Nick Mamatas Guest Post–“Influence Without Anxiety Or, What’s That Sneaking Around in the Corner of the Novelist’s Mind?”
posted by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro at Wednesday 20 January 2016 @ 5:12 pm GMT
I suppose I wear my influences on my sleeve — most of them anyway. My most recent novel, the dipsomaniac zombie story The Last Weekend, is a tribute to some of them. Mike Berry at the San Francisco Chronicle nailed it: “it is the shades of Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, John Fante and other hard-drinking scribblers who haunt the pages.” One boozy author most everyone has missed so far is Frederick Exley, whose “fictional memoir” A Fan’s Notes I freely used as a structural template. But there is a deeper influence at work in The Last Weekend as well, specifically Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.
Before becoming the simple classic that it is, The Forever War was marketed as a satire. “What A Hitch!” reads the back cover call-out on the Ballantine edition I read years ago. On the front, a confident claim that the novel is science fiction’s own Catch-22. If that wasn’t enough, here’s something about protagonist William Mandella we’d almost never see on the cover copy of a novel today, in the Era of Spoiler Warnings: “Battling the Taurans was the least of his problems as he worked his way up through the ranks to major.” Interstellar battles? Fuggedaboutit! The real story is somewhere else.
Mandella’s story is about something wildly different; his disaffection from a rapidly changing world. The satire in The Forever War is occasionally brutal—rape is essentially institutionalized through the practice of confraternity/bunksharing, and there’s no side character or plot device to wag a finger and say, “That’s bad!” as would be typical in a twenty-first century milquetoast satire. (We must recall that satire’s goal is to critique vice, not just power. Journalists are supposed to “kick up and kiss down”; satirists piss on everything.) And then, as Mandella’s travels keep him young while humanity’s cultures continue to evolve, he finds himself entirely at the mercy of the crazed and hidden logic of war. “Strike Force Command plans in terms of centuries,” after all. “Not in terms of people.”
There is a broad stroke similarity between military science fiction and zombie apocalypse fiction. The former tends to focus on regular troops and the drama of the battlefield; the latter on civilians or “irregulars” trying to survive the drama of complete invasion and collapse. The enemies are frequently either the hive (in military SF) or the horde (in zombie fiction). Of course there are tons of exceptions as well, but we’re talking genres here, so we can make broad and reasonably accurate claims. The Forever War stands out, even after decades, even after the narrative of the Vietnam War has been eclipsed by those of Iraq and Afghanistan, because it violates the strictures of generic hardcore military SF. The particulars of the war against the Taurans are essentially irrelevant. It’s a critique of the form, and as Thomas Disch points out in his essay “Republicans on Mars—SF as Military Strategy”, “[u]nlike the various survivalist series and the Soldier of Fortune adventures of Pournelle, Drake, and Co., The Forever War said what it had to say once…. It is but a single book among entire ranks of paperbacks” that feature the exact opposite message.
That’s what I tried to do with The Last Weekend. It’s a satire, and a complaint about zombie fiction, while also being zombie fiction. Like Mandella, my protagonist Vasilis “Billy” Kostopolos is brought into the battle and isn’t very good at it, but muddles through sufficiently well to eventually be the longest-serving “driller” of reanimated corpses. Though he’s an alcoholic, was barely functional prior to the apocalypse, and whines about the slow death of his literary ambitions constantly, Billy ends up being pretty proud of his work as a driller too. And there is no moral center, no handy side character to tsk-tsk and say, “But Billy, you’re a terrible person with bad ideas. Can’t you be a good Bernie Bro instead?” so that even the least discerning readers will know that I’m only funnin’ with them. (I’m not!)
Further, like the war against the Taurans in The Forever War, the fight against the zombies is essentially secondary in The Last Weekend. As one mostly positive review put it, “for readers looking for down-and-dirty zombie action, with a strong plot and lots of tension, you’ll most likely be disappointed with this book.” True, so far as it goes. See also the relative handful of one-star reviews of The Forever War on Amazon.com. Elementary confusion between portrayal and advocacy with regards to the sexism in future military society, and the idea that war may not be swell. A few of them even complained about “swear words.”
But with all that said, except for readers of this essay (hello!), almost nobody reading The Last Weekend would think to themselves, “Aha, this is like The Forever War.” But occulted influences are not uncommon. Years ago I was on a panel with author Terry Brooks of Shannara fame, who minimized the influence of Tolkien on his work. Who really influenced him? “Faulkner,” he said in a word. Shannara is an intergenerational saga taking place in a region that’s seen better days, I suppose. An even more hard-to-spot influence might be Raymond Carver on Haruki Murakami. The world’s leading novelist of phantasmagorical weirdness, featuring people who turn into sheep and such, informed by the paragon of “dirty realism” in American short fiction? It’s somewhat more obvious if you read Japanese, but it’s there. Murakami’s Japanese is closer to English than is apparent from English translations. The content is very different, but the form hauntingly similar. When you read a book, keep in mind that you’re not only reading a snatch of conversation within a subgenre, but perhaps also the palimpsest of novel in a different genre entirely.
About the Author
Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including the recent The Last Weekend and the forthcoming Lovecraftian murder mystery I Am Providence. His short fiction has appeared on Tor.com, and in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Weird Tales, and Best American Mystery Stories 2013, among dozens of other venues. His latest anthology is the hybrid crime/SF Hanzai Japan, co-edited with Masumi Washington.