Adam Roberts discovers that a little learning is a dangerous thing.

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How to Make a Zombie
Frank Swain
Oneworld, PPB £11.99

Let’s start with the Trades Descriptions Act angle. The one thing Swain’s book does not do is tell its reader how to make a zombie. There’s a good reason for this (you can’t make a zombie), and a good commercial case for not admitting it straight off—the two words YOU CAN’T won’t fill 250 pages, no matter how large a font is used. Instead we get a preface ‘Recipe for a Zombie’ that notes the cultural ubiquity of the zombie-trope followed by seven chapters that tour, in leisurely but absorbing manner, around the topic. Chapter 1 looks at Haiti, from where the word ‘zombie’ comes. Swain traces the history of the concept and airs a few possible explanations for the phenomenon without plumping for one: maybe Haitian zombies have been poisoned to turn them into pliable sub-human slaves; maybe ‘zombie’ is how Haitian culture describes the severely learning-disabled; maybe it’s all superstition. Chapter 2 looks at the various attempts scientists have made over the centuries to revivify animal and human corpses. Some of these were barking up the wrong experimental-dog alley (passing hundreds of thousands of volts through a cadaver will tend to cook it, not reanimate it). Others showed some success in euthanizing and then resuscitating dogs. But the problem is that deprive a human brain of oxygen for 90 seconds and it starts irreversibly to necrose.

Chapter 3 takes the topic in a new direction: not the risen-from-the-grave aspect of zombies, but the lack of human affect they exhibit. Swain shows that there are various ways—toxins, narcotics hypnotism—by which people could have their will-power reduced to shambling, grunting, zombified levels. Chapter 4 goes further along this line, starting with the story of Texas Tower Shooter Charles Whitman, a model student whose murderously erratic behaviour may have been provoked by the large tumour wrapped around his hypothalamus and amygdala. We get a brief history of the lobotomy, and speculation about electronic implants in the brain to control moods (‘this may sound like a plot element from a sci-fi thriller, but …’ Swain rather irritatingly says). Chapter 5 continues the Overmastered-Volition theme by looking at various, and variously horrible, examples of insects, fungi and parasites that lay eggs inside, inject poison into the brain and otherwise treat other beasties very nastily indeed. This chapter ramps up the ick factor quite nicely, although I couldn’t shake the feeling that, by this point, we’d strayed far from the initial brief. Zombies in popular culture aren’t being controlled by some nefarious third party, after all. It is not that they lack volition; it is that they lack human mentition and empathy. As far as volition goes, they are as we all know strongly motivated to eat braaaains, which goal they pursue with a single-mindedness that borders on the wilful.

Chapter 6 begins (‘So you want to create your own zombie army’) as if directing the thesis back on track. But in fact it makes a knight’s-move into even more tenuously connected territory—rabies and Toxoplasma gondii—via the rather creaky justification that a zombie army needs ‘a distributed network, a plague of the shambling dead that can sustain itself, even organize itself, without your direct involvement.’ Can such a thing be achieved, Swain asks himself, without some kind of intellect to oversee it? Yes it can, he answers himself, thereby putting in question the rationale for including chapters 3–5 in the book at all. Chapter 7, finally, brings us back to human cadavers, from ancient burial rituals to organ transplant and blood transfusion, concluding with a too-brief 2-page summary of the history of cannibalism.

How To Make A Zombie is full of interesting and engaging things, but it is centripetally diffuse and only very loosely organised towards an overarching argument. Swain concludes that ‘death is a fuzzy principle’, which is true at the borderline although not (as Swain himself showed in his earlier chapters) more broadly—Napoleon is dead in a very definite, non-fuzzy way, after all; and Lady Gaga is as emphatically alive. His final address to the reader (‘You are an undead zombie, and you always have been’) feels unearned, and has more rhetorical than factual merit. Whole tranches of the zombie phenomenon aren’t covered at all. Swain nowhere addresses the grounds of the cultural appeal of zombies: why we find them so fascinating, how they differ from other cultural metaphors of death and drive—vampires, mummies—and what that tells us about contemporary life. Swain is not interested in the metaphor, I suspect. He is interested in the science.

The success of books designed to popularise science (‘Main Title Namechecking Famous Scientific Thingummy: Subtitle Framed As A Question?’) is a contemporary cultural phenomenon of great interest. Hundreds of titles have been published, and a good number have gone on to become bestsellers. This has brought a degree of understanding of science and nature to a wide audience, and that can only be a good thing. The question, I suppose, is whether such books fall foul of Pope’s Law (a little learning being a dangerous thing). Another way of putting this might be to see all such books, up to and including Swain’s, as examples of the QI-ification of contemporary knowledge. It feels heavy-handed of me to explain my reference, but for the benefit of those who don’t know: QI is a popular BBC2 TV panel show, hosted by Stephen Fry, where contestants strive to answer alphabet-themed questions in a manner that is quite interesting. The show, in other words, trades on a general appetite for trivia, leaning heavily on the patrician, schoolmasterish charm of its host. But a love of nuggets of trivia is not the same thing as a love of learning more generally conceived. A single datum of trivia—a trivium—gives its possessor the satisfaction of knowing specialised, non-obvious things without requiring her to invest the labour and time in actual learning. It can be traded, in a cultural context: at a dinner party, say, or down the pub with friends, a trivium can be swapped for a small increase in the esteem of one’s companions and a lightening of the collective mood. In this respect, a trivium is akin to a joke, or a piece of gossip. And that’s fine and dandy—I like jokes, and value gossip. But trivia, gossip and anecdotes do not add up to Knowledge, because Knowledge requires the effort of systematic and engaged effort. Knowing a whole bunch of anecdotal trivia will tend to make us feel cleverer, or at least better informed, than we really are. The problem with a general QI-ification of contemporary knowledge is that it dissipates knowledge as such, and corrodes the more effortful disciplines of science. Humans are grievously prone to generalise dangerously on the basis of anecdotes and decontextualized trivia; adding more decontextualized trivia isn’t the way to address this.

A couple of assumptions underpin the writing of Swain’s book, assumptions he (or his publishers) share with the producers of most Pop-Sci books. One is that There Must Be No Equations. Equations scare the regular reader; the regular reader is a raging Equationophobe. Two is that Facts Are Bland, and Must Be Spiced-Up. This up-spicing may be accomplished variously, for instance by adding dramatic descriptive prose:

The bodies of tens of thousands killed by the plague in England, France, Spain and Belgium law damp and rotting in mass graves, and above ground mildewed crops collapsed in boggy fields …starving villagers built pyres to burn those responsible [witches, that is], and bitter winds carried the smoke from them over a rancid land. To turn a phrase, death was in the air. [39]

These phrases haven’t been particularly vividly turned, it seems to me, but I don’t mean to snipe. Broadly, Swain chooses his interesting examples and writes clear, communicative prose; although occasionally he is slapdash (he calls Charles I ‘vainglorious’ when he means ‘celebrated’ [189], uses ‘precipitously’ when he means—I think—‘accordingly’ [137], and he describes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as ‘infamous’ [xi] which rather implies he doesn’t know what that word means). But my beef is less with him specifically, and more with the School of QI, and its assumption that e=mc² is dull but It was a dark and stormy night when the wild-haired scientist suddenly saw that e=mc² is not.

Another way of spicing up the data is humour—in How To Make A Zombie mostly confined to the occasional Pratchettian footnote about lambchops and the like. Another again is hyperbole: of American author and traveller William Seabrook, Swain says ‘Lusty, restless, red-haired, Seabrook was an inimitable character whose incredible life was reflected in the incredible stories he wired home’ [7]. Incredible! The problem with this latter is that cheques get written by the prose that the content of the book cannot cash. ‘How To Make A Zombie is filled with true tales that will keep you awake at night’, Swain declares at the beginning, an assertion that proves, to employ the idiom of science, falsifiable.

I’m not suggesting that Swain dumbs down his material. In fact he doesn’t. Indeed, there are many places in How To Make A Zombie where the author’s scientific idiom wins the battle against his populist one (‘T gondii causes excessive dopamine production, responds to anti-psychotics and is known to infect humans … a correlation between toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia had been noted as far back as the 1950s’, [180]). I found no errors of fact, and only a few errors of emphasis (it would be one thing to call John Donne an ‘English divine’; it looks weird calling Aleister Crowley one). But the sense of reading the whole book in one go is of a great number of anecdotoids only loosely constellated into an overarching whole; and it is this, I think, that expresses the underlying cultural logic of QI-ified Popular Science Writing. Like the zombies it never quite gets around to blueprinting for us, Swain’s book is assembled from orts and scraps and animated by a not-wholly-vivid force into shuddering life. There are lots and lots of popular science books like this, and I can certainly see this one doing well. It never BRRAAAIINS! but it pours.

10 months ago
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