Short Story Sunday: ‘Zombie’ by Chuck Palahniuk

So I thought I’d bring short story Sunday back from the dead (hence the zombie theme). I really enjoyed analysing short fiction in a way that I don’t have the time or space to do with longer fiction here and I’m struggling with two short pieces I’m writing at the moment so this might help get me in the right mindframe – spark something off so to speak. I’m not quite sold on Palahniuk. Fight Club is one of my favourite films, I’ll watch it again and again and again and again and…. the book is as good as the movie, which is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of it. I read Invisible monsters which was good but had some really sickening moments and I read haunted which had an amazing premiss that just fell flat and ultimately got quite tedious.

Click the image to go to the story

This story wasn’t really about zombie’s like I hoped (you know the way sometimes you’re just in the mood for the undead?), but nothing’s ever straightforward with this guy. Instead it’s about a new craze amongst teens and young adults to attach a defibrillator to their temples and shock themselves into idiocy. It’s kind of a painless but irreversible lobotomy. That way they don’t have to deal with the pressures of modern life, they end up with terrible jobs and are completes morons and simpletons but they’re happy. Rather than zombies traditionally hunting for brains and searching for brains to eat these guys are running away from brains, running from the pressures of everyday life and from the tragedies in the world and having to make decisions and take on responsibility and deal with things. I’d be lying if I said that kind of escape isn’t occasionally attractive.

Plenty of Palahniuk’s recurring themes also show up here – the dual destruction of the body and society echoing each other as well as the man child and infantile adults trying to recapture their youth as a way of rejecting society.

The ending of the story is a lot more hopeful and mature than I’ve come to expect from this man and to be honest I’m not sure if I liked it. The tone is not as rebellious as some of his other work and it seems almost like a lament for that kind of pigheaded rebellion for the sake of rebellion. It was missing something but overall it’s a good story with a good ending. The major problem with the story is defibrillators don’t work that way.  They won’t shock unless they detect specific heart patterns and (according to brief internet research) basically the entire premiss is flawed. So while it’s a good story, shocking your temples with a defibrillator just can’t happen (never mind surviving as a happy moron to tell the tale)

Notable Lines: ‘They continue to be young and hot but they no longer worry about the day when they won’t be. It’s suicide but it’s not.’

Short Story Sunday: ‘Pocketful of Dharma’ by Paolo Bacigalupi

download

I bought this as part of the Humble Bundle months ago. Beacuse it was a lot of books at once it was a while before I got around to reading it. I’ve been dipping in and out of it over the past few weeks. Paolo Bacigalupi is a multi-award winning sci-fi author and it’s easy to see why. This is his debut collection of short stories and ‘Pocketful of Dharma’ was first published in 1999. His stories are original, deep, multi-layered and political. They also feature characters from many different cultures and backgrounds which I loved and you don’t see often enough in science fiction.

However, I found I couldn’t read this book for extended periods of time. It’s quite dense. Worldbuilding is Bacigalupi’s biggest strength but it turns into a weakness as well. ‘A Pocketful of Dharma’ is set in a cyberpunkish version of China told from the point of view of a young street beggar. A new, organic city is growing in the centre and the rich and important are moving there while Jun and his ilk are left on the ever-more squalid streets below relying on the generosity/guilt of tourists to survive. He innocently obtains a data cube that everyone and his mother is after. The data cube turns out to contain the consciousness of the Dalai Lama, who cannot reincarnate until it is destroyed. This is about to cause a war between China, Tibet and several others who all want it for their own ends.

The story is good but so much worldbuilding is crammed into so small a space that I can’t help but feel it needed more room to breathe. Casual references leave you wanting more, a lot more. Making the reader work and not belabouring and tiring out every detail can be a good thing but there is a lot of detail without very much explanation. There’s the character and the socio-economic strata of his world, there’s the city he lives in and the spongy living city he aspires to, there’s the life of the gangs around him, there’s the higher political problems, the technology, and the thumbnail sketches of the various other characters that Jun encounters with their own vague motivations… it’s a lot to take in on every page, so much so that it’s hard to get lost in the story itself, and it’s a good one. The characters also take a back-seat in this story, Jun’s the only one I ever felt was a real character. I have this problem with the worldbuilding in some of his other stories but not the character problem thankfully.

It’s definitely worth reading. It paints a bleak, complex picture of people oppressed by society but that picture is highly imaginative and, though he made me work for it, I’m glad I took the time to read it.

Notable lines: A vast biologic city, which other than its life support would then lie dormant as humanity walked its hollowed arteries, clambered through its veins and mailed memories to its skin in the rituals of habitation.