Xombies: Apocalypse Blues
by Walter Greatshell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Xombies: Apocalypse Blues / 978-0-441-01835-2
I love zombie fiction, and seem to be going through a lot of it lately. "Xombies" is one of those apocalypse novels where the emphasis is so much more on the human reaction to the breakdown of society, rather than on the cause of the breakdown itself - to the point where the zombies (or "xombies", if you prefer) could be just as easily replaced by space aliens or an invading force of Teletubbies and the book would still read pretty much the same.
It should be noted that author Greatshell does not have a stellar opinion of mankind, which is par for the course for these tracts on the breakdown of human society in the face of serious disaster, but where Greatshell could perhaps be forgiven for automatically assuming most humans to be complete jerks, it's strange that he also seems to assume they will be so singular in their approach to jerk status. The conceit here is that the titular "Xombie" virus (with an "X" for X chromosomes), was first airborne and affected all the women on earth capable of menstruation (the science for this part is soft enough to spread on a biscuit, so don't think to hard about it), but since our young heroine doesn't menstruate, she's immune - a single girl among hundreds of male refugees. What's odd is that pretty much every single member of a crew of hundreds - minus, basically, the dozen named characters - absolutely hate her with a vengeance for being (a) female and (b) not their moms/sisters/lovers/daughters that they left behind.
This setup is so foreign that it seems extremely odd and alien. I've no doubt that in such a situation, there would be quite a large amount of resentment toward the surviving girl, but for basically *everyone* without a name billing to react this way is so anathema to human behavior, which is frequently varied. You'd think a good portion of the refugees would go overboard the *other* direction, adopting the girl with an uncomfortable fervor to replace the ones who were lost, but not one person in this novel ever seems in the slightest danger of doing that, and it's just...weird. The few "good" guys just sort of tolerate and accept the protagonist, for the most part. And while it seems like a small complaint, it's worth noting that the male reactions to the female protagonist in their midst take up at least half of the novel, so that's a good half that (a) isn't filled with zombies, and (b) isn't a very realistic portrayal of the variance of human emotion and is therefore distracting and odd.
Anyway, we plunge on. Obviously, what with all humans being horrible jerks and with most of the women on earth out of commission (minus the very young and the very old), it's just a matter of time before the raping begins, and probably enough said about that except that it's rather rare to see an author embrace the reality that the raping isn't going to be confined to male-on-female in a situation like this. The narrative glosses over without any gory details, but somehow this matter-of-fact handling of the horrors makes them worse, and I am forced to admit that of all the novels I've read where it seems humanity might do best to wipe itself out, Greatshell manages to make one of the most terribly convincing cases - most readers will be rooting for the xombies to win, before the end.
If I'm disappointed with "Xombies", it's perhaps because I feel a lot of potential was wasted. The titular infected only take up about a third of the novel, with the other third focusing on interim survival and humans being jerks, leaving the novel feeling a little weak on the actual horror. The infected are scary, and yet somehow hard to take seriously - they are bright blue (easy to identify) and they turn humans by kissing, rather than biting, them - a plot point that would *seem* to make it easier to prevent being turned, by handing out oxygen masks to everyone. For that matter, a lot seems to have been poorly thought out - the infected aren't put down easily, and even a loose arm or leg can continue to attack apart from the body, and while that sounds like an *extremely* fun plot point, nothing is ever really done with it, which seems very much like a Missing Moment of Awesome. There should be at *least* one scene where a peacefully sleeping person is killed by a rogue arm that made its way slowly through the air ducts, or something. And since half the xombies are intelligent, it's just plain odd that they don't rip their own limbs off in the face of destruction, to achieve this. Beyond anything else, despite these zombies being the theoretically impossible to take down with basic weapons, the humans manage to do so time and again, without any real explanation - we're just to assume that they easily and quickly bludgeon everything into a pulpy mass, and it just doesn't work well in the imagination.
I enjoyed this book overall, and I'll probably pick up the sequel, but the soft science and self-induced plot holes, the one-size-fits-all social commentary, and the slow pacing means I probably won't read this one again.
~ Ana Mardoll
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