Zombies are one of the common narratives to arise in the modern era. People say this is for a lot of reasons. I can talk on and on about how zombies represent the mindlessness of the modern era, from driving to work to a day-to-day cubicle life to consumerism to the seeming emptiness of modern day choices, whether it be brands of soda or the similarity of politicians. But ultimately, this is unimportant: zombies have captured hearts and minds in the modern era.
We can trace the start of the zombie movie epidemic to three major sources. First, the idea of mindless human beings can be traced to Haitian Vodou. Second, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead can really be called the ancestor to zombie apocalypses. Finally, at some point, the idea of zombies as an infection of some sort has arisen over time, and while I cannot think of a specific source which serves as its origin, the Resident Evil movies will serve as a good exemplar.
So why am I talking about zombies? Because the first setting I’ll be writing about is a zombie setting. And as I said, a good setting plays to tropes, but denies them in some way. A setting that is nothing but tropes will seem campy. On the other hand, a setting that fully defies tropes isn’t really a continuation of the theme, but a new thing entirely. After all, George Romero never even referred to the shambling cannibals in his movie as ‘zombies’, that terminology came later. He wasn’t bringing new light to Vodun Zombies, he was starting a new genre that happened to end up connected to an old genre.
So first, I’ll have to outline what the tropes of zombie apocalypses are, and then which ones I’ll be breaking, and why. Finally, I’ll discuss the effects this has on the universe.
First, what are the important zombie tropes? For the most part, especially in the last 20-30 years, here are the important zombie tropes that I can find.
- Only killed by massive system damage or head trauma/beheading.
This seems to be the central trope; I haven’t seen it violated anywhere
- Zombies never attack other zombies
I’m not sure if this trope has been broken either
- Humans only
Broken in Resident Evil, with zombie dogs and eventually zombie ravens. Vaguely interesting, but never pursued in interesting ways. What if the food supply came under threat as a result?
- Zombies are slow
Broken in the 28 X Later series, but perhaps not the most interesting trope; it makes for a good movie, but doesn’t MEAN much.
Funny enough, I was able to find few examples of zombie work where zombies actually ate brains, despite the popular ‘braaaaaains’ mantra. That’s good, given the ‘remove the head or destroy the brain’ trope, it would be terrible for zombies to eat their victims brains!
Ok, so not much to go with! What else do we see in zombie apocalypses?
- Society breaks down
I don’t think this is very subvertable; zombies are about decay, both literally and as a metaphor for society. A zombie apocalypse which doesn’t strain society would hardly be a story, but instead an action movie (just about killing zombies).
- Typically, they are very modern worlds, and guns exist as a point of tension; bullets are low.
Now we’re getting somewhere! These are the types of tropes that are interesting to invert. Changing the ways zombies work, while mildly interesting, really only tweaks the way the genre feels. But changing the way society reacts? That sounds more fun.
Let’s start with the first one. In your typical zombie apocalypse, there are two end-states:
- Zombies kill everything
- Humanity manages to push the zombies back
So let’s go somewhere in the middle: an equilibrium where society goes on, but zombies still exist as a threat. Let’s assume that large and small settlements still exist, but that communication and travel between them is difficult.
As for our second inversion, I think a temporal one is in order. Zombie apocalypses typically take place in the modern era, and the staple weapon against the zombie apocalypse is the gun. But there’s no reason that has to be the case. For simplicity’s sake, I went with another universe where we typically see zombies: D&D. Traditional fantasy has zombies too, although they’re the ‘magic resurrection type’. So let’s say we mix the two!
Imagine a world like that portrayed in typical D&D; you have humans, elves, and dwarves, maybe halflings and gnomes. You have arcane magic and divine magic. For our purposes, I’ll just call divine magic ‘boons’ (magic that is given directly through devotion to a deity or powerful entity), and arcane magic everything else (many types of arcane magic are established in different universes).
Now, in our typical zombie apocalypse, you have two forms of combat against zombies: all other weapons, and guns. So in this case, where there are no guns, we have something more like: all other weapons, and magic. So instead of the people with the most guns having the most power, the people with the most magic have the most power. This leaves a few sources of power.
- Divine Magic
- Various religious institutions (Priests/Paladins in D&D)
- Druids/nature magic (Druids/Rangers in D&D)
- Arcane Magic
- Schools of magic (Wizards in D&D)
- Rogue magic users (Sorcerers/Warlocks in D&D)
Ultimately, what is the threat in a zombie apocalypse? It’s not the zombies; they simply serve as the pressures on society. The true threat is social intrigue; some people will always seek power. First, this will represent itself as magic users seeking power for their abilities. This can manifest in many ways: religious cults, tyranny, straight up extortion. Ultimately, the effect is simple: those willing to pay for magical protection in one way or another will survive, those willing to provide it will have power. And people who have power manipulate those who don’t against others who have power. So either magic users fight each other, or they team up against those different from them.
Here, I agonized a bit over my choice. I decided that one of the two main groups (arcane/divine) would demonize the other group, and then further demonize the other type of magic within their group. It’s simple to come up with specifics.
- The divine magic users decide that they have the sole right to magic (their magic comes from the gods, after all!), and maybe arcane magic even STARTED the zombie apocalypse!
- Priests decide that Druids aren’t trustworthy or structured enough; their worship of false gods has wrought this apocalypse!
- Druids decide that Priests are out of touch with what is natural; their neglect towards nature has wrought this apocalypse!
- The Arcane magic users decide that they have the sole right to magic (divine magic comes from demons, after all!), and maybe divine magic even STARTED the zombie apocalypse!
- Schools of magic decide that rogue magic users aren’t trustworthy; their willy-nilly magic use has wrought this apocalypse!
- Rogue magic users decide that schools of magic aren’t trustworthy; Science has wrought this apocalypse!
This could seem like an important choice, but it actually ends up being largely inconsequential. It took me years to decide on, but that’s because I like to focus on the tiny details. After a lot of deliberation, I decided the following arrangement: one church in particular declared only magic which came from their god was good magic; arcane magic was born of pacts with demons (sorcerery) or was playing god (wizardry). All divine magic which came from other gods could be tolerated until the apocalypse had been averted, but conversion would be preferable. Very preferable. But arcane magic? That was evil, and had to be hunted down, for its part in starting the apocalypse.
And thus, we come to our setting (not so coincidentally the intro/blurb I’m using for a series of short stories I’m writing):
Long ago, history tells of a great war between all the kingdoms, of magic that tore up the earth and sundered the sky, of demons and gods that walked the land, casting down hundreds where they glanced and calling down lightning from the heavens and fire from hell. These wars raged for decades, consuming all the races of the world. And when the dust parted and the blood cleared away, war was the least of anybody’s problems. The dead had risen. Few weapons could be used efficiently against the undead; mortal blows hardly even slowed them. In months, fully a third of the world’s cities were unlivable.
It was then that a major breakthrough was made: magic could damage, and destroy the undead. But while divine magic could repel the undead, arcane magic attracted them, worse, it could create them! Thus began the Great Purge. Any magic that wasn’t sanctioned by the church was hunted down, quickly and brutally.
Now, years later, the world is at an equilibrium. Maybe a quarter or a fifth of the cities and town from after the war survive, but they do survive. Each town is protected by a few priests; the larger the town, the more priests. And that protection remains under a few conditions: any magic users are turned over to the church, the church’s rituals are kept sacred, and the church can take anybody under the age of 18 into the clergy, at any time. If those rules are broken, the town risks losing its protection. And with these rules, rebuilding has begun, of cities and of roads. Of society.
But rumors linger, of rogue magic users who control hordes of undead, or of guilds of magic who seek to use the undead for their own nefarious research and goals, and worst, of corruption inside the church itself. But not all rumors are bad. Some tell of guilds of magic who seek to end the undead problem, of rogue magic-users who roam the countryside, seeking pockets of survivors or of magical artifacts that ward off the dead, and even of cities that escaped the devastation.
This is the realm of Azorius, and these are the tales of its people.