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Saturday, May 2, 2015

David Wellington: "Positive"

Author:  David Wellington  
Title:  Positive 
Plot Type: Post-Apocalyptic Zombie Fantasy
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor—2   
Publisher:  Harper Voyager

     Twenty years after a zombie pandemic killed 99% of the world's population, the survivors have found diverse ways of keeping themselves alive and thriving. Some live in walled-off cities, guarding against invasions by both zombies and other humans. Some become looters, who travel in small groups to strip abandoned homes for anything (especially liquor and pills) that can be traded to the army for food and fuel. Some become road piratesmotorcycle gangs who prey on the looters and on the smallest of the walled communities. Some join the military, which has thousands of trained troops armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and armored helicopters. Some join the Death cult—a group of religious fanatics led by a man who calls himself Anubis. 

     Members of the Death cult pray to makeshift skeletons that represent Death. They believe that if they die the right way, they give their life so that others can live. Unfortunately for the nonbelievers, the cult has split up into armed gangs of Stalkers who terrorize the countryside forcing people to sacrifice lives to their skeleton god and burning alive those who do not comply. They also believe that each person who dies gives power to Anubis.

     One final group of survivors is not so lucky. They are the positivespeople who have been exposed to the zombie virus but, as yet, show no symptoms. Scientists have figured out that if a positive lives for twenty years after the date of infection without going zombie, he or she is safe and can join the general population. Positives are identified by a huge black plus sign (+) that is tattooed on the back of their left hands. Some positives are thrown into camps run by the government, while others are shot by terrified civilians. A positive can turn into a zombie at any time during the 20-year incubation period, so most people are terrified at the sight of them and don't even want to breathe the same air. 

     The series hero is Finnigan (aka Finn, aka Stones), a nineteen-year-old who has spent his life near Times Square in Manhattan, cut off from the world by the rivers that make it an island. Finn and his best friend, Ike, spend their days roaming the streets, fishing for crabs in the flooded subway tunnels, and listening to the pre-zombie tales told by members of the first generationthe ones who survived the plague. The first generation speak nostalgically about things like speedy silver subway trains, but to Finn, "that was like telling me people used to be able to regrow lost teeth or fly by flapping their arms. I mean, I believe logically that the trains used to run down there. But they didn't now and they never would again. So it never felt quite real." The first generation (including Finn's parents) remember the zombies all too well, but second-generation Finn has never ever seen a zombie, and he can't help but feel that the old-timers are exaggerating their danger. Life is good in Manhattan, where there is sometimes electricity, where the population is small enough to to live in a few centralized buildings, where people plant roof-top gardens and search through abandoned apartments for caches of canned goods, and where tunnel fishing almost always results in enough eels or crabs to make a nice dinner.

     In a nice, nostalgic touch, Wellington reunites us with two characters from his other books: Laura Caxton and Bannerman Clark, each of whom has found an appropriate position in this post-zombie world. We even get an oblique, bittersweet reference to Clara Hsu, Laura's long-dead lover. Click HERE to read my reviews of the books in the LAURA CAXTON series, and click HERE to read my reviews of the books in the ZOMBIE series.

                   SUMMARY AND REVIEW                    
      In his iconic novel On the Road, Jack Kerouac allows us to follow Sal Paradise back and forth across the "groaning continent," beginning with his first trip from "the East of my youth" to the "West of my future." That is an apt description of Finn's journey as well. The difference is that Sal lives in a safe world of cars, buses, and apple pie, while Finn lives in a perilous world of foot-weary treks, poisonous water, and eat-off-the-land food. The book is divided into four sections: "The Beginning of the World," "The Road West," "Camp," and "Hearth," each title representing a stopping point on Finn's long, hard trip.

     In the first chapter, Finn's mother suddenly goes zombie, and Finn is dragged away and tattooed with the positive mark on his hand. He can't believe this is happening to himthat within the space of an hour his mother is dead (shot by his best friend, Ike); that he, his father, and Ike are in custody; and that he is now an outcast on his way to a government camp in Ohio. The title of the first section refers to the fact that his banishment from Manhattan is his introduction to the real world. 

     Unfortunately, that trip goes awry from the time he is sent across the George Washington Bridge to meet up with his government transportation, and Finn finds himself alone and terrified in New Jersey, an area rife with zombies, looters, and road pirates, one of whom almost immediately becomes his nemesis. At one point he accuses that road pilotRed Kateof being a parasite, but she stuns him by disagreeing: "Not a parasite. A maggot…See, a parasite, that's something that latches on to a living host…A maggot feeds on corpses…The world died twenty years ago…We're just nibbling on the carcass." He also meets up with his first zombie horde. This world is entirely new to Finn. As he searches for food and water, he stumbles across a woman's purse containingto his disbelief and disgusta roll of sugar-free mints. He scoffs, "Sugar free—why make food that contained no food? Why make something that was a perfect simulacrum of food, but gave no nourishment, that couldn't help you when you were hungry?" Soon, Finn is saved from certain death by a looter named Adare, who travels in an SUV with a harem of four young girls who serve him as scroungers and sexual objects. Although Finn learns a lot from Adare about surviving in the real world, he is sickened by Adare's treatment of the girls and never loses his conscientious Dudley Do-Right outlook on life—always standing up for the downtrodden, facing down the villains, and succeeding by pure luck or by implausibly convenient circumstances. 

     In Part II, Finn and the girls (minus Adare) head West through Pennsylvania toward the Ohio camp. This part of the book takes place on the road, with all of the perils that entails, from road pirates to blood-thirsty, maddened city-dwelling scavengers. As the group makes their way across the state (at 20 miles an hour because of the piles of road debris), Finn and Kylie (the oldest girl) begin to form a tentative partnership as they take care of the three younger ones. Until he finally gets hold of a road map, Finn believes that Ohio is a city that is not far from New Jersey. When he discovers the length of their journey, he gets discouraged, but never even considers turning back. In this section, we watch Finn grow in character as he discovers "that it was harder than it looked, to be in charge." Now, he is responsible for four other lives, and he has to learn more about how to survive. Eventually, Finn makes a huge sacrifice to save the girls, and finds himself once more facing hostility from humans. For me, the first two sections were the best: more action, more dark humor, and more character development.

     In Part III, Finn arrives at the Ohio camp, and finds to his dismay that it is not at all what he had visualized. "It seemed impossible that this could be what I'd fought so hard to obtain. This patch of mud under a gray sky, the sullen faces of the other positives, the total lack of concern on the part of those who were there to guard us." Life in the camp is horrible all of the time. At one point, Finn is so hungry that when a sandwich is dropped in the mud at his feet, "I am not ashamed to say I picked it up, dusted it off the best I could, and ate it anyway. No one should ever be ashamed of being hungry." Finn is forced to work for one of the inmate warlords, but he continues to try to figure out how to escape and to take the girls with him. It is at this point that Wellington inserts a quasi-deus ex machina to extend Finn's perpetual lucky streak and allow the escape to happen. I won't go into more detail than that except to say that it is extremely improbable. 

     In the final section, Finn and his followers head West in search of a better future. In this part of the story, Finn accepts (and earns) more and more responsibility and faces even greater challenges as the group searches for a place to settle down. Finn and Kylie grow closer and closer, and Kylie begins to break through the hard, self-protective shell she has built to safeguard her mental health. By the end of the book, some of the loose ends are tied off, but there are still a few conflicts that are left unresolved.

     One of the constant themes of this book is that every situation has its pros and cons. For example, when Ike shoots and kills Finn's mother, Finn hates Ike for murdering her but, at the same time, thanks him for putting her out of her misery. In the camp, when the guards use dogs to sniff out and kill positives who are on the verge of going zombie, Finn (at first) views this as an abomination, but then another prisoner reminds him that this is a good thing because "the biggest danger any of us faced was that one of the positives was, in fact, infected and that he would go zombie without warning." When he and Kylie escape from the camp, she punches him in the face "for bringing me to that place" and then gives him a hug "for getting me out." All the way through Finn's journey, he learns that life in the real world is never black or white, good or bad; instead it is filled with gray areas. By learning to deal with the opposing sides of developing situations he becomes a stronger leader. 

     The first half of the book kept me completely engrossed as Finn goes through a rebirthfrom the protective womb of Manhattan out into the real world. As the story moves along, though, Finn becomes more and more of a saintly guru whose luck almost never runs out. Even though he is forced to make many tough decisions that result in the deaths of some of his allies, on the whole, he verges on being a born lucky trope. Even Finn frequently remarks on his improbably constant luck. At one point when things go his way yet again, he says, "I caught one of the luckiest breaks of my lucky life…" When his group finds an abandoned grocery store with stocked shelves just as some are beginning to rebel against his leadership, he says, "I'd gotten luckyfar luckier than I deserved…" This aspect of his character made him seem less human and more like a modern-day Solomon. By the end, Finn has become a 21-year-old über-reasonable, food-apportioning, seed-saving, battle-strategist wise man. It's too much changeall for the goodin too short a time. The fact that none of the older, tougher men ever challenge his leadership is mysterious, even to Finn (and certainly to me). Neither Daryl Dixon nor Rick Grimes (or even Carl) would have ever considered following him. Why would all these people knuckle under to this kideven with his luck.

     Kylie, on the other hand, is perpetually downtrodden and much more realistic as a character in this horrific world. Her gradual return to emotional health is well portrayed and sometimes heartbreakingly poignant. Red Kate is a stereotypical evil villain with no redeeming qualities.

     Another bothersome element is the town of Hearthan abandoned village with a library, a school, homes, government offices, and a factoryall in the middle of an Indiana woods. The abandonment was pre-zombie plague, so why on earth was an entire town emptied of all human life? I couldn't come up with a scenario for that, so it was almost impossible to accept.

     I truly enjoyed the first half of this book as it explores Finn's worldview (or lack of it), which makes for some humorous and ironic moments. His burgeoning relationship with Kylie shows little deep emotion, so it is less successful. Although Finn is a strong and intelligent character he is so naive and head-in-the-clouds optimistic that I kept thinking that there was no way that he would ever survive in zombie-land, much less become a leader. He reminded me of Dale in The Walking Deada stand-up guy, but definitely not a leader.  In fact, in the Walking Dead world, the moral compass of the group almost always ends up dead (e.g., Dale, Hershel). All in all, I was disappointed in this book because I was expecting the virtuosity and inventiveness of Wellington's other series: LAURA CAXTON AND ZOMBIE. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Positive.

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