Thursday, January 20, 2011

Vampire Wormhole Apocalypse

Just finished "Zombie Spaceship Wasteland," the first book from our good friend Patton Oswalt. It's a very quick read; if I hadn't been wrapping up City of God, I probably would have finished it in a day or two. It's really good stuff, though.

I think one of the blurbs describes it as a "memoir," and parts of it are. Some of the sections deal with specific periods from Oswalt's life. For the most part these are scenes from his childhood or adolescence; a few cover his period as an early, struggling comedian, while one brief section towards the end gives a glimpse into his life in present-day Los Angeles.

Other parts, though, are straight-up humor. A lot of these feel like things that might run in an edgier version of the New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs": relatively short comical pieces that explore a fairly absurd theme. A couple use art; one is a short comic about poser vampires, another (one of my favorites) is a series of disconcerting greeting cards from Chamomile.

Everything in here is pretty funny, but the memoir-ish pieces are quite clear-eyed; he'll describe things in amusing ways, but also gives a really interesting glimpse into his inner mind. We learn about what makes him excited, how he spends his time when he's stuck in a boring city, how he feels when he's dealing with an unpleasant person. All intriguing stuff.

I don't want to go into a lot of details since, well, that's where the funny comes from. Since I already touched on it in my earlier blog post, though, I did want to expand a bit on his "Zombie Spaceship Wasteland" thesis; I think that between the interview and the book, I finally get what he's trying to say. So:

Most creative people start being creative in their adolescence. However, because they haven't yet had real adult experiences, they don't actually understand how the world works yet, and so they can't actually create something (a book, a comic, a movie, etc.) that deals with the world as it is.

And so, Oswalt says, in his experience, all of his creative friends would channel their energies into one of three modes that allowed them to make a story without needing to deal with the real world.

First comes "Zombie." In a zombie story, we're living in the real world, and we still have all our stuff, but all of our social interactions have been replaced by the threat of imminent death at the ravening hands of shuffling, brain-hungry zombies. So we still have cool things like bank buildings, guns, and cars, but we don't expect people to worry about mortgages, or labor unions, or promotions.

A Spaceship lets you create a whole new world from scratch, which may also include new races, languages, technologies, and so on. It won't be as fully fleshed-out as our own, and for the most part will be shaped to accommodate the needs of the story's plot, but it's still very creative. The Spaceship lets your imagination run amok, and you can totally make up your own rules for how things should work, because Earth is far behind.

Wasteland is what you get after the Zombies have finished their work. (During the lecture I'd been a bit confused on the distinction, but he explicitly connects the two in the book.) In a Wasteland even the structures of our civilization have been largely erased; in Zombieland they're desperately fighting destruction, but in Wasteland they've already been destroyed. Wasteland deals with the remnants of humanity who typically wander around in a sea of chaos and anarchy.

He does a lot with this concept, including multiple amusing one-offs ("Darth Vader is a zombie who lives on a spaceship that creates a wasteland"). He also links them to music; when he was growing up, Zombies listened to some punk and a lot of metal; Spaceship listened to New Wave; Wastelands listened to post-punk.  (I'd imagine that today zombies would still listen to metal, while spaceships would dig electronic music and wastelands would follow indie rock.) I thought the most interesting part was his observations about how these people grew up. Zombies were the first to get menial jobs and tended to burn out. He says that every Spaceship he knew ended up working with computers, and they're excellent parents. Every comedian he knows started as a Wasteland type.

Anyways, it's an interesting thesis, and he does some fun stuff with it. It feels more applicable to the particular time Oswalt was growing up, and his particular group of friends; I'm having trouble extending this to a universal system. And I still think that there should be a sharper delineation between Zombie and Wasteland. Still, it's a fun concept to play around with.

Um, I think that's it for now. Anyone who digs Oswalt's stuff will enjoy this book; it's a very different experience, and doesn't share the structure or content of his sets, but it's coming from the same mind and so will appeal to the same folks. I can definitely imagine Oswalt evolving along the lines that Steve Martin has, from performance-oriented to more literary. If so, we'll be seeing more great books from him in the future.

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