In her introduction to the 1976 edition of her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.”
She was — maybe unwittingly — shoving something in our faces with that essay (not mine, since I wasn’t alive in ’76), and one really has to absorb the novel to get a sense of what that thing is. For me, it’s the impossibility of defining just what it means for an author to describe his or her perception of the world, and the mysterious power that comes along with it. The Left Hand of Darkness, first published in 1969 and set on a planet that is home to a race of humanoids that can become male or female on command, is not predictive, but in its warped descriptiveness it is prescient. And not prescient it its images, but in its ideas and emotions. The book left me feeling as if Le Guin had sold herself short with an introductory statement that oversimplified the essence of what was a brilliantly conceived novel — and one that, by describing, did much more than describe.
Reading Zone One brought me back to that: the concept of science fiction as a lens through which we might see something less like a vision of the future, and more like one of ourselves, today — and the immense presence that kind of narrative can have. Colson Whitehead has written a novel about a man nicknamed Mark Spitz, who fights off hoards of the living dead in a post-apocalyptic future, but it’s clear from the outset that this isn’t about the zombies.
The story is told over a long three days in which Mark Spitz (he is referred to by the full name throughout) works with a team of two other civilian survivors to clear out the remaining living corpses, catatonic “stragglers,” from Downtown Manhattan following an initial onslaught by the Marines. The three average Joes are just one small part of Zone One, the first major resettlement area on the island, which they see — as a result of constant morale boosts from the relocated government in Buffalo, NY — as a figurehead of humanity’s gritty and tireless work to take back the inhabitable world. Whitehead introduces us quickly into this not-so-distant future of raw instinct and gruesome killing, and we live securely within the mind of Mark Spitz as he thinks back on past events both before and after the mass infection, in the world as he once knew it and the wasteland he has, by that point, become accustomed to.
But all of the memories he can’t shake, and the observations he can’t help but ponder, draw us into a much more direct, personal connection with Mark Spitz (and Whitehead’s musings) than a book about gore and zombies ever could. Whitehead’s almost tortured ruminations on what Mark Spitz remembers as both the beauty and horror of New York City’s digital-age society — with sly reminders that, like it or not, this is the age in which all of us must live — remind me of Pynchon’s passionate, picturesque, and obsessively mechanical treatments of Southern California 45 years ago.
Maybe there’s a reason, within this alternate reality, that our explosively tech-savvy culture is hit with an unidentifiable mass infection, brought low, and is unable to claw its way out, Whitehead shows. Maybe it’s the fact that Mark Spitz — and myriad other survivors — can’t quite come to grips with the weight of loneliness, of disconnection, of a future stripped bare of everything they once took for granted; maybe that tells us something about his perception of the way we live today.
As thinly veiled references to present-day corporate and cultural superstructures abound, and no one is immune to Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (the novel’s ubiquitous “PASD”), it’s clear that the zombies are just a generic affect. This is a really beautiful piece of work because Whitehead knew what he was getting into when he dug into fiction of the living dead, and he knew how to bend the rules in order to release his narrative from the bounds of that dead genre.
So it’s still true that great science fiction (or, I guess, zombie fiction) is descriptive, and now more than ever, since it becomes clearer to me all the time that fiction for the sake of fiction is so dated that we really can’t learn anything worthwhile from it. Whitehead uses images of a dead, cannibalistic future to show us how dead and cannibalistic we might already be—and he hints that the world as we know it might be just as scary as any nightmare we could ever have.
Throughout Zone One, Mark Spitz finds himself at numerous dead ends, both physical and psychological; sometimes he goes in with guns blazing, and sometimes he just loses himself in thought. This is all of us, our world, our lives. And with what may one day be recognized as his own particular prescience, Whitehead shows us that perhaps it won’t take a plague of flesh-eating corpses to force us to recognize the flaws inherent in the progression of our culture — and that perhaps, like the thick, iron-girded walls around Zone One, the barriers keeping us safe, optimistic, and pure are already falling.