize this desire and create their own independent fiefdoms? (Imagine the signs at the fences: “Trespassers will be shot!”) A home and a yard is a sovereign nation in miniature. And in this idea is the assumption that, at some point in time, your nation will be invaded, attacked.

“But by whom?” you might ask.

The answer is, “Anyone. Everyone.”

And that’s the raw nerve that I think the zombie scenario massages: this idea of your home or your world as a fort that you have to defend, the idea of the entire nation full of hungry assailants chasing you, tearing down your walls, suddenly obsessed with capturing and abusing you. It all beckons to a deep-seated mistrust of humanity and the larger world that lies in the foundation of this zealous, jealous guarding of personal property: “I have to keep everything I have safe,” it says, “because they’re coming.”

Sometimes this is used for satire, but this is less common in the past five or ten years. The popular explorations of zombies entertain the idea that the average Joe is something worth chasing – which is, of course, delusional fantasy. As if you, Just Somebody, have something on your property or on your person that could cause a giant crowd to chase you or come beating down your door.

It’s almost like a persecution complex, and it’s laughable in that the very idea is vain – why, exactly, would the whole wide world want to spend two seconds thinking about you, let alone chase you through the streets? – and the endpoint is preposterous: the idea of the common man suddenly discovering the tools and the fortitude to transform himself, overnight, into a combat machine capable of stemming back a flood of assailants. Much like how a wealthy oil man might buy a ranch and immediately feel he is transformed into John Wayne, patrolling the borders of his country with a rifle, protecting his property.

It’s that pessimism that I think zombie scenarios indulge, that mistrust and paranoia… all of that puts a bad taste in my mouth. It hugely inflates the powers and judgments of the individual, and it rewards suspicion and savagery: you have to defend your castle, and if you invite anyone in, you have to check them for bites – and you must be ready at any time to shoot them down if they show any symptoms.

Perhaps we value individualism so much that we condemn the whole of humanity, to the degree that any property owning person must reasonably explore a scenario in which they justly kill their neighbor. And zombies allow us to execute that scenario without any hint of recrimination. Though these scenarios, where one civilian expects another to suddenly exhibit murderous behavior, and acts accordingly, are all too real life these days.

Zombies force you to imagine that anyone at any time could become a slavering animal – which suggests that, deep down, that’s what we were all along. Whether zombification is caused by infection, by magic, by radiation, or by nanites, whatever their cause, zombies allow us to entertain our worst impulses as human beings, always ending in the fantasy of putting a human face in the sights of a gun – man, woman, or child – and feeling totally righteous in pulling the trigger.

Library Journal mention of City of Stairs

Barbara Hoffert from Library Journal has cited CITY OF STAIRS as a top pick for September of 2014!

Bennett has won the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and a Philip K. Dick citation of excellence, which gives you a sense of how his fiction crosses borders. His new book is being billed as purely high fantasy and promises fine writing that should intrigue even those who don’t routinely read in this genre. Once a conquering city, Bulikov has been reduced to mere colonial outpost when Shara Divani is sent there by the ruling powers to take up a modest diplomatic post. Actually, though, she’s a top spymaster, tasked with investigating the murder of a milquetoast historian.


Creating a Culture, Part 1: The Protagonist

Every once in a while you get a moment of intuition. There are a lot of words for this: an ah-ha or eureka moment, a feeling of being “in the zone” where all your mental pistons are firing perfectly. What it really is, I think, is a moment of connection, a point where your mind somehow – usually by random chance, or so it feels – slips into the perfect perspective to not only view the pattern and similarities of a larger picture, but also the possibilities.

It’s a moment, in other words, of understanding what something is, and what you can do with it.

This is kind of what it felt like when I had the idea for City of Stairs. The moment when everything came together for me for this book remains quite clear in my memory.

(Of course, this is the hard part: ideas never feel like they had a single origin point. In some fashion, every story or idea you have was bubbling away in some protean form for years and years and years. It just takes you a moment, perhaps, to realize that the idea is now ripe. But I digress.)


I’d been reading Dark Star by Alan Furst, a terrific spy novel about a KGB agent in Nazi Germany, and I thought the Eastern European perspective was a really interesting and rare one: it explored how Poland was just wildly unprepared, operating as if this was still the 19th century, with 20th century warfare bearing down on them. It was an aspect of a major historical event that was often unexplored to Americans such as myself: we prefer to approach World War II from the avenues of British or French participation, rather than consider the Poles or the rest of Eastern Europe. (In other words, from a Non-Western perspective.)

Then one day I was vacuuming the house and Turner Classic Movies was on, showing a 1930s satire about the nobility of a fictional Eastern European nation. It was a mildly amusing little movie – an English tourist who just happened to look a lot like a frivolous king was forced to stand in as him, under ridiculous circumstances – and I thought it’d be interesting to write about a diplomat trying to maneuver this densely complicated and Balkanized area, navigating the echelons of a foreign elite; someone dealing with both the dreary slog of bureaucracy, while also managing the terrifying spycraft going on in the background.

And I remember thinking, “Well, all these countries are mad at this diplomat. But why?”

And the answer came back immediately: “Why, because her country killed all their gods, of course.” And, as I’ve told others, that was that.

The idea kept boiling in my head, this idea of broken nations and dead gods and burgeoning imperialism and colonialism, and I started to imagine a history of this world, a history in which every year and every major event was shaped and formed by the presence of very active gods.

This presented both a challenge: if a god is truly omnipotent, or so close as for the difference to be immaterial, how definite can a history or reality be? If a god wishes for, say, five years of a history to have never existed, wouldn’t it be possible for them to wish it out of existence? How would the citizens of this world even know that their reality had been edited, overwritten?

I realized pretty quickly that though I’d felt “that was that,” that was not, actually, that. This was going to be a second world fantasy, and I’d never written something like that.

But then, every challenge is an opportunity.


Most fantasy stories are not escapism. This is because most fantasy stories are about us, about the real world.

Well, every story is about the real world, sure: all stories are built in reaction to our understanding of our reality. But some fantasy stories are more about us than others.

For example, most fantasy stories, it seems, will prominently feature a Caucasian bearded man holding a weapon. The nature of this weapon will vary – in some, a sword, in others, a steampunk-like firearm – but it will always be there, as will be the beard (sometimes more of a dense stubble) and his often-undeniably Caucasian background.

One could say, perhaps, that this fixation in fantasy is truly about us. One could say that these stories are really about our own masculine wish-fulfillment, in which manly men with manly weapons do manly deeds, engaging in royal skullduggery and leading armies of other manly men across vaguely North European battlefields. These are men with important lives doing important, violent deeds, and this world is largely about their will and how the world is subjected to it. These are men living in a mythical, primeval state from which our current culture is theoretically derived – that is to say, a culture that is both male and white – a violent, messy, gritty Garden of Eden in which things were real, things were authentic, where everything  mattered, and though things weren’t perfect, they were imperfect in the right ways.

One could say that. This is, I gather, a not uncommon criticism of fantasy in general, particularly epic fantasy.

However, when I debated writing the story that would be City of Stairs in this manner, I realized that the main thing I could say about this is that I thought it’d been done a lot.

A whole lot.

I mean, seriously, I’ve been reading those stories since I was a kid. I spent years and years and years in those worlds – so, really, I didn’t want to spend any more time in one with the purpose of writing it. I wanted to go someplace new.

So what to write?


Here’s the thing about diversity: a lot of people will attach a certain degree of morality to it, a sense of moral obligation, that one should include others because to not do so is an indecency.

I think this is completely true. I think there is a morality in acknowledging and accepting the human condition, no matter what form it may take. It’s perhaps the only morality. I think challenging and reconsidering what you consider to be the “default” nature of humanity is perhaps the key to spiritual and intellectual growth.

However, I’ve found that moral righteousness is frequently not a very good way to entice people to act about anything. Approaching morality from this perspective sometimes has the same attraction as Sunday school: a thing you really ought to do, but you’d really prefer to be doing something else.

People are selfish. They will do things for moral reasons, true, but I think that’s not usually the biggest carrot to dangle from the metaphorical stick.

For example, take environmentalism. Sure, we all support sustainability. However, for about the past fifteen years it’s been pretty expensive to do so. Some people will spend that extra dollar out of a sense of moral obligation, sure, but most won’t.

However, if sustainable energy grows to be less expensive than non-sustainable … Why, then it’s suddenly so much easier to support sustainability. Selfish reasoning, sure, but that tends to be the kind that works.

So here’s what I think is the totally selfish reason some people (I hope) gravitate toward diversity:

Because it’s interesting. And a lack of diversity is hugely, cripplingly boring.

There is a point, I think, when someone realizes that confining one’s self to stories about one single culture is, in effect, denying one’s self the vast riches this marvelous world has to offer. Realizing that you’re being trapped in a hermetic little cultural bubble is often the hard part. Realizing that there is something outside of it, that there’s always been lots of things outside of it, going on for years and years and years, is a tantalizing and exciting epiphany. And it makes you want to plunge through the bubble’s wall, and out into the rest of the world.

This is a very selfish decision to make, and, true, it can encourage a sort of arriviste voyeurism, in which one feels free to cherrypick from other cultures and histories without any attention to the real human experience of those who actually live in those cultures and histories. However, anything right can also be done wrong, and so long as one anchors one’s perspective in the human element – acknowledging that these are not stories or tropes you’re playing with, but people – the result is not so much akin to sampling dishes at a buffet, but rather a massive shift in self-regard, where one realizes one’s tiny, insignificant, arbitrary vantage point in a huge, ancient world.

It’s the difference between being entertained and learning. One involves change on your part; the other does not.

When I had that first idea for City of Stairs, so far I’d written three novels about white dudes. Two of them tough white dudes with guns (one of which, eventually, had a beard). I’d written one book featuring a woman of color, but she was so deeply alienated that it would be difficult to say she belonged to any single culture.

Writing books takes a very long time. You are going to spend a lot of time in this place you’re making. And I knew I did not want to spend it with the sorts of people I’d written about or read about before. I want to meet someone new. I wanted to look at humanity from a new vantage point, through a new lens.

And when I started finishing up on that day when I first had the idea for City of Stairs, putting up the vacuum cleaner and dragging out the mop, I realized who I wanted my protagonist to be.

I wanted her to be a woman. She would be a woman of color. And her primary weapons would be books and a terrifying ability to manipulate bureaucratic and governmental institutions.

Enter Shara Komayd.

(This will be an ongoing series I’ll be writing, exploring why I chose to make the world of City of Stairs as I did, what was difficult, fun, and unexpected about it, and how I felt I succeeded and how I felt I failed. Stay tuned.)

On fandom, and the liking of things

cccrowdFandom has been getting talked about a lot lately. There have been statements made by the vague body that is fandom, followed by contradicting statements saying that that part of fandom isn’t the real fandom, and thus should not be listened to, leading to other voices within the fandom community trying to draw boundaries within fandom, articulating which parts of fandom are which, which leads to a better articulation of who is allowed to say what about what.

The whole thing feels like a much-less-alarming version of what’s going on in Crimea right now, where suddenly Russia is saying that this huge tract of land is basically theirs because a lot of them speak Russian and have a Russian identity, and you know what, maybe the Ukraine never actually left the USSR at all. Meanwhile, in Kiev, everyone’s trying to try and quantify exactly what makes an autonomous republic, and is the Ukraine legitimate? Is Crimea? How do you tell them apart? And so on, and so on…

How the hell do you draw lines around this stuff? How do you define such a large body of people?

I’ve been told that fandom is actually really easy to define. Do you like The Thing? If so, then you’re a fan. If you don’t like The Thing, then you’re not a fan. End of story.

I wish it was that easy, but I feel like that’s not quite true, not anymore. Fandom’s gotten elevated in the past ten or so years. It feels like it’s no longer, “Do you like The Thing?” but rather, “Do you like The Thing, and are you willing to buy airfare and a hotel room and hang out for days and nights discussing The Thing, forming relationships inspired specifically by The Thing, and when you go home do you create extensive, elaborate online communities for this world formed around The Thing?”

It’s different now. The digital age allows us to like things on a higher level than ever before. Being a fan no longer means like a thing, it means liking a thing To The Maxx™.

And when you like a thing To The Maxx™, suddenly you’re invested in it. It’s like teenagers saying they don’t care about politics, but then ten years later they’re working and they do their taxes, they suddenly say, “This costs what? And it’s being spent on what? Well then shit, we had better be doing the things I want to have done with this stuff!”

Fandom means having skin in the game now. It means having a budget set aside in your daily life for doing fan shit. You have to ask yourself, “Can I afford to like The Thing to the extent I’d prefer to this year?” To a certain extent, it’s a ridiculous question, yet it’s a true one.

And this, I think, is why we’re seeing increased (but not completely new) arguments over fandom agendas, over the liking and the creation of The Things. We want to see our personal agendas and beliefs exercised and realized in our pop culture. We’re paying in tons of money toward pop culture, so it had better do the shit we want it to do, right?

This leads to the current state of affairs, which is, I think, the normal state of affairs whenever it comes to large groups of human beings marshaling and spending their resources. It’s just far less systematized than voting or holding share in a company. Hell, we can’t figure out how much to charge for art, much less how to use money to make art say the stuff we’d like to be said. (A depressing idea, really.)

Where does this leave me, the writer? Completely alone, as far as I can see. I don’t feel like I’m a part of this. That’s not a good or a bad thing, it’s just kind of weird.

The reason for this separation is that – in my own opinion – if you really want to be a writer, if you really want to create, then you need to be clinical in how you view your art and culture. When I really started writing, it suddenly became a lot harder for me to fall head over heels in love with books and movies and TV, because I’d trained my brain to dissect and seek out weaknesses. Suddenly, nothing was perfect, nothing was mind-blowingly-amazing, because I could now see the thumbprints in the clay and the strings that made the puppets dance.

And I’ll probably always see those things now. I’m never going to like a thing To The Maxx™. I can’t anymore, I don’t think. That organ has atrophied or withered away. If someone says to me, “OH MY GOSH I LIKE THIS THING SO MUCH RIGHT RIGHT,” my instinct is probably going to be to say, “Yes, it’s good, but…”

Things are no longer perfect. Maybe because if they’re perfect, I can’t learn from them. But there’ll always be a distance there, like how a doctor can’t love a patient and still have the mindset to put a stent in their aorta. I’ve turned my brain into an artistic chop shop, which isn’t exactly a lovely place to hang out and discuss fiction.

So for me, this intense passion that’s the nature of fandom is less and less accessible. I’m on the outside looking in through soundproof glass: I see a lot of people yelling, but it’s hard for me to feel too involved in it.

There’s one firm dividing line, then: those who can still like a thing without abandon, and those who can’t.


When I was at World Horror last year in New Orleans, I felt pretty out of place. I was the guy wearing a bright pink button up and linen slacks in a room full of people wearing various shades of black and gray. I looked more like I worked for the damn hotel than like I was going to the convention.

I still enjoyed myself, and I enjoyed the discussions I heard and took part in, but I could tell these people were About This Stuff in a way that I just wasn’t. It was like saying, “Yeah, I watch football,” and then going to a fantasy football camp and realizing, whoa, these people are just on another level. I was inadequate. Like, these people were going to go home and keep talking to each other about this stuff until the next World Horror rolled around. I was just going to go home and write.

Then I happened to meet a much more established writer than me. This was a dude who’d been in the vanguard during the horror (and publishing in general) heyday of the 1980’s, the sort of writer that the current writing crop probably all wanted to be when they got started. I hadn’t read any of his books, but he was a terribly nice gentleman, so we got to chatting.

I brought up the sort of weird alienation I felt coming to things like this, the strange existential dread I had where I was aware that I was not like these people, and yet I was supposed to be making the stuff that they liked. I knew in my head that I was writing stuff for everyone, for all kinds of people, something that’s applicable to humanity in general rather than people like me, but it was still odd to see it right in front of me, these people I wasn’t like, and know that I was writing for them.

He looked at me and said, “That’s because they’re not your people. They’re not. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that they are.”

It was a startling thing to hear. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I think about it a lot, even today.

CITY OF STAIRS cover launch

Hey y’all.

Did y’all know I wrote a book called CITY OF STAIRS.

Well I did.


An atmospheric and intrigue-filled novel of dead gods, buried histories, and a mysterious, protean city—from one of America’s most acclaimed young SF writers.

The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions—until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself—first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it—stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.

Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country’s most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem—and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.

Book’s out in September. For fun blurbs and whatnot from respectable folk, click here.