Yet another novel I will no longer write – Charles Stross


So, some years ago I blogged a whole bunch of times about books I wasn’t going to write for one reason or another.

Now, thanks to COVID-19, I can add another to the list.

Some of you have been waiting years (is it really a decade? Gosh!) for a third book in the would-be trilogy that began with Halting State and Rule 34. The third Scottish near-future police procedural kept getting put back and back because reality wouldn’t sit still and behave itself: it’s really hard to write something set 10 years in the future (or even 5) if you don’t even know what the country it’s set in is going to be called. I named the period starting in 2012 “the Scottish political singularity”, because it made all near-future fiction set in Scotland problematic: first we had the referendum on independence from the UK, then a general election, then the Brexit referendum. Back in 2012 I thought things would have settled down by 2016 or so: alas, I was sadly disillusioned.

So around 2016 I hatched a Plan B.

(Had, past tense.)

Plan B was to make my near-future Scottish thriller so hyper-specific that the big political questions wouldn’t impinge on the plot at all. And I had a good plot, and even wrote the first thousand or so words of the untitled novel as a story seed. I just needed to clear my desk, finish Invisible Sun (FX: sound of author weeping helplessly) and finish the new space opera …

Well, you know what happened: delays due to people dying, an apocalyptic drum-beat of bad news in the background, and so on and so forth. But I thought I might finally get time to start writing the Scottish Novel in earnest, starting in mid- to late-2022 …

Then COVID-19 came along.

You see, the third Scottish crime novel was to be a zombie pandemic novel.

I have several bees in my metaphorical bonnet—in fact, an entire angry swarm of them—when it comes to the standard zombie narrative in post-apocalypse fiction. The zombie myth has roots in Haitian slave plantations: they’re fairly transparently about the slaves’ fear of being forced to toil endlessly even after their death. Then this narrative got appropriated and transplanted to America, in film, TV, and fiction. Where it hybridized with white settler fear of a slave uprising. The survivors/protagonists of the zombie plague are the viewpoint the audience is intended to empathize with, but their response to the shambling horde is as brutal and violent as any plantation owner’s reaction to their slaves rising, and it speaks to a peculiarly American cognitive disorder, elite panic.

Elite panic is the phenomenon by which rich and/or privileged people imagine that in times of chaos all social constraints break down and everyone around them will try to rob, rape, and murder them. To some extent this reflects their own implicit belief that humanity is by nature grasping, avaricious, amoral, and cruel, and that their status depends on power and violence. It’s a world-view you’d expect of unreconstructed pre-Enlightenment aristocrats, or maybe a society dominated by a violent slave-owning elite. It’s also fundamentally wrong. Usually whenever there’s a major disaster, people look after their families … and then their friends and neighbours, pulling together and trying to help.

It’s noteworthy that Zombie Apocalypse fic and Pandemic Dystopia fic overlap considerably, and people get both aspects right and wrong to different degrees. (I’d like to give a shout-out at this point to Seanan McGuire who, as Mira Grant, gave us the Newsflesh trilogy. Her zombies are, well, conventional media zombies (they shamble and they eat brains), but she put a lot of work into making the epidemiology plausible.)

I was planning a pandemic zombie disaster novel in which people behaved like human beings, rather than psychotic, heavily armed doomsday preppers. My zombie plague differs from most: it’s a viral encephalitis, possibly an odd strain of influenza, which leaves a percentage of its victims with Cotard’s Delusion, also known as walking corpse syndrome. The affected person holds a delusional belief that they’re dead, or putrefying, or don’t exist, or they’re in hell. (It’s associated with parietal lobe lesions and can also be induced by some drug metabolites: as a consequence of viral encephalitis it would be weird, but possibly no weirder than Encephalitis lethargica.) How does a society deal with a pandemic that leaves 1% of the population permanently convinced that they’re dead? Well …

I had a plot all worked out. TLDR: deep brain stimulation via implant. Rapidly leading to rental plans—because in our grim meathook privatised-medicine future the medical devices company who are first-to-market realize that charging people a monthly plan to feel like they’re alive is a good revenue stream—but this is followed by hackers cracking the DRM on the cryptocoin-funded brain implants. The device manufacturer goes bankrupt, and their intellectual property rights are bought out by a Mafia-like operation who employ stringers to go around uploading malware to the implants of zombies who’ve stopped paying the rent, permanently bricking them. Our protagonist is a zombie detective: the actual story opens when a murder victim walks into a police station to complain that they’ve been killed.

And the whole theme of this untitled novel was going to be: this is elite panic, and this is disaster capitalism, and this is what really happens during a zombie epidemic, and these things are not the same—

And then COVID-19 came along and basically rendered the whole thing unneccessary because we are all getting a real world crash-course in how we deal with people suffering from a viral pandemic, and we do not generally deal with them using shotguns and baseball bats even if they’re so contagious that contact might kill us.

Because—fuck my life—writing plausible near-future SF in the 21st century wasn’t hard enough already.

Anyway, let me leave you with the WARNING very rough, first draft, unpolished only existing fragment of what was intended to be The Lambda Functionary before COVID-19 buried it at the crossroads with a mouthful of garlic and a stake through its heart.


You are an ex-zombie.

Most days, most of the time, you can ignore this. As existential states go, being an ex-zombie is a bit like being an ex-skier or an ex-patriate: it’s bland, and anodyne, an absence of dread, the mental cavity left behind by a passing toothsome nightmare. The pulse of blood in your veins and the thoughts in your head and the warmth in your loins provide a constant reassurance that you are, in fact, alive and mammalian. Except every once in a while it leaps out from behind a lamp-post and screams death in your face like you’re an alcoholic noticing the gaping door to a pub by your shoulder: and suddenly you are dead once more.

You’re perambulating along the grey cobbled canyon of Hill Street that evening—it’s early summer, the nights are drawing short and the tourists are flocking—when you pass a jumble of bony knees and elbows, the bowed bald dome of a skull leaning forward as if about to boak in the gutter. At first you think it’s a regular jakey boy, or maybe a beggar: but there’s no cup and no weatherbeaten cardboard sign, and that stomach’s not held enough food to throw up for weeks now. It takes a few seconds for your stride to clatter to a reluctant stop, by which time you’re about five metres past the silent, barely-breathing figure. Coldness wraps its dreicht, despair-stained phalanges around your heart and gives it a squeeze. You shudder and take a breath, remembering Ina and the boys in the happy time before the demic, and for a moment you see yourself there on the edge of the gutter, vomiting vacuum on the stony indifference of the capital’s streets as the waste trucks whine past, canned voices braying bring out your dead. You don’t want to look round. But you’ve been here before, and the guilt is suffocating, so you turn and you look.

The lad in the gutter is indeed far gone in the post-viral zombie haze of starvation. He could be anything from seventeen to forty-seven, with the gaunt concentration-camp inmate’s cheekbones and sunken eye sockets. His hair’s fallen out, of course, his nails are cracked and ragged—clothes a mess, a holed hoodie and jeans that are little better than rags, muddy and shredded cerements fit to be buried in. He’s still breathing, and nodding slowly every few seconds—a slow davvening, the prayerful rocking of the undead. Gums drawing back from yellowing teeth, he drools slightly. Behold, the living dead. You want to run away: he makes you cringe, feeling unclean. But instead, you crouch down beside him and, steeling yourself, you lay your right arm across his shoulders.
“Hey,” you say. The zombie doesn’t reply, of course. They never do. But you can feel the jerky rise and fall of his ribs: he’s hungry. He broadcasts raw starvation like an old-time radio station with kilowatts of fossil energy to waste, pumping angst out into the ionosphere. Behind him, a boutique’s robot window display repeatedly enrobes an anorexic headless mannequin in an hourglass sheath of expensive fabric, then strips it off again to reveal the skeletal ribs of the dressform fabber beneath: but you know voluntarily embraced hunger lacks the killing quality of the starving undead. “When did you last eat?” You murmur in his ear, not expecting any response.

“Nuuuuh …”

Shock almost makes you let go. He vocalized: that means he’s not let go. Lights on, somebody’s still home—even if the light’s a fading flashlight. You tap your glasses and peel your eyes. “Matt here. Got a responsive shambler in Hill Street Backup, please.” Then you hook one hand under his armpit and push yourself up off the floor. “Hey, kid. Let’s get some food in you.”

“Nuuuurr.” He might be trying to say no, but you’re not having it. You manage to get yourself up, and he’s so light—skin and bones, really—that he comes with, doesn’t try to put up a fight. Opposite the posh frock fab you see the frosted window and kitsch logo of a once-trendy pub. It’s not your usual dive, but it’s still mid-evening and the kitchen will be open, so you shoulder-barge your way through the swing-door with Dead Guy lurching drunkenly athwart behind, and bring him to the nearest empty table.

Ye cannae be bringing the likes of that in here—” The bartender is brassy and indignant, but you smile at her and she blinks and subsides as she kens that you’re peeling tonight. “Aye, wheel, if it pukes on the carpet you’re paying!”

Luckily there are no other customers cluttering up this end of the hostelry and liable to be discommoded by your Samaritan emergency: just a handful of sour-faced old regulars supping their IPAs by the brightwork at the bar. “I’d like a portion of cheese’n’chips and a bowl of chicken nuggets,” I tell her. She looks askance: “soon as I get some protein in him the sooner I can get him out of here and into rehab,” I add. “Peeling, ken?”

She nods tightly, face like a furled umbrella, and scoots for the til. The chicken nuggets aren’t nuggets and have never been near a bird, but they’re easily swallowed: ditto the chips’n’cheese. It’s all soft, high carb/high fat sludge that used to get hammered by the sin tax during the war on obesity: now it’s back on the menu as pub grub, and it’s especially good for shoveling into a zombie who, after all, is dead and therefore utterly uninterested in matters gustatory.

Boney Jim—you’ve got to call him something, and he’s not going to give you a name—sits quietly where you parked him on the bench seat. He’s still davvening. The food comes (along with the drink you ordered to still your unquiet nerves) and you pick up a greasy hot chip and push it at his lips. “Eat,” you tell him. For a miracle, he opens his mouth. You shove the chip in and get your fingers out of the way just in time. He chews and swallows, and you repeat the process with a nugget of deep-fried freshly printed avian myocites. Then some more chips. He is eating and swallowing what you place in front of his lips, even though his hands don’t move and his eyes are a million kilometers away, staring into infinity, pupils fixed and dilated. Boney Jim, Zombie Jim. If you’d left him out there he’d probably have lasted a couple more days before starvation, thirst, or exposure got him. It’s going to be necessary to track down whoever dumped him in the street like that: you add it to the to-do spike in your glasses. Eyes Peeled, as they say. You went through this yourself, in an earlier life. There’s light at the other end of the tunnel, and it isn’t necessarily the white light of eternity if somebody cares enough to get you to a clinic and rehab.

Ina cared enough to do it for you: but you weren’t there to do it for her when the time came, and sometimes the shame and the guilt is worse than the disease.

You have been feeding your zombie for about a quarter of an hour when you realize that you’re not alone any more. The Principles have sent you aid and comfort in the shape of a couple of Kindness Volunteers who—like yourself—are peeling tonight. She’s a rosy-cheeked middle-aged woman in a tweed twin-set and cultured pearls, sensible shoes her only concession: he looks like a painfully earnest Baptist Sunday school teacher from the 1960s, stranded most of a century in his own future—a determinedly retro hipster look. Maybe they’re twentieth century cosplayers who’ve escaped from the convention center for an evening of determined volunteerism. Or maybe they’re the real thing. Either way you’re grateful. “I found him outside,” you explain, pushing another not-chicken not-nugget at Boney Jim’s mandible. “Just sitting on the pavement. I think he’s stage IVa, maybe IVb, but there’s still some reactivity. Might be something they can work with at Greyfriars.” They set up a receiving unit for zombies in the former graveyard, at the height of the demic. White dome tents mushrooming among the lichen-encrusted headstones.

Read More