Monday 4 September 2017

The Dark Tower: A Review

I finally got round to watching The Dark Tower today. I've been waiting a while to watch this movie. The trailer looked good, I've read most of the original Stephen King books and I love Idris Elba. I won't say I was completely disappointed, but I admit to being a little underwhelmed. It wasn't a bad movie. Merely okay. I thought it could have been better.

Thursday 27 July 2017

Dunkirk: Anatomy of a Disaster

Christopher Nolan's new movie, Dunkirk, came out in cinemas this week, and I watched it yesterday. I can't say I was impressed.

Monday 17 July 2017

Solar Storm Is Out Now

The biggest solar flare since the 1859 Carrington Event is about to bring the world to its knees.

Saturday 1 July 2017

Solar Storm

Get ready for an explosive new series, with the first book Solar Storm due out this month. Follow the Nolan family through their harrowing trials as society collapses, and the things they take for granted cease to exist. Prepare for a nail biting journey that will have you on the edge of your seat. It's coming and there's no escape.

The biggest solar flare since the 1859 Carrington Event is about to bring the world to its knees.  
When a huge plasma ejection from the sun hits the Earth’s atmosphere, the resulting EMP pulse fries electricity grids and disables fragile electronics. Transmission wires melt, transformers explode and modern vehicles cease working. In less than a minute, the world is taken back two centuries.
Sergeant Rick Nolan is in Syria on a covert ops mission against ISIS. When the solar storm wipes out his communications and his air cover, he and his team find themselves on the same level as the enemy that surrounds them. Caught in a desperate fight for survival, Rick thinks about his wife and children and wonders how he’ll ever get home to them. 
Lauren Nolan is attending a seminar in New York when the blackout hits and the transportation system grinds to a halt. Trapped in the panic that envelops the metropolis, Ellen worries for her two children, five hundred miles away in North Carolina. Unable to get word to them and stuck on her own, she needs to find a way back before it’s too late. 
Twelve year old Josh Nolan is in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his grandparents. Witnessing society’s terrifying collapse as water pumps fail, food runs short and the law ceases to exist, he has to do what he can to protect his little sister. 
Seven year old Lizzy Nolan can’t understand what’s happening. Frightened and bewildered, she only wants to know one thing: 
When are Mom and Dad coming home?

Solar Storm will be released as a Kindle book and paperback. The Kindle book will be released sometime this month as a pre-order for just 99c, for a limited time. Upon actual release, the price will go up, so if you want to grab the book at a bargain price, subscribe below to receive updates and notifications (and no spam, guaranteed). If you enjoyed Post-Apocalypse stories like Alas Babylon, The Postman and One Second After, you'll love this.

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Tuesday 11 April 2017

April 2017 Update

It's been a while since I posted anything, so I thought I'd give you an update on what I've been doing. I've been busy this past couple of months with various projects, one of them being SOLAR STORM, the first book of a new trilogy that I've been sketching out. This will be an EMP post-apocalypse series centred on the travails of (mostly) one family after a solar storm knocks out the world's electricity and brings everything to a grinding halt. I'm about 30,000 words into it, so I won't give too much away. It's only the first draft, so anything can change, but it's a departure from my normal writing as this one is set in the US. Cue lots of research to slow down my writing. I'd like to finish the first draft by June this year, with a summer release, but at this stage I cannot promise anything, though I'll try my best to stay on schedule. I'll release more information and sneak peaks as time goes on, and I'm quite excited as this is my most ambitious series to date.

I've also been brushing up on my Photoshop skills and learning new techniques. This is harder for me than writing as I don't have a design background, and I'm having to follow a lot of tutorials, which takes time, but I'm edging closer to more professional results. The latest effort that I'm pleased to present is a cover for The Rider And The Tower, a free story on Wattpad that I'm working on in my spare time when I need a break from my main writing.

It's a weird fantasy featuring an enigmatic hero in a world of demons, swords and motorcycles. Yes, you read that right. It's a project I've been wanting to do for a while, based on a series of sketches I made many years ago when I was recovering from a bad motorcycle accident. It's not my normal style at all and I'm writing it as a way of stretching my talents, so it's not intended as a commercial project.

I'm not sure whether I'd read Stephen King's Dark Tower series when I sketched my ideas back then, but I can see a similarity now in the concept of an unusual fantasy setting that blends the ancient and modern in a non-traditional way. I loved the way King replaced Tolkein's European myths with American myths, and he didn't care that it was out of step with most fantasy. In fact, it still is. The success of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings movies shows that people still hunger for the European sword and sorcery style. But the idea of Roland Deschain with his six-guns, magical lore and his quest across the desert was, for me, a stroke of genius.

King always regarded his Dark Tower novels as an intensely personal project, and he wrote them intermittently between his more successful novels, but it was clear that, even if they hadn't been successful themselves (by King's standards, anyway), he'd have still written them for himself. The Rider and The Tower is, for me, that kind of project. It's a chance to blow off some steam and try something different for a while. Because I get stale, otherwise.

Sunday 12 February 2017

Surviving A Zombie Apocalypse: Weapons

Let's face it, post-apocalypse zombie stories are mostly gun porn. Or exotic sword porn. You get to use justifiable violence against flesh-eating ghouls whom nobody's going to feel sorry for, and no one will arrest you. Post-apocalypse stories share a close affinity with Westerns, with much the same appeal: lawlessness, self-reliance and the freedom to carry whatever damn weapon you like.

 And yet I wrote this article second, preferring to concentrate on food and water in the first article (Surviving The Zombie Apocalypse: The Basics), because when someone says to you, "Eat lead," it's not because they're thinking of your nutritional needs. Some things come first.

Sooner or later, though, you're going to need to arm yourself. Doesn't matter if you're the Dalai Lama: in a zombie apocalypse, the key to oneness and well-being is a weapon and the willingness to use it. And what do you know? It turns out the Dalai Lama loves guns, so without further ado, let's plough straight in.

Aim And Fire

If you're a gamer, you know you've wasted waited your whole life for this moment. The dead are walking the streets, law enforcement is non-existent, and everything is there for the taking. Yeah, bro. Head on down to the conveniently abandoned gun store and just take your pick: Glock 17, Desert Eagle or Colt Python. Why choose? Take them all. When a zombie appears at the window, take it out with a single head-shot.

What do you mean, you missed? Try again.

Not easy, is it? That hand cannon bucks savagely in the hand, and even though you aligned the sights, you pulled the trigger, lost the sight-picture for a second, then discovered that you'd blown the zombie's ear off. Not being the sensitive type, the zombie acts like nothing's happened.

A lot has been said about how inaccurate pistols are, in spite of how awesome they are in movies. They're heavy, their barrels are short, and compared to an assault rifle, the bullets are fat and slow. Aim for the head at thirty yards, and gravity will drag down that thick slug, causing it to impact on the zombie's chin - again, no good. But beyond a lack of power, the thing that will most cause you to miss is your index finger.

Yes, your finger and how it's constructed will cause you problems. Contract your finger and you'll see that it wants to press sideways into your palm. Pull a pistol trigger and you'll naturally pull the entire pistol to one side when it fires. Trained shooters are told to squeeze the trigger and push it straight back, in line with the gun, to avoid this. But it's not easy. Holding a pistol out in one hand makes for an unstable shooting platform, and it only takes the slightest of pressures to pull it off target.

In the Olympics, there's a category for 10m pistol shooting. You might think that ten metres isn't very far away (and it isn't), so how could anyone miss at that range? The fact is, pistols require immense discipline to shoot accurately at any range. Even using the two-handed grip shown in the picture above won't completely solve the problem.

None of this takes into account the fact, that, when you're being attacked by things that want to eat you alive, you're going to be a nervous wreck. Aiming calmly will be the last thing on your mind.

If you live in Britain, though, you can be smug in the knowledge that none of this matters, because pistols have been banned since 1997. Even our Olympic pistol shooters have to train and store their weapons abroad. And good luck trying to find a gun store, because they're as rare as rocking horse shit. But hey, we still have cricket bats, right? We'll discuss that later in the article.

Okay, let's return to our intrepid gamer. He's played Call Of Duty and Left 4 Dead, and what he really wants to get his hands on is an assault rifle. Because nothing says 'I'm a badass' like an assault rifle. Immediately he will find that this is a lot easier to aim, on account of the stock digging into his shoulder (or at least I really, really hope that's what he's doing with it. If he's firing it from the hip, he can die right now, I don't care). It'll also have a magazine capable of holding thirty rounds, so that's a whole lot more zombies you can mow down before having to reload.

The bad news is, if he does find an assault rifle, it's more than likely to be a semi-automatic civilian version. So, not really an assault rifle at all. In fact, it won't be that different from any other semi-automatic target or hunting rifle. The bigger magazine may help. Except, in many states, the size of the magazine is restricted. And he's going to look really stupid firing that single-shot from the hip (serves him right, too).

But a rifle is a rifle. Even in Britain, you might find a few - not many, but at least you have a chance. And like I said, it's easier to aim than a pistol.

Did I really say that? I was lying. Technically, if you're in a rested position, and firing at targets downrange, then yes, it's more accurate. But even in the US, most people are unfamiliar with handling a rifle and have no idea how to zero one. And when zombies are in your face, aiming correctly with an unwieldy rifle is going to be a challenge, to say the least. Especially if you've only got the single-shot option. In that situation, a pistol, for all its disadvantages, will be easier for most people to handle. It's simpler and more ergonomic. Just don't try sniping with it.

Size Matters
I should say something here about the size of the target. Everybody knows that you kill zombies by shooting them in the head, and that makes for a hard target in a hairy situation. But your real target is the brain, and that's a third of the size of a head. And the reason most zombies are bad at math and can't work out how to open a door without smashing through it is because the higher functions of the brain, like the frontal lobes, are mush. The only part of the brain a zombie really uses is the old part of the brain - the kernel at the top of the brain stem. This is the part that handles basic mobility and survival needs like eating, and it's not a big target at all.

A bullet creates a lot of its damage by a thing called electrostatic shock. This is like a shockwave that emanates from the path of the bullet and affects surrounding organs. A zombie doesn't feel shock, however. A bullet thrashing through the frontal lobes will cause brain damage, but what happens when a zombie suffers brain damage? Nothing. It looks and acts exactly the same, because it already is brain damaged. Hence the vacant stare and the drooling.

It makes sense then to go for the weapon that delivers the widest circumference of damage, just to make sure. Enter the shotgun. Now, many people think of the shotgun as a short range weapon, and to an extent it is, but actually, it fills the gap between the ranges of the pistol vs the rifle. Considering that the majority of people can't shoot to save their lives (or their faces from being eaten) the shotgun is an ideal weapon as it's more forgiving in the accuracy stakes. And in Britain, we actually have a lot of shotguns. They're fairly simple weapons, and a 00 buckshot cartridge for a 12 gauge shotgun contains about nine 9mm balls. That's the equivalent of shooting nine pistols simultaneously into the same area. If you can't kill a zombie with buckshot at 20 yards, then you might as well sprinkle seasoning on yourself and hand yourself over for lunch. Birdshot cartridges, on the other hand, use smaller lead balls, but a lot more of them. At point blank range, they'll make a decent hole. Beyond that, I'm really not sure. Would you trust your life to something that's meant to kill pigeons?

With regards to available pistol and rifle calibres, I won't go into too much detail other than to say that bigger calibres make bigger holes (duh!). A .308 hunting calibre will make a bigger hole than a NATO 5.56mm (.223), and a .45 pistol round will be more effective than a 9mm pistol round. But the smaller calibres weigh less so you can carry more.

There is one interesting anomaly though, and that's the .22 pistol round. You'd think that no self respecting survivalist would bother carrying such a puny calibre, but Mexican cartel assassins actually like this calibre for a reason that's very pertinent to zombie hunters. The .22 round is strong enough to penetrate the skull at close range, but lacks the punch necessary to exit the skull on the other side. Instead it ricochets inside the skull, effectively putting the brain through a blender. An interesting assassination technique if you really don't want the victim to survive, and even hitting a zombie in the wrong part of the skull could result in a neat looking kill.

Not a common pistol calibre, so it was probably pointless of me to bring it up.

I like the idea, though (cuz I'm sick).

Silence Is Golden, But Crossbows Are Not
Daryl from AMC's The Walking Dead
The appearance of the character Daryl Dixon in The Walking Dead has probably sold more crossbows than Genghis Khan. Everyone knows it's good to be silent during a zombie apocalypse, and gun silencers are difficult to get in the US (ironically, they're easier to obtain in the UK - you've just got nothing much to attach them to), so what better than a Stryker 380 crossbow with a lethal 160lb draw weight? Well, that's the crossbow that Daryl uses, and people hunt hogs with it. It's cool, it's silent and it's even more badass than an assault rifle.

Pfft! Fans are going to hate me for this, but crossbows are almost useless against the undead. Hell, they're not that great against hogs.

Hog hunters don't use crossbows because of their lethal efficiency. They use them to increase the challenge of the hunt. It's a sport, and nobody likes a sport that's too easy. The ethical hunting range for a crossbow is about 30 yards. The hunter will aim for the chest area where the heart and lungs are located, and the hog, when hit, will often run for a few yards before dying of shock or haemorrhaging. That's the theory, anyway. Hunters don't go for head shots, because the target is too small, even at 30 yards. And the skull is thick bone, whereas the major organs are less protected.

Do you see where I'm going with this?  It's certainly possible to penetrate the skull with a crossbow bolt, but think about it (which is more than a zombie can do). Unlike a bullet, a crossbow bolt won't generate any hydrostatic shock, and it may only penetrate a human skull by a couple of inches. That would certainly kill a living human, or at least result in severe brain damage. But remember what I said about zombies and brain damage? Exactly. The virus got there before you, and you're more likely to end up with a zombie wandering around with a crossbow bolt sticking out of its head - which will bother it not one jot.

They're not that easy to use, either. In The Walking Dead, I rarely see Daryl actually loading the bow, but the few times I have, he kind of casually draws back the bow with one hand. Of course, it's a studio prop. If it was that easy to draw back, it would have the power of an elastic band. In reality, the bow has a foot stirrup on the end, and you need to hold it down with one foot while pulling on the drawstring with two hands. In fact, the manufacturer provides you with a tool to make drawing it a little easier (though it takes longer). That's a lot of effort for a weapon that can only guarantee a zombie kill with a shot through the eye socket. For that kind of range and effect, you might as well use an air rifle.

And a 160lb bow isn't all that silent. Not as loud as a gun, but the crack of the launching bolt will still echo around the woods. It's also a really awkward shape to carry around (along with all your survival gear). Given a choice, I honestly wouldn't bother.

Join The Club
Nick Frost and Simon Pegg in Shaun Of The Dead
In the end, it doesn't matter whether you have a pistol or a rifle, big calibre or small calibre. The merits of the M4 vs the HK416 become moot, because sooner or later, you're going to run out of ammunition. The city of Atlanta, for instance, has a population of 463,878 people. With an 80% conversion rate, that makes 371,102 zombies. That's a lot of ammo to carry. In the metropolitan area of Atlanta alone, the population rises to five and half million. That's four and half million zombies. Even at one bullet per zombie (as if) that's more ammo than most army bases hold. Prep all you like, you're never going to have that much ammo. One year into the apocalypse and the continental United States will be the closest you'll ever get to a gun-free zone, because most of them will end up as useless ornaments. Yes, you can try making and loading your own ammo, but unless you're sitting on a lead mine (with an attached ammonium nitrate plant) you're going to run out of raw materials.

We therefore need a more sustainable weapon that will never run out of ammo: the melee weapon. When all else fails, you can always club zombies to death.

Or you can try. It makes me laugh to see how easily zombies are knocked out when hit by baseball or cricket bats in movies and TV shows. If these were living humans, I would understand. Newsfeeds contain plenty of reports of people assaulted by baseball bats who ended up in hospital, suffering the effects of concussion and trauma. Some people die from that. Others end up brain damaged. Awful as that seems, these aren't good stats when deciding on a weapon to defeat a zombie with. Head traumas, shock or the cracking of the skulls aren't enough to deter the undead. You need biceps the size of melons to even stand a chance of fully caving in the skull in one blow. If that doesn't do it, you won't get a second blow.

And wrapping barbed wire around a baseball bat won't do anything either. The little spikes on the barbed wire are like mosquito bites to a zombie. Even a crossbow's better than that. If you find yourself with a bat or nine iron during the apocalypse, don't try and knock a zombie out. Break its kneecaps to cripple it so you can get away quicker. That's pretty much the only use you'll get out of a club. Unless, of course, you're a psychopath who likes to hold show-trials of captured survivors for your bloodthirsty compatriots - in which case, swing away.

Blunt instruments are useless, so you really need something sharp. We should now discuss the Katana. You know, that legendary samurai sword that can cut through anything. Well, no, it's just another sword, but such is the cult surrounding this blade, there are probably more replica Katanas in the US than any other type of sword. Granted, most of them are low grade steel ornaments, but that just means they'll blunt more easily between zombie necks. That said, it does take a certain amount of strength to cut through a spine, so if you're a geeky gamer with spindly arms, you'll need to do a few push-ups before you risk your life getting within biting range of a zombie. On the plus side, you can practise using it as much as you like. Unlike a sidearm, you won't waste precious ammunition doing so. And if it snaps while cutting through a branch, you'll know it was one of the really crap ones - which will save you from that heart-stopping moment when it happens in action.

If you're not a grand master (that's grand master, not games master) I wouldn't bother trying to split a zombie's skull open with it. An axe is better for that, and infinitely more available than a Katana. If you're not in the habit of chopping logs, you'll need to practice your swing (and keep doing them push-ups), but there's still the problem of crashing down through that thick skull and penetrating deeply enough. What you need is something narrower that'll bite deeper. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: the ice axe.

Black Diamond from Outdoorhire
If I was a zombie, I would shudder just looking at that, but I honestly can't think of a better zombie exterminator hand tool. It's light, strong and a lot easier to get hold of than a sword, even in Britain. Do they have a lot of these in Canada? The apocalypse will last seconds, there.

But there is something that's even better than an ice axe, and it's a spear!

You'll notice how, in this run down of weaponry, we're getting increasingly medieval, but the apocalypse will have the effect of sliding society back in time, and they knew a thing or two in the olden days about combat. People tend to think that the most commonly used weapon in that period was the sword, but in fact, in battles that go back to ancient times, it was the spear. It was cheaper and easier to produce than a sword, could be handled with a shield and, when necessary, thrown.

I don't recommend throwing a spear at a zombie, but, when held in a two handed grip, it will allow you to engage a zombie without getting too close to the resulting mess. It's stable, accurate and lethal - but only if you strike through a zombie's eye socket, or through the soft cartilage behind the nose.

Yes, that's right. You stick it up a zombie's nose. Anatomically, that's the path to the part of the zombie's brain you want to target. The only problem is, you'll find it easier to buy a Katana than a spear. On the other hand, they're easier to make. All you need to do is get yourself to a building site and grab a suitable length of rebar. You probably don't even need to sharpen it, though that would help. You can complete the ensemble with a garbage lid that you can use as a shield if you so desire, holding the zombie back if you need to go for a second strike.

In the chaos of an apocalypse, you'll have to manage with what you can get hold of (or stockpiled, if you're a prepper), but in the end I would recommend a pistol as a fall-back weapon (but not if you're a Brit, sorry), a shotgun (preferably pump-action), an ice axe and a shield. If that isn't badass, I don't know what is. List your own preferences in the comments below (or on the facebook page) and let's compare combinations.

Sunday 29 January 2017

Hunting The Story

The new UNDEAD UK book is out this week, and while my name is on the cover, I didn't actually write it.

The characters wrote it.

Let me explain. While that last statement will elicit a knowing smile from many writers, it won't make sense to anyone not familiar with the writing process. After all, characters don't write - they get written.

In this business, there are generally two types of writers: plotters and pantsers. Plotters outline the story before they begin writing, often making notes for each chapter, listing the characters involved and sometimes even writing detailed backstories for the characters. Then they begin writing. Pantsers don't outline beyond a couple of vague notes. They begin with a simple idea, then they start to write, making up the story as they go along, essentially 'flying by the seat of their pants', hence the nickname.

I'm a pantser.

If you've never written a novel before, the first method probably sounds the smartest. After all, a novel has so many story threads, characters, conflicts, etc, that surely it makes sense to lay it all out first, in the same way that a film producer will commission a story board (basically a cartoon version of the movie, drawn on large sheets) to plan the shooting schedule. The various scenes can be planned better, with a definite sense of where the story is going, and you're less likely to forget stuff (like the clue the character picked up in chapter 2 that won't become relevant until chapter 17, for example).

I've tried that method a few times, and it didn't work for me. It was too cold and clinical, and I couldn't actually picture the scenes, so I felt detached. The story ideas wouldn't come, and the characters wouldn't come alive. I spent a lot of time staring at the paper, wondering why the inspiration didn't flow. Once I've begun writing a story, however, I found myself in the story, seeing what the characters see, hearing what they hear. The story feels more alive, and I start to see then where it should be going.

And yes, I do make it up as I go along. I'm not going to say that one method is better than the other. A lot depends on how a person thinks. I'm a visual person, so I have to live the scene in order to write it, and often that means being immersed in it. Trying to hold it all together so that every element of the story flows together (and so I don't forget stuff) is just a skill I've had to learn to make this work. Many writers are the same.

So I began writing Hunting The Dead without a clear idea of what I wanted to write. I had Breht from the last book, and I felt I knew him well enough by now. And I had a fantasy picture in my head that I'd seen on DeviantArt once, of a woman fearfully holding her hand over her baby's mouth while she hid in the shadows from some demonic, hooded creature holding an axe. The drama in the picture was quite vivid, and it was beautifully painted (for some project or other) but I can't find the picture now to give you a link.

That was pretty much all I had when I sat down at the computer, staring at the blank page. I felt the pathos, the desperation, the plucking of the maternal heartstrings (and as a parent, I felt that strongly). But I had no story, no ending and no location.

It wasn't a lot to go on.

What I needed first was a location. I'm not very good at writing against a green screen, so to speak, so I needed a place to be, somewhere I could visualise. I know I wanted an urban setting, preferably a large city, since I'd set the last story in a small town. I was in a hurry to begin writing, though, and the school holidays were over, so I didn't have time to visit a city for some extensive research and location spotting.

Daft as it may seem, little details like that do go on to shape entire stories, like the fact that, as a single parent, I didn't have the freedom to do the kind of exploring I felt I needed to do. So I fell back on the 'write what you know' dictum, and based the story in Leicester. Because I was born there, had grown up there and knew it well. Or at least well enough to begin the process of visualising.

So Breht begins in Leicester, on Narborough Road, which is close to where I was born (I was a home birth). I'll avoid any spoilers in this blog post, and I plan to go into greater detail in a future UNDEAD UK Locations article, so from here on I'll stay vague on the geography and plot (yes, it does have one).

The plot grew organically from that first moment. I know that sounds pretentious, but what I'm basically saying is that the first scene set the tone for the rest of the story, and began dictating where it would go.

Breht is a survivalist. This much is already clear from his experience in the last book, Remember Me Dead. His backstory indicated that he would be a loner, with little desire to seek company. Being pedantic and conscientious, it was natural that he'd learn and acquire new skills that he didn't have in the last book. As I wrote the scene, putting myself in his shoes, it became obvious that this would have an effect on his whole outlook. He would become closer to the zombies than to human survivors.

From that point on, Breht wrote the story. I thought initially he would go in one direction, for example. He thought that would be stupid and totally out of character for him. So he picked another direction. Later, when he meets another character, his direction is changed again, according to what made sense to the other character. Occasionally they would conflict, and whoever won the argument would determine where the story went next.

I still didn't have an ending for the story, and the original idea I had for them to go past a couple of landmarks I'd pictured got derailed by the fact it wouldn't have made sense for either of them to want to go there. This is what I mean when I say that the characters wrote the story. I just followed them.

At one point, a minor character who was going to be written out in the last third of the book suddenly grew a backstory and an interesting personality, and wrote himself deeper into the story, forcing me to cancel a scene I was planning that wouldn't have worked with him in it.

It's stuff like this that can make pantsing so much fun, because it's like watching a movie unfold. Not only for you the reader, but for me the writer. More often than not, I finished a chapter with very little idea of what I would write in the next. And the end of the story got changed, cancelled and only put together when the characters walked it.

On the other hand, yeah, this technique can end in disaster. Pantsing is probably the biggest cause of writer's block. And projects being cancelled halfway through because the writer ran out of ideas or the whole thing started to look ridiculous and the writer felt too mentally exhausted to rescue it (been there, done that, got the T-shirt).

But I'm glad to say it worked okay this time, and I'm happy with the results. Breht's character develops a little more, and we're introduced to new characters and new cultural realities (I won't explain that last part. You'll have to find out for yourself). And we get to explore zombies a bit further, gleaning some more information about how they act and why. I'll say no more, but the book is out on Amazon and Amazon UK (plus Amazon sites around the world), and you can check out a sample to see what I mean. Enjoy.

Saturday 7 January 2017

Surviving A Zombie Apocalypse: The Basics

Everybody knows how to survive a zombie apocalypse, right? You've seen the movies and TV shows, and you know you just need to grab an assault rifle or shotgun and head over to your local mall. Or an abandoned prison. If you're in Britain, you head to the pub. You shoot zombies in the head, decide on a code of conduct for the group and never, ever suggest that you should all split up to explore the seemingly empty supermarket. Apart from that, just make sure no one gets bit.

Sounds simple enough. When you're not killing the undead, you'll spend your downtime having whispered conversations with those you trust, and arguments with those you don't. The social drama will only be interrupted by encounters with other human groups who'll hate you for no particular reason, other than being assholes. And occasionally you'll have to search for that annoying individual who thought it was safe to leave the group and wander into the woods alone.

Piece of cake, really.

Pah! As if. That doesn't even scratch the surface of what'll happen if society were to suddenly collapse and the majority of its former citizens decided to turn round and eat you. A zombie apocalypse may be a fictional event (and honestly, I'm not going to pretend it's anything but, in spite of what some people think), but since the fall of Babylon, humans have survived one apocalypse after another, so we can actually paint a pretty good picture of what it might be like. The basics of what you need to survive don't really change much, and most TV shows tend to skip over, well, all of it.

So let's take a look at what you really should be thinking about, starting with the highest priority.

Water Is Everything
Yes, even in a zombie apocalypse, your biggest problem is going to be water. Not shotgun shells or canned food, but water. It doesn't matter how badass you are with your crossbow and Katana, if you don't have access to clean water, there's a good chance you'll catch cholera and shit your brains out until you die. Remember the pictures that charities send us showing some African kid with a distended stomach drinking out of a muddy puddle? That'll be you. If it wasn't bad, they wouldn't be asking for your money.

If 80% of the population dies off and society collapses, the power grid will cease to function and those pumps that give you that life-saving liquid from your taps will stop working. With the water treatment plants idle, most of what's in the system will get contaminated anyway. Water may cover 71% of the Earth's surface, but the truth is, most of it will kill you. If you think modern pollution or fluoride is a problem, wait till you get a load of all the parasites that can live in just a single droplet.

Medieval peasants drank beer. It wasn't because they were alcoholics, but because the boiling process killed bacteria and the alcohol preserved it from re-contamination. They even gave weak beer to children. Because the water wasn't safe to drink straight from the stream. Or the well.

First rule of survival then is: make sure you can sterilise your water. And here's where your problems begin. You can hoard bottled water in your bunker, but it'll run out, and you'll only last three days without it. So you're going to be spending a lot of time getting water. And boiling it. And gathering wood to boil it.

Got a stream and a wood near your house? Because that's what you'll need. Once the stores and vending machines have been cleared out, you'll have to think strategically about your location. Just like humans have always done. There's a reason the first towns and cities were sited by rivers.

But what if the woods are full of zombies? Then a simple problem just got a whole lot more complicated.

An easier way to get water is from the sky. We call it rain. Catch it in a clean container, and most times (it's not 100% pure) it will be safe to drink. Bottle it immediately, and you've got something to travel with. If you opt for a tank or barrel to catch runoff from the back of your shack, though, you'll have problems again. General rule of thumb: if your water can be accessed by insects or rodents, it'll be contaminated with parasites pretty quick. So you need to boil it, and that means another trip into the zombie-infested woods.

There's an ingenious solution for if you're on your own, and you can use it if you're hunkered down or on the move. It's a Solar Still.

What's a Solar Still? Basically, it's a way of getting the sun to evaporate dirty water from one source, and condense it onto a separate surface so it's safe to collect. The impurities don't evaporate, so you end up with clean water. And the best part is that you can make one from a can and a plastic bottle, so it's something anybody can do.

You won't end up with a lot of water, but it'll keep you alive. Problem is, it'll only really work on sunny days. So if you live in Britain, you're screwed. And in winter, the sun may not be enough to generate the necessary heat for evaporation.

Of course, even in Britain, the difference between night and day temperatures means that you'll get dew on plants and surfaces most mornings, all year round (but not so much when it's windy), so if you're up early, you can soak it up with a cloth and wring out the liquid into a container. You'll get as much as you're willing to work for. Is it safe? No, the surfaces will almost certainly be contaminated, so you'll have to boil it, which means another trip to the woods.

Did I mention there were zombies in the woods?

Okay, forget that. How about a natural spring? That's a fairly good option if you're in the mountains. Water from deep underground will be free of parasites, and fairly clear in appearance, so it'll look pure and fresh. The same goes for water from aquifers underground, though you'll need to drill down and find a way to pump it. Can you construct a hand pump?

It's not all good news though. While parasites, algae and plant life can't survive in the darkness underground, bacteria and viruses can. Certain rock strata also contain impurities like arsenic and sulphur. The latter will smell bad, but the former will make you smell bad when you're laid out dead and decomposing. So it's a bit of a lottery.

All this stuff gets even more complicated when you have a community of survivors. Water needs are multiplied, and the whole group will have to learn to think strategically. One wrong step could cripple the community with a debilitating illness that will take the children and the elderly first, so make sure you've got your plans in place and implement them immediately. And start home brewing.

Food Doesn't Grow On Trees
Well, technically, it does, but if you're used to city living, you'll be surprised at how difficult it is to conjure up the stuff. Accustomed as we are to regular store deliveries and imports from different latitudes, making sure you've got food to eat all year round is going to come as a bit of a shock after the apocalypse. And the further north you are, the tougher it gets. There's a reason why Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia are thinly populated, even in these modern times. Max Brooks, in World War Z, posited that humanity's remnants would move closer to the poles, because the extreme cold would freeze the undead and neutralise them as a threat. Unfortunately, those lands are limited in their ability to support a given population. Even the smarts of an Inuit can't make the land yield more for that many people.

But that's all long term stuff. At the height of the outbreak, when you've bugged out with your bottled water and canned peaches, you'll be fine for food. Your water will run out quicker, and then you'll be screwed, but food will be less of an issue. If you're willing to slug it out with the panic stricken mob at the local superstore and brave the shoot-to-kill policy of a desperate military trying to quell the looting, then it's all there for the taking: chocolate, biscuits, twinkies and more chocolate. All the luxuries of modern civilisation, just sitting there on the shelves.

Until it runs out. Which won't take long. After that, you'll get to enjoy a hunter-gatherer existence, searching for those last elusive cans while playing hide and seek with zombies. It's easier for them. They don't bother with canned goods because they like their food fresh. Free range, if you will. And you're it. Takes a lot of calories to keep one step ahead of them, and you'll find that harder to get.

Fruit trees will keep on fruiting, no matter how much you're screaming as you run down the road, so if you can find some in gardens or orchards, it'll be good. But it'll be the only fresh food you can get, as the rest of the stuff in fridges and deli counters will rot. And the biscuits won't last long either. There's still dried foods like pasta, noodles and flour, and a year later this stuff will still do you good. But you'll need water. Remember water? Yeah, you'll have your own problems getting hold of that.

Water is at least simple. If it doesn't make you ill, it'll provide your body with hydration. Food, on the other hand, has to be varied. You need proteins, vitamins, trace elements, etc. Miss out on any of these things, and you'll develop skin conditions, gum recession, heart palpitations, constipation, and a bunch of other symptoms. Eating nothing but corned beef may be boring, but your life can get a whole lot more interesting when you develop scurvy and your teeth fall out.

Because someone will mistake you for a zombie and shoot you.

Food's hard enough to find when you're on your own, but if there's a group of you, foraging won't be enough. The fights over who gets to eat the last hot dog won't be pretty. And hunger will cause havoc with your social life. As Joseph Conrad wrote in Heart Of Darkness:

No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze.

Group cohesion is going to be hard to maintain if basic needs aren't met. Good manners will avail you not. For any community, sustainability is everything and you'll need to provide for everybody's needs from the get-go.

So where can you build your community? That's easy. According to many stories and TV shows, you just head to your nearest farm. Lots of fertile land, crops, livestock and space to breathe. You can chill out with a more traditional life, getting 'back to nature', no longer bothered by the hectic 9-5 of modern urban life. You can till the soil with satisfaction, knowing that you are living by the fruits of your labour, with no artificial additives in your food. It's all fresh. You can chew on a stalk of wheat and shout 'Carrrrrrrrrrrrrl' to your heart's content.

Pfft! Have you seen what a modern farm's like? The farmer only buys seed once or twice a year, sowing it immediately, so you won't find any for a second crop. Most of the seeding, ploughing and spraying is contracted out, anyway. At best, you'll find a barn with dried grain (for the livestock) or potatoes. And any livestock that hasn't already been devoured by the zombie horde will have jumped the fences and gone feral. You'll be better off finding an orchard or a vineyard. At least you won't get scurvy.

And maintaining security on that much open land won't be easy. Your scrawny electric fence may keep cows and sheep in, but to a zombie that doesn't feel pain, it's just a single strand of wire. And how are you going to power it anyway? You're going to need a bigger fence - two to three metres high, at least. And a chain link fence won't be strong enough when there's a mob of undead pushing against it (they won't be half as compliant as the ones in The Walking Dead, content to let Rick get close to them without going absolutely apeshit. Ravenous hunger defines the undead). You're going to need steel security fences, and concrete to bury your posts. Do you have any idea how much foraging it will take to get all that, never mind erecting it (and that's assuming the zombies don't take a sabbatical while you're busy putting it up). You're going to have to patrol it regularly, and keep it maintained. And all that just to guard a few acres of land that you don't even have seeds for, because nobody thought to grab some seed packets on the way there.

Do you remember that famous scene where the survivors are huddled in a convoy of ramshackle vehicles, with the children crying and everybody looking tense? Just before opening the gates, the hero stands on the pickup bed, waving his carbine, and shouts, "To the garden centre!"

No, me neither. A garden centre is a way better option than the farm, though. You'll have shelter, fences, seeds, tools, compost and greenhouses. Just pray someone hasn't got there before you.

Eventually you plant your seeds. Then you wait. And wait. And wait. And argue over the last hot dog while the shoots are still sprouting. Takes a while to grow stuff, so, as with the water, you'll need to set it up the minute you get there. If you want to live, you won't have time to waste.

Growing food is hard work. Farmers have it down to a fine art because they can draw on centuries of tradition, plus modern technology - tractors with fuel, sprayers, fertiliser, etc. Even organic farmers benefit from the society they're a part of. Drag it back to the pre-industrial age, and growing and harvesting food is back-breaking work. And it only takes the wrong weather, an insect rampage or some innocuous plant disease to ruin an entire crop. Your post-apocalyptic farming community will do well if it can make it through the first winter - and you won't be able to import food from warmer climes to get you through Christmas. The food you harvested in the fall (if you managed to harvest any) will have to be preserved so it can last through till spring. So no, the food you'll be eating won't be fresh. You'll have to learn the art of pickling and salting.

If there's a river or lake in your chosen location (and you'd better make sure there is one) you can fish. And you can hunt - though that's another trip into the woods. If you've managed to acquire livestock, you can butcher some of them, but you'll need to give them time to reproduce. And your chickens can lay eggs, but your community won't survive on just that. Keeping cattle or sheep will take up a lot of space, so if you opted to stay at the garden centre, you'll have problems. These animals eat a hell of a lot of grass. And for the cattle to reproduce (and give milk) you'll need a bull. Don't even get me started on how many problems you'll have with that thing. And don't bother with goats - they'll leap the enclosure, devour your crops and start eating your painstakingly constructed fence. They're just stubborn chewing machines.

If you want manageable livestock, try rabbits. The Romans introduced them to Britain for precisely that reason, and medieval warreners cultivated them for their meat and fur. They take up less room and they breed like, well, rabbits. And there are millions of them across America and Europe. They're also voracious chewers though, and they don't need any lessons from Steve McQueen on how to dig their way out of a prison camp. On the bright side, they won't try to escape on motorbikes.

Meanwhile, the zombies are still out there, waiting to chow down on your guts. Won't be long before you have to break out the arsenal and mow those suckers down. In the next article: Surviving A Zombie Apocalypse Part Two, we'll review the most, and least, useful weapons to employ against the undead, plus a few other things. Until then, stay alert and try not to look too tasty.

*Cover art sourced from: Clipartkid