What is a critical mass moment? It’s nothing official really. It’s just a term I came up with when I started writing. It’s that moment where shit isn’t just hitting the fan…it’s more like every turd that has been flushed down the toilets of every major population center is sucked up into every jet engine globally and is scattered liberally across the planet.
I’ll give you a moment to imagine that. Nasty…right?
A few years ago, I read a blog post explaining why a true zombie apocalypse couldn’t happen. I’m sure if you are a zombie enthusiast, you may have read it. Although I could poke holes in a few of their arguments, there was one important fact that stood out that was hard to deny.
As human beings, we’re very good at killing things. I mean really, we’re like stupid good at it. We’ve caused creatures to go extinct…more than once! We even have the ability to kill every living thing on this Earth and reduce them microscopic radioactive dust.
When it comes to killing things…we f’n rock.
The traditional idea of the zombie plague…at least the Romero type zombies…dead bodies come back and started treating the living like an all you can eat sampler platter. Eat a little bit, move on. The problem, for me anyway, is that eventually people would get wise to the fact that these weird looking bitey people are probably worth keeping away from. It wouldn’t take too long before you would have a nice big pile of twice dead corpses getting ready for the cremation heap.
Add to that the fact that these days you can’t sling a dead cat without hitting someone who knows how to kill a (again, Romero type) zombie. Take a bat…smack in head…rinse, repeat. Plus, most countries on this planet can lay down fields of whoop ass without breaking a sweat thanks to all our modern advancements in killing things. (really mind boggling how good we are at that).
With all those things working against traditional zombies, the idea that Granny will sit up in her coffin and take a bite out of Harold the pall bearer and ushering the complete collapse of civilization becomes a bit less plausible. That’s before taking into account that most bodies in the civilized world are embalmed fairly early after death, so getting the infection started will be a bit of a chore.
When I sat down to start writing my first zombie novel, This Dying World: The End Begins, I grappled with how to spread the infection. At first, I wasn’t going to even bother explaining it. It would be a completely legitimate thing to do. During a real ZA, most people would be completely clueless about the origin of the zombies anyway. So my original idea was:
BOOM! Zombies are here. Why? F**k you, that’s why. So deal with it!
But then, as my story grew, I found myself in a position that I needed to explain where it came from. Or at least explain how mankind lost the battle so quickly. How could all of our advanced methods of destroying stuff be thwarted by creatures with the intelligence of an avocado and the speed of a sleepwalking sloth?
Really, the answer is simple. And I bet every zombie lover who read that question knows the answer too. The real terror of the slow moving shambling zombies, besides their single minded relentless nature is their numbers. They attack and overwhelm by sheer force of numbers. And of course, with hordes of the walking dead, the more the merrier. But to get to those numbers can be a challenge, especially with the bite transmission.
Enter that critical mass moment. It’s the absolute game changer. The moment where the numbers of the dead suddenly surge and overwhelm every possible organized response and bring civilization to its knees. It takes the long slow progression of a typical infection burning across the planet and turns it into an overnight extinction level event.
I was about halfway through my book before I came up with my critical mass moment. It did require a few rewrites, but by the time I was done I was very happy with it. Over the years I have seen several examples of that critical mass, and it’s always fun to see how another author pulls it off. It’s not easy…especially when there is always someone in the audience that will gladly point out where we mess up and how what we wrote couldn’t actually happen. You know who you are…stop trying to hide. Yeah you, hiding behind the door…I saw you!
Now I’m not discounting the authors that prefer the slow burn infection, or the ones that just ignore the origins altogether and say “POOF Zombies…enjoy!” I’ve read a lot of zombie books, and I’ve seen a lot of different ideas on zombies. I love seeing where a writer can go to create, or recreate their versions of a zombie.
And quite honestly I think that’s the beauty of this genre. Zombies are malleable creatures. There are no written rules about what they can do and how far they can evolve. They are very open to interpretation for anyone who wants to take on the challenge. As long as writers have new ideas floating around their devious little minds, we will always have new and terrifying versions of the creatures we have all come to love and admire to face off with.