Title: Generation Dead
Author: Daniel Waters
Genre: Speculative Fiction, Young Adult, Zombies
Publisher: Hyperion Books (DBG)
Publication Date: May 2008
Hardcover: 400 pages
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Generation Dead series. Book 2, Kiss of Life, releases in May.
Why did I read this book: In up-and-coming author Karen Mahoney’s awesome Smugglivus Post she mentions Generation Dead as one of her favorite reads of 2008. Zombies and high school equals win–so when I saw this book at my local store, I snatched it up immediately.
Summary: (from Amazon.com)
Phoebe is just your typical goth girl with a crush. He’s strong and silent. and dead.
All over the country, a strange phenomenon is happening. Some teenagers who die aren’t staying dead. They are coming back to life, but they are no longer the same-they stutter, and their reactions to everything are slower. Termed “living impaired” or “differently biotic,” they are doing their best to fit into a society that doesn’t want them.
Fitting in is hard enough when you don’t have the look or attitude, but when almost everyone else is alive and you’re not, it’s close to impossible. The kids at Oakvale High don’t want to take classes or eat in the cafeteria next to someone who isn’t breathing. And there are no laws that exist to protect the differently biotic from the people who want them to disappear-for good.
With her pale skin and Goth wardrobe, Phoebe has never run with the popular crowd. But no one can believe it when she falls for Tommy Williams, the leader of the dead kids. Not her best friend, Margi, whose fear of the differently biotic is deeply rooted in guilt over the past. And especially not her neighbor, Adam, the star of the football team. Adam has just realized his feelings for Phoebe run much deeper than just friendship. He would do anything for her, but what if protecting Tommy is the one thing that would make her happy?
Phoebe is a pretty, self-reserved girl who dresses in Goth dresses and boots, listens to loud metal, and prefers to write poetry rather than trying to fit in as a perky, popular kid. She spends her time hanging out with her two best friends: Margi, an exuberant girl with Phoebe’s same sense of Goth style, and Adam, the clean cut boy from next door and star football linebacker. Though the three don’t seem to fit the typical high school clique mold, for all other purposes they are your average high school kids, living in a small town and attending your typical anytown high school.
That is, except for the zombies.
Across the country, dead teenagers are rising from their graves and coming back home. These “living impaired” people, or the more PC term “differently biotic” (as opposed to the derogatory jabs from the oppressive warm blood breathers, “Children of Romero”, “corpsicles”, or the ubiquitous “zombie”), do not breathe, eat, or sleep. They move a little slower than the living, they stutter or lag when they try to speak. Not all teens come back, and those that do don’t come back equally–some of the “differently biotic” come back with much more mobility and speech fluency than others…such as Tommy Williams. In Phoebe’s small town more so than anywhere else in the country, the “differently biotic” are integrated into the school system, causing fear and distrust amongst students and adults alike. When the dead boy Tommy Williams decides to make a stand and try out for the football team, the principal guarantees that he has a spot on the squad–causing even more hate and dissent amongst the students and people in the town. And Phoebe takes notice. Not only is Tommy incredibly brave for ignoring criticism and playing football, but he also doesn’t look like the typical zombie: he’s attractive, articulate, and both physically and emotionally strong.
Tensions rise between the living and undead, as prejudice and an unwillingness to accept these dead teens simmers. Activists promoting equality between the normally and differently biotic appear on the scene, encouraging students to participate in workshops. And all the while, Margi and especially Adam try to come to terms with Phoebe’s growing fascination with Tommy, and overcome prejudices of their own by befriending the zombies. Hate is a hard thing to fight, and soon danger faces not only the dead kids, but anyone who stands with them.
Generation Dead is not what I expected at all. The cover, while stylishly appealing exudes a sort of teen spirit, kitschy, lighthearted feel–and this is not what the book is at all. Daniel Waters’ debut is a surprisingly deep, moving tale about not only friendship, but acceptance and understanding as well. Like the best zombie films and novels, Generation Dead tackles the social implications of the undead. While this invocation of the zombie is limited to teenagers and strictly of the non-flesh eating variety, the presence of the undead unlocks the usual suspects of the zombie genre: critiques of racial & social constructs in the presence of that potent combination of hate & fear.
Not only is this a subversive novel exploring these themes, but it’s also a damn well-written, thrilling story with incredibly real characters. Phoebe in particular is an admirable, sympathetic heroine–she’s intelligent and courageous, but not infallible. Her attraction to – or rather, fascination with – Tommy is rooted in admiration for his strength, but Phoebe realizes the potential problems of having a true relationship with him. There’s the tragically torn Margi, whose inability to accept the differently biotic stems from a deeply personal experience with an old friend, and also explains some of Phoebe’s need to connect with the undead. Then there’s sweet, smitten Adam. Move over you bland, pale Twilight boys–Adam is a true leading man, sure to win the hearts of teens and older readers alike. His feelings for Phoebe explain his actions and motivations, but he also has an irresistible streak of moral strength. On a side note, I’m very pleased with Daniel Waters’ decision to write this book in the third-person as opposed to the usual first person point of view; it allows a much more comprehensive look at all the characters in this book.
Some of the most interesting characters are the zombies themselves–the beautiful and “highly functional” Tommy, Karen and Evan, and the lesser functioning zombies, like Collete. Waters plays his cards close to the chest here–it seems the differently biotic are dogging it a bit, not letting on that some of them can actually speak and move far more quickly than they let on, to the point that some of them may even have other supernatural talents. There’s some dissent between the zombies themselves and the actions they feel necessary to take which I cannot wait to see explored more in the next novel. Finally, there are the adult and “villainous” characters, who also play a pivotal part in this story. The most effective of these, in my opinion, were the cobra-kai-never-die type of football coach (you can hear him going, “sweep the leg!”), the overzealous (and self promoting) motivational speaker, and the oh-so politically correct father and daughter team of the Hunter Foundation for the Advancement and Understanding of Differently Biotic Persons (though something seems a little off with this supposedly benevolent foundation–again, to be tackled in the next book I hope!). The final, important cast member to this novel, however, is the angry, hurt and misguided football captain, Peter. I won’t spoil his story, but despite how angry and cruel he is, because of Waters’ skillful writing and narrative, even he becomes humanized.
Plot-wise, this is an engaging story–one of the variety where you suspect the covers have been fused with some type of adhesive that prevents you from putting it down until you’ve finished the entire thing. From the very premise of the novel, I was hooked. I loved the hypothesized causes of zombiism:
Phoebe wondered why living impairment seemed to be a phenomenon exclusive to teenagers. American teenagers, specifically. Dogs didn’t come back. Neither did monkeys or goldfish, or old people, or small children. Apparently, neither did teenagers in Uzbekistan, Burkina Faso, Sweden, or Paupa New Guinea, for some reason. But kids from Oklahoma, Rockaway Beach, The Big Apple, Arkansas, or The Big Easy all bore at least a chance of winding up living impaired, as long as they croaked during the delicate teen years. The newest Frankenstein Formula theory was that a certain mixture of teenage hormones and fast food preservatives set up the proper conditions for living impairment. The medical community was still testing the theory, having begrudgingly let go of fluorocarbons and brain patterns rewired by a lifetime of first-person shooter games.
There’s a lot of drama to this book, a lot of action. Waters keeps his book from Disney-style compartmentalized happiness by not shying away from the ugliness that hate breeds, especially with his shocker of an ending.
Only two months to go until the sequel…and I absolutely cannot wait.
Notable Quotes/Parts: The passage with Skip Slydell, promoting the differently biotic while self-promoting, is fantastically hilarious.
The first thing Slydell did was hand out business cards to all the kids…SKIP SLYDELL ENTERPRISES, the card read, and featured a studio head-and-shoulders shot of Skip beaming over a pile of books and products. IN ASSOCIATION WITH THE HUNTER FOUNDATION. There was an 800 number on the bottom of the card.
“Let’s get to it, shall we?” he said. “Ms. Hunter has told me that one of the main goals of this foundation that you are all working for and learning in is something I call the successful acclimation of differently biotic persons into society, as well as to acclimate society to a point where it is more fully accepting of differently biotic persons within it. Does that make sense? Any questions?”
He did not wait for either question to be answered. He walked as he talked, with his large, soft-looking hands waving and pointing to accentuate his statements. He took great care to make eye contact with every person, and would hold the contact a few beats longer when he focused on one of the differently biotic people. He spoke so quickly that Phoebe thought it was unlikely that most of the dead kids could follow. She might have had trouble following had she not made herself a coffee when she came in…
“The question then becomes, How can we make that acclimation happen? How can we make that acclimation happen? It isn’t easy to do, what we are planning. Change the culture. Changing the culture is very, very difficult, even in this country. You and I” — and here he held Sylvia’s blank gaze for a pause of nearly twenty seconds — “you and I have not chose easy work for ourselves. Not at all. It isn’t easy to transform culture.”
He leaned back against the table, staggering a bit, as though the enormity of their shared task had overtaken him and left him breathless. Margi was making a low humming sound that brought a smile to Phoebe’s lips, because it meant Margi had turned on her bullshit detector.
“What we are going to do is not easy. But it can be done. Even here in America. Elvis Presley did it. Martin Luther King did it. Jimi Hendrix. John F. Kennedy. Bill Gates. Michael Jordan. The two guys that created South Park.”
The American community of saints, Phoebe thought.
It just drips with sweet, subversive sarcasm. I love it.
“Hallelujah!” Slydell yelled, staring up through the ceiling. “You see that? Do you see that, everyone? Layman here won’t call his pal Tommy a zombie because he respects him. And ole Tom wouldn’t care if Adam did because he considers him a friend. You see that? Do you understand where I’m going here?”
He walked in front of Zumbrowski with his hands on his hips. “Do you know what those two are doing, Kevin? Sylvia? Margi? Those two are transforming the culture, and that is what it is all about.”
He picked up his mystery gear on the table and began unfolding what looked like a black T-shirt.
“How’d you get to be friends, guys? Was it the football?”
“So it took a radical act — that of a zombie putting on the pads and helmet — for that to happen, didn’t it?”
“I guess so,” Adam said.
“You guess so? You guess? You’d better know, son, because you and Tommy are on the bleeding edge of a new society. You guys are it. Transformation always requires radical action. Do you follow? Transformation always requires radical action. If Elvis Presley had not taken the radical action of singing a style of music traditionally sung by black people, we may never have had the transformation that rock and roll enacted on modern society. If Martin Luther King had not taken the radical action of organizing and speaking around the cause of civil rights, we may have never undergone the transformation from an oppressive state to one of freedom and equal opportunity for all. And that transformation is not yet complete. You kids are living — or unliving, as the case may be — proof of that…The second key to transformation. Conflict. Radical action coupled with radical response. Only then can we get true change. There was a reason I used strong words with you…I need your help in figuring out a term we can all be cool with, because ‘differently biotic’ is not going to cut it. Too cold, too many syllables. No panache. Frankly, it just ain’t sexy enough. Now, zombie…I personally think that makes a statement. The first step toward transforming a culture is to give names and definitions to the transformative aspects of that culture. You are zombies, kids. And you need to use that term with pride, regardless of the reaction that it provokes.”
Phoebe wondered if any of the other kids realized that Skip had given them about three “first steps” in his talk. But he was like a train racing to get back to the station before sunset; Colette had raised her hand at some point during the unifying-effects-of-team-sports speech, and Slydell had still not allowed her to speak.
He unfurled the T-shirt he was holding. It was basic black with the words DEAD…AND LOVING IT! in greenish lettering that probably glowed in the dark.
Brilliant. Even if the message is a positive one, I love that it comes with ready made t-shirts, pre-packaged for the consumers out there eager for ‘transforming the culture’. *snickers*
Verdict: A wonderful first novel, and probably one of my favorite reads of 2009 thus far. I cannot wait for the sequel, and HIGHLY recommend everyone give this genuinely smart and touching novel a read.
Rating: 8 Excellent
Reading Next: Zombie Haiku by Ryan Mecum