on Feb 11, 2013
And so this series drags ever onward. Before I get back to the making of silly plans for an even sillier eventuality, I should address a few remarks I see coming up again and again:
Q: Hey Shamus, wouldn’t it make more sense to make your defenses using razor wire / bulldozer / .50 machine gun nest?
Obviously any of that would be better than wooden pikes. I’m sort of torn. On one side I’ve got people challenging me for giving myself too many unlikely resources, and on the other people are wondering why I’d ignore such things. Earth-moving equipment, razor wire, and military hardware are all cool stuff. But they’re also kind of exotic. Yes, they’re easier to acquire after the zompocalypse than before, but a lot of other people are likely to come to the same conclusion. Rather than haggle over just how hard it would be to acquire, relocate, operate, and maintain a bulldozer, I just decided to leave the fancy stuff out. You can assume that if our team happens across two miles of unattended barbed wire and a bulldozer with the key in the ignition, we’d put that stuff to use.
Q: You should go to the library!
That’s not a question.
Q: Sigh. Fine. WHY DON’T YOU GO TO THE LIBRARY?!?
That’s an awesome idea. My only concern with that idea is that a lot of people have that idea. Same goes for Home Depot. Those places might even get cleaned out in the first days, before everything falls completely apart. Rather than assume I’d be one of the lucky ones, or that I would get there first, let’s just assume I’d stop by, see the place is empty or overrun, and move on.
Q: How many people are in your group?
Yeah. This is my mistake. I should have nailed this down at the start. If not for the reader, then at least for my own benefit. Sometimes I’m picturing a group of six or so, like Lee’s group. Sometimes I’m picturing a group of a dozen adults, plus children. We have no way to guess at how many people survive. (This value is always set to “whatever the writer says it is for the purposes of the story.”) So we should have simply chosen a useful number at the outset and stuck with it. Obviously the population of the group will have a huge impact on what sort of projects we can undertake. Two dozen adults could put up a pike fence in a few days. If we’re six adults plus children, then such a project is probably way out of reach and we should focus on fortifying our homes and staying quiet.
The No-Fence Scenario
Perhaps we find more zombie traffic on the road than I’d originally anticipated. Or perhaps we’re a small group and the multi-layer fence idea from the last entry is simply too labor-intensive for our team. Perhaps we’ll have to deal with a swarm before we can undertake the fence. Then what?
The trick isn’t keeping the zeds out of your home. That’s easy, barring writer shenanigans by way of unlikely structural failures. The trick is doing it in a way that still allows us to move around, fetch supplies, and get air and daylight.
I suppose parking some cars in front of the doors ought to block the zeds well enough. Sure, they could bash up the car, but I don’t think zeds obliterate the frame to the point where it would no longer be an obstacle for the mob, even with their magic plot-muscles. With the doors blocked, we can allow access to the house via a simple ladder to a second-story window. (With the ladder rooted in the ground and nailed to the house to keep it from falling over.) As far as these stories go, I’m pretty sure zeds can’t climb ladders. Even if they can, a single person can keep them out by poking them with a broom handle when they reach the top of the ladder.
Next we need to block the first-floor windows. Around here, windows are usually a meter or so off the ground, which should prevent the Z force from smashing their way through with the sheer weight of the crowd. They will need to bash open the windows and climb in. A good slab of plywood should be more than a match for zombie fingernails and teeth.
The problem is, if we board up the windows we can’t see. I’m assuming the power is out, and we don’t want to waste generator power running electric lights in the daytime. Most work will be done outside during non-stormy, non-zombie conditions, but if the weather or zombie population is bad we’re still going to want to do our sewing, canning, cooking, and reading.
I’m tempted to suggest making plywood shutters with a hinge at the bottom and a pullchain at the top, so the shutter swings downward (like an oven door) to let light in. If a herd of brain-munchers show up, you can draw the shutter closed. What I dislike about this is the structural weakness created by the hinge. Zombies can’t gnaw through plywood, but their pounding might strip some screws. Plus, I’m not sure what will be supporting those screws. Metal window frames, brick, and aluminum siding are all terrible things to try to drive screws into. You’d need just the right power tools and supplies to make that work and make it secure. Seems iffy.
You might also simply hang the plywood from a couple of ropes, like a swing. This would form a simple flap over the window. (The ropes could be draped out of a second-story window, or up over the roof. (The latter being counter-balanced with a same-size chunk of plywood on the opposite side.) Someone with a brain could lift the plywood and have direct access to the window. Stupid zombies would just beat their fists against the wood uselessly. Since the wood isn’t nailed in place, most of the energy will be absorbed as the plywood bounces against the side of the house. It would be noisy as hell, but ought to keep the creeps out. This is assuming the zeds even recognize the wood as a structural vulnerability and don’t just think of it as “more wall”.
When things are clear, you could draw the flap up (assuming it’s hanging out of a second-story window) to let the light in. My worry here would be wind hazard. If we get a good storm, we don’t want these things slamming into the side of the house.
Another idea is to just put some simple chicken wire over the windows. Now, chicken wire isn’t strong enough to hold back the crowd, but it doesn’t need to support the weight of a dozen zombies. It just needs to rebuff the fists of the half dozen or so of them that elbow their way to the front of the crowd.
Just picture attacking a chest-high rectangle of wire. In that position, you can’t brace your hip against the obstacle and put your legs into the work, and are stuck just pounding with your fists. This fence, mixed with a series of trip-lines and snares around the windows, ought to be enough to foil the dum-dums and deny them the leverage to bash open the windows and climb in.
It’s impossible to tell which approach would make more sense. It all depends on the strength of zombies, the terrain around the windows, and the way our houses are built. Still, these two concepts are a good starting point for rapid, low-cost ways to keep zombies out in emergencies while letting air and sunlight in the rest of the time. We’ll be forcing the writers to cheat as hard as possible to get to us.
Obviously neither approach will kill the attackers. This is just to keep them at bay until we can get our fighters into position to deal with the problem. We shouldn’t trying to outlast a siege, we’re just keeping the kids safe until the people in zombie-fighting gear can assemble and respond.
If we do end up under a massive siege? Then either I’ve miscalculated, or the writer is cheating his ass off. Either way, if we’ve got hundreds of zeds beating on the house and they don’t wander off on their own, then we’re boxed in and we’re ll dead. Not because we can’t kill them, but because with numbers in the hundreds, we’ll lose our lives even if we win the fight.
Even if we have a good choke point where we can dispatch them, being attacked by hundreds of zombies is a death sentence. That many dead bodies around the houses would be a monumental biohazard. I’m not even talking about the zombie virus. I’m just talking about airborne threats and water-tainting sludge that would present a powerful breeding ground for contagions. In war, large numbers of dead bodies tend to lead to civilians deaths this way. This is another reason I decided to live out here in the wilderness and not in the city.
Sure, if we have tons of excess fuel around (scoff) we might be able to burn them, but even then: You’re talking about moving several tons of rotten flesh and building a fire that will darken the sky with black smoke. Ugh. If we had the time and manpower to undertake that, then we would have been able to build fences. Plus, even the ash pile from that would be a serious environmental hazard.
Hundreds of zombies would require heroic levels of fighting, followed by massive manual labor, followed by a dangerous and fuel-devouring burning project, all of which will simply make the stuff marginally less dangerous while possibly attracting more zombies. It’s not impossible to survive, but even total, rapid victory with no casualties could end up killing quite a few before we can clean up the mess. If the waves keep coming then we’d never get to harvest our food or cut our firewood, and we’d die. Well, we could escape and start over, but that would reset all our plans and create a bunch more problems to speculate about.
We’ll just proceed assuming that doesn’t happen.
We’ve already established that more people is almost always better. We want more knowledge, more manpower, more brains working on the problems and figuring things out, and more people to specialize into the new careers we’ll be creating in carpentry, animal husbandry, auto mechanics, running a distillery, and so on.
I reject the notion that everyone who survives the apocalypse will be aggressive, irrational, hateful, selfish, stupid, and short-sighted. Zombie stories have that because PERSONAL CONFLICT IS DRAMA!!! Sigh. I also reject the notion that the apocalypse will naturally bring out these qualities in people. Sure, people will suffer from hunger, fatigue, and stress. But that doesn’t mean Bob the Accountant will become Bob the girlfriend-beating racist murderer thief. These stories are usually written with the mindset that deep down, we’re all evil assholes, and the apocalypse would strip away that fake veneer of civilization and expose us as the monsters we really are. I’m not buying it.
Still, if I’m writing this scenario then I suppose I’m obligated to outline my plan for dealing with dangerous unrepentant assholes.
Let’s use Larry, Lily, and even Ben as examples, since they represent three different types of threat: Death by pointless malice, death by crazy, and death by stupid.
First off, Larry would be less likely to try and murder Lee if he was at all worried about being held accountable for his actions. While understandable, it was very foolish of Lee’s group to ignore what Larry tried to do. Larry should have been made to answer for this act. Not just for the sake of justice, but to establish the idea that Murdering People is Not OK in this group. This is not a free-for-all. If you let it slide, then other people will come to understand that this group is lawless and that there is no justice or accountability. People might not be monsters by default, but if you demonstrate that the best course of self-preservation is “do unto others before they can do unto you”, then you will be pushing people towards monstrous behavior.
Assuming Larry did try to flagrantly murder someone, then he’d be exiled. When we exile someone, we give them a couple of weeks of food and drive them an hour in any direction they like. We allow them to go their way peacefully, with a warning that if they come back they will meet hostility. Assuming they’re not in a murderous rage, they should be allowed to take their weapons with them. Their gun will be unloaded, with directions that they’re free to load up once we drive away.
Giving them food and ammunition is going to:
- Encourage them to not freak out and cause trouble when they are exiled.
- Give the rest of the group an incentive to not exile people without a REALLY good reason.
- Make sure we aren’t throwing away human life needlessly.
We don’t want the exiled person to die, we just want to protect ourselves from their dysfunction. We make troublesome people go away so their trouble-making doesn’t lead to violence and death. If Lee can tolerate Larry but Larry can’t tolerate Lee, then Larry is the problem and he needs to leave. He might even do just fine if he finds a new group.
An unhinged Lily might present an interesting challenge to such a bare-bones system. What do we do with someone who hasn’t YET hurt anyone but seems to be a credible threat to the group because she’s batshit bonkers? That’s a dicey problem and there’s never an easy answer, even in the technological wonderland of the pre-apocalypse society. However, she’d be a lot less likely to crack if she wan’t in charge of a doomed group.
Shamus! You’re dodging the question! What would you do with crazy people?
Sigh. It’s hard to say. As a leader if you rule too hard against her then you’ll look like a tyrant and a bully. Let her run wild and she might shoot somebody. You can’t make an official policy for stuff like this. You have to judge it on a case-by-case basis and you have to make sure you’ve got the group supporting you. Not in a gossipy, backstabbing sort of way. Just get a feel for how everyone feels about her and how afraid they are. You know, like a leader who knows the group and has a sense of what they’re thinking.
Still, if Lily:
- Began the “Someone stole my crescent wrench, which is morally equivalent to trying to murder me!” talk.
- Insisted that we line everyone up and interrogate them over a crime.
- Was just seething with anger and threats.
- Couldn’t be made to see reason.
If she did these things, then the group ought to sense the danger and we should be able to exile her with minimal fuss and drama.
The point stands that this is a real threat. Even in the real world there are never easy answers to stuff like this. You can be a very wise leader with excellent understanding of Lily and still wind up making a terrible mistake. I’m not even sure if what I’ve proposed this is the right course of action. Human life is so precious, and this is literally a choice of, “Will you risk the life of one or more reasonable people to spare the life of the crazy person?”
So what about Ben?
Ben wouldn’t be a threat since the menial jobs should vastly outnumber the critical public-safety jobs. Just don’t give the kid a gun and don’t entrust him with anything serious. He might not enjoy his life of digging irrigation ditches, hauling water, and chopping firewood, but the writers would need to contrive something implausibly stupid for him to get anyone killed.
The next entry will wrap this series up.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.