With the pandemic having delayed this year’s Worldcon until December, the 2021 Hugo Awards for science fiction and fantasy will be handed out a little later than usual. Whatever changes may take place, Women Write About Comics shall be continuing its tradition of reviewing the prose finalists while SF/F readers the world over await the results. Our series begins with a look at two of the six tales contending for the title of Best Short Story…
The living dead have laid waste to civilisation, and a group of women shelter in an abandoned school. One of their number, Brit, is pregnant, thereby posing a threat to the other survivors: zombies can smell birth just as they smell blood. As she goes into labour, Brit is forced to leave the building with her partner Marisol, and together they head for a two-by-four container set aside specifically for childbirth. However, in this zombie-infested landscape, the journey there and back is fraught with danger….
The Romero-derived zombie apocalypse has long since passed the point where it can be used as a stock setting with no need for background or explanation. “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” fits into an ever-growing body of fiction in which we never see the initial zombie outbreak, or even the collapse of society: instead, we simply jump straight into the hiding place shared by the latest band of survivors. This is perfectly fine, of course, so long as the author has a twist on the well-worn premise – and as it happens Rae Carson has come up with a variation that is both straightforward and remarkably fertile.
“Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” is a story that takes the body horror inherent in the zombie genre – the motifs of rotting and violated flesh, of spilled blood and oozing brains – and applies it to the bodily transformations and leakages that are a day-to-day reality for most people who have vulvas and ovaries. Gynaecology has replaced gore-effect geekery.
This focus is apparent throughout the story. It opens with a description of Brit’s labour pains; Mari’s survival kit includes not only food and ammunition, but also a sealing container for afterbirth (a morsel particularly attractive to zombies) and a lavender-scented votive candle (to both provide illumination and mask the smell of birth); a specific area of the survivors’ enclave is reserved for women on their periods; menstrual blood is used as a zombie-baiting decoy; and there is even a scene in which the slogan “Our bodies, our choice” finds a novel new application for the zombie apocalypse.
Even the aesthetic of the post-apocalyptic community is a long way from the macho, militaristic mode more typical of zombie fiction. The first scene takes place inside a classroom converted into an infirmary, chosen by the survivors precisely because of the bright colours; the container used for childbirth, meanwhile, contains furniture that Marisol has painted with flowers.
Although the actual plot of the story – Brit heading to the safe zone to give birth – is very slim, “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” is able to squeeze additional stories in between the cracks. For example, we have the saga of Eileen, who appears only at the very start and very end and yet permeates the narrative. Suffering from a fatal stomach tumour (a negative reflection of Brits’ pregnancy) she embodies all that may go wrong for the survivors. That includes Brit’s forthcoming baby, as Eileen herself is a mother bereaved by the zombie apocalypse:
We continue on, but I steal a glance backward at the bloating, floating body. That’s how Eileen’s daughter died. Eileen says she probably dove in, thinking the water would mask her scent. When Eileen found her, she had to drive her own dagger into her daughter’s brain.
I put my hand on my giant belly. Is it horrible to bring a person into the world, knowing you might have to send them right back out of it before they’ve hardly lived? Maybe that’s what Liz meant when she called me selfish.
Another story, one that stretches back before the zombie apocalypse, is that of the relationship between Brit and Marisol. In one scene Brit looks back at past hardships – coming out of the closet to her preacher-father, and entering a passionless heterosexual relationship purely so that she could become pregnant – and uses them to draw strength for her present crisis.
Rae Carson’s treatment of the zombie genre is consistently playful. Some of her tweaks are simply the now-standard efforts to stay away from the hoariest genre conventions – like the fact that “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” carefully avoids using the word “zombie” outside of its title, its characters preferring the term “flesh-eater” (they even have a collective noun: a murder of flesh-eaters). Others are less superficial. With a sentence or two, Carson gives each of her secondary characters a distinct viewpoint on the zombie apocalypse, from the cold pragmatism of Liz (who considers Brit selfish for keeping her baby) to the religious faith of Rebekah, and a few of the details she includes as casual asides are genuinely poignant. At one point Brit informs us that, in this new era, nobody names a baby until it has survived for a few days.
Even the zombies are fresh. While Carson never comes up with a re-invention in the manner of 28 Days Later and its famous running zombies, she achieves strong effects by keeping her flesh-eaters at arm’s length. The zombies are absent for most of the narrative, serving as an intangible threat rather than a physical presence. When they finally appear on-stage they are described in surreal terms as creatures of “spaghetti limbs and melting candlewax skin” – a bad dream encroaching into the reality of Brit’s pregnancy.
While its title evokes the reams of less-than-subtle parody films that came out of the mid-2000s zombie boom, “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” turns out to be an intelligent and tautly-crafted piece of fiction, using the language of the zombie genre to articulate the stresses and anxieties of pregnancy. Alternating between the wryly humorous and the starkly sombre, its tone becomes triumphant as Brit takes a stand against the adversity both realistic and fantastical that confronts her.
The zombie genre, with its themes of contamination and survival, has become topical thanks to COVID-19 and we may well be due for another boom; if so, “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” demonstrates that there is still life in the walking dead yet.
After moving into her new home, Meigan discovers local interest in Little Free Libraries – small bookshelves placed around town allowing members of the public to freely take and leave books – and decides to build her own. One morning she finds to her frustration that someone has taken all of the books in the library, prompting her to leave a note asking that, in the future, whoever was responsible should take fewer volumes or else leave a book in return.
This turns out to be the start of a very strange correspondence. After restocking the library, Meigan finds that one novel has been taken and replaced not with another book, but with a whistle hand-carved from a twig. As the days pass, more books are taken and more objects are left, ranging from statuettes of animals to the feather of an unidentifiable bird. Later still, Meigan starts finding notes written by the mysterious visitor – and learns that the individual taking the books is stranger than she had imagined.
An old observation is that film critics are prone to praising films that are about films. A counterpart to this phenomenon can be seen at the Hugo Awards, the voting base of which show a marked fondness for fantasy stories about fantasy stories. The 2019 Best Short Story winner – “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow – was one example, and we now find another with Naomi Kritzer’s “Little Free Library”.
Each paragraph of the story brims with a fondness for books in general and fantasy books in particular. The tale namechecks various novels that, presumably, were personal influences on the author (works by Orson Scott Card, David Eddings, Terry Pratchett and Tolkien all turn up, plus a Danny Dunn book and a dig at Dan Brown) and surrounds them with an ode to the joy of creation and imagination. The opening paragraph follows Megan as she builds her library and decorates it with painted stones, evoking the tactile form of bibliophila that has become somewhat muted in the Kindle era, and the strain of aesthetic delights extends into the sundry quirky objects left by the visitor.
Indeed, the story incorporates a sort of emotional spider diagram, with “Reading Books” written in the middle and various joys spreading outwards. In particular, it takes a pleasure that should be familiar to any bookworm – that of introducing a friend to a beloved story – and successfully incorporates it as a plot device. An early sign that Meigan’s unseen correspondent is not simply an eccentric neighbour but a denizen of another world comes when they ask, in all sincerity, if The Fellowship of the Ring has a sequel.
It is through the visitor’s responses to Meigan’s books that “Little Free Library” is able to tell its own fantasy story. The objects left by the visitor grow increasingly intriguing: a leaf from a species that not even Meigan’s amateur botanist friend can identify; a coin, apparently made of real gold, bearing the image of a bird. The handwritten notes become strangely autobiographical: the author describes themselves as “a servant to the rightful Queen and heir, displaced by her uncle”, reveal themselves to be engaged in a conflict, and draw vital inspiration not only from Meigan’s tales of fantasy heroes but also from nonfiction books about medieval fortresses or modern army tactics.
In this, “Little Free Library” taps into a form of fantasy storytelling that, while widespread, is not the most obvious starting point for a piece of literature: that is, the narrative of the fantasy gift-giver, the character role taken on by every parent who has left presents from Father Christmas or eggs from the Easter Bunny. While the target audience of children soon outgrows these age-old stories, the yearning for a bygone time when magic came down the chimney once a year may still remain deep down.
Having re-created this variety of make-believe so precisely, “Little Free Library” inevitably runs into the limitations of its concept. Just as a child shall never see Santa no matter how late they may stay up, Meigan is forever barred from getting too close to her correspondent lest the intangible become literal. The story ends the only way it could end without betraying its core of childlike wonderment: with the melancholy of loss, the promise of a new beginning, and more questions than answers.