Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Faster Than Vampires With Less Show

It's all Anne Rice's fault I suppose. She moved the vampires out of their stuffy old castles into fashionable San Francisco apartments where they started making money. It was only a matter of time before every monster was chained to Rumpelstiltskin's wheel between a heap of straw and a flinty-eyed editor holding a pointed stick. There's a commuter train that runs from Elfland to Poughkeepsie with a station at the corner of Romance and Fantasy. Bad Boys with all-over five o'clock shadow rub shoulders and other body parts with twenty-something witches (pretty, urban, fashionable, tough, unencumbered by children). Unbearably sexy vampires sit next to aristocratic elves fresh off the Wynne-Jones Celtic Tour. For the kind of person who likes that sort of thing, that must be just the sort of thing they like. Let's leave it at that.

A little further down the line the less stylish unquiet dead shamble to their acting gigs in post-Industrial districts redone in Cold War post-Apocalyptic. They're getting work these days. Thanks to Romero, Russo and Max Brooks they are Big.

It's easy to see why. Outbreaks mean that the all the rules are off. Need supplies? Break into the Mall and take what you need. Find a zombie? Grab a gun. Start blasting. It's Total War and every survivalist fantasy you ever had run through The Paranoid Style in American Politics. There's no love in wartime, just a carnographic orgy of muzzle flashes and bloody axes soaked in a heady perfume of adrenaline, testosterone, lactic acid, putrescine and cordite. Teller huddles in an abandoned Vegas club shooting not-dead-enough tourists and the other half of his famous act. Scientists find a compound that temporarily freezes zombie brains but reliably stops working just before the corpses are destroyed. The magic zombie gas will always get out of containment. The soldiers drafted into World War Z train for individual head shots or get handy with shovels and machetes. And let's not even get started on the fast zombies. It's whack-a-mole with shotguns and just as inefficient. The survivors just can't kill zombies as fast as the zombies can eat brains or infect the living.

Think Like a Farmer

"What did you do about the dragon?"
"We put out some poisoned sheep."
From The Sword of Bheleu by Lawrence Watt-Evans

That's because it isn't a war, and zombies aren't an enemy which needs to be defeated. They are classic biological pests which need to be managed. Mad Scientists and Lantern-Jawed Heroes need not apply. What you need is Cow College Agronomists and the County Extension Agent to manage a troublesome infestation. Once you start looking at zombie survival as an exercise in Integrated Pest Management it gets simple, and the poor brain suckers don't stand a chance. Toss out the Army Field Manual. You need Debach, Ruberson and Pickett and Bugg. Oh, there's a place in Biological Control for picking individual bugs off of lettuce leaves. And you need cultural practices that discourage the pests and encourage their enemies. But it comes down to food and sex, not bullets and bayonets.

What's important to know about zombies?
  1. They eat people
  2. Their flesh is poisonous
  3. Their bite may be contagious
  4. They communicate with each other
  5. They don't learn
  6. They aren't quite alive
  7. They rot
  8. Some of them move quickly. Some of them move slowly.
  9. They don't stop until the brain or body is very heavily damaged
Taken together this means the poor undead SOBs don't stand a chance.

The Recipe for Rabbit Stew

First, catch a rabbit. I know. Most of the zombie movies are full of people hiding from the restless dead. That's Lone Survivalist Hero thinking. That's defeat sold retail. When a farmer has an outbreak of Tomato Hornworm or there is a *shudder* Gypsy Moth outbreak (may Leopold Trouvelot burn in Hell for all Eternity) you want the pests where you can dispose of them. Sometimes you send the solution out to find them by itself. We'll get to that part in a little bit.

Another strategy is to call them together where you can get rid of them efficiently. That's why there are pheromone traps for all kinds of pests. Zack probably doesn't use pheromones. But we know that he's all about eating people. There must be something about us that attracts his attention. And there's a reason zombies don't eat each other. If they did, the movies would be a lot shorter. It might be motion. It might be sound. It might be smell. There's something that attracts them to people and warns them not to go after other zombies.

In some stories zombies can communicate simple things to each other like "Come here" and "Fresh brains this way". If it's physical it can be measured. If it can be measured it can be copied. If it can be copied we can probably get them to square dance.

If it's the way we move that should be easy to figure out.

If it's sound then no worries. Signal processing software is cheap. For a few hundred dollars you can build an entire recording studio complete with spectrum analyzers. If it's smell, it won't be long before we have the chemical equivalent of the undead dinner bell and "I'm a zombie. Don't eat me" perfume. With speakers and spray guns it won't be long before we can walk around them safely.

Maybe the patented undead fishing lure will be an animatronic dummy wearing dirty underwear playing the mating call of the American Short-Faced Blonde "Imzode runk!" and "Haybay bee!". Whatever. It won't take long before we can attract the local zombies. What we do then is another matter. Shooting, dropping safes on them or even "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like Victory to me," are gratifying but inefficient. Fill pit traps with Old Spice and Chanel Number Five and come by a week later with ten yards of six-slump concrete. Hose a crowd of them down with eau de gym socks and play the right sounds. Then it's just a matter of sitting back while they tear each other apart. Beating up zombies is hard work. Let zombies do it for you.

Fill moats with lye or quicklime and put a zombie-lure on the other side. Get formations of them to square-dance. Funnel them between big microwave dishes. Even the restless dead stop moving when their muscles are too cooked to contract. The point is to stop thinking of zombies as the enemy who you have to fight or escape. They're nasty dangerous biological pests. You want them where they can be disposed of as efficiently as possible. If you want efficiency it's best to start tiny.

The Incalculable Power of Small Hungry Things

They rot. That's the most important thing about zombies. Even though dogs die when they bite them something can denature whatever toxins Zack produces.

Kitchen Chemistry

The simplest way to get a zombie-killer is to let someone or something else do the hard work. Since a microbe has already figured out how to do the job all you really have to do is help it wax and grow fat and make trillions of little microbes.

In May 16 year old Daniel Burd cultured two strains of bacteria that eat plastic bags. He didn't use anything more complicated than yeast, dirt and household chemicals. After that it was just a matter of a few weeks and some careful high-school biology lab technique. The same techniques apply to zombies. Find some rotting zombie meat, a culture medium, and a few other bits and pieces you can find around the house. If you want to get really fancy you can go to Cash and Carry and steal a sack of sugar, a pound of yeast, the same chemicals in the handy ten gallon drum and a fifty pound bag of unflavored gelatin instead of agar.

Zombie meat shouldn't be hard to find if there's an outbreak. The rest is dead simple. In a little while you will can churn out pure Zack-eating germs by the pound. Once you have that you have classic biological control by microbes. Spread it everywhere. Sprinkle it on zombies. Dust everyone you know with it. As the rotting hordes shamble along they'll spread it to each other. And they will rot a little more quickly. Just a little adds up to a lot when you're talking about bacteria reproduction times. When it has an exclusive food source and no competition the growth rates are astronomical.

If you have quick-moving 28 day zombies they'll spread it even faster.

Two Girls, One Cup of Synthetic Base Pairs

The table-top biology approach is cheap and easy. But it could be more efficient. You have to get the bacteria where they need to go, and you don't know how long they will take to do the job. Biological control works best when you have several species that do the job different ways.

When Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968 there weren't but a few genetics labs in the world. By today's standards they were primitive, just a step above witch-doctoring. Now there are seven scientific supply houses in my home town that can sell you state-of-the-art equipment. There's a world-class medical school not five miles from my house which spins off biotech companies almost every month. It probably has a couple dozen labs which could do the job. And that's not counting all the colleges and universities in the Metro area. Multiply that by every med school, every Ag school, all the corporate research labs and the military.

Scientists can make their own virii from scratch. In a couple years undergrads will do it under supervision. Artificial plasmids aren't rocket science anymore. Artificial Bacterial Chromosomes are leading- but not bleeding-edge. They're grad-school stuff. Protein characterization is well-understood and easy to do. OK. Not every problem is easy. But given the equipment, motivation and some money it's mature technology. There are thousands of places just in the US that can do the job. And if the Internet is down they can coordinate by Ham Radio if they need to.

And what will they do?

They'll look at whatever is making the zombies rot and breed it like the kid from Waterloo. Then they'll figure out what proteins make the zombies poisonous. And they'll figure out what sort of enzymes the bacteria are using to denature them. Once the proteins are characterized they'll be turned into a plasmid that synthesizes them. You'll have your choice of zombie-eating biological control agents.

Mixed-function oxidases are probably the first place they would look. A lot of organisms, most famously herbivorous insects, are in constantly-evolving biological warfare with the things they eat. The insects have developed a whole class of chemicals which denature many different compounds. Maybe there's something that will chelate the bad stuff with a mineral ion. Who knows? There are probably many biological pathways to breaking down the poison. A smart scientist will use a bunch of them in several different organisms. If one doesn't work so well in the field another will.

First off the assembly line will be microbes. Bacteria breed quickly and are easy to study. And with the help of a friendly virus or good old-fashioned conjugation they can start spreading their helpful mutations far and wide. Flesh-eating staph is a terrible thing. But if the flesh is undead I'm cool with it.

Then there are fungi. Most of the nutrients in the world are carried by soil fungus of one sort or another. The trees and the grass are just the parts you see. The real action is down in the mycelium where water and minerals and proteins are passed around. And genes are passed around, too. Once the soil has been infected with a zombie-phagic strain it will get everywhere. And the undead won't be safe anywhere there is dirt. It might take a while for a fungus to evolve to the point of Entomophthorales Muscae which makes ants climb so that they will spread spores more efficiently or the Cordyceps fungus, but don't count it out. Zombie behavior is really pretty simple.

Inoculate the soil. Spread the bacteria with aerial spraying - Zack still doesn't have anti-aircraft capabilities. Dust insects with it. Spray it directly on the pest and let the target move it around for you. Farmers have been doing all of these for years. It's not even an engineering problem. It's a routine industrial process.

Once fungus really gets going everything turns white and fuzzy. It's just a question of how long it will take for the shambling horde to turn into a twitching, furry leftover. Soon it will stop moving. Then it will sporulate. The zombies will be nothing but mushrooms and the next generation of mold.

Fungus porn courtesy of You Tube...

and here's a zombie snail that serves its part in a more complex parasite's life-cycle

Gruesome, isn't it?

But that's nothing. Once they start working with insects the zombies will wish they had just stayed in the ground.

When dead flesh begins to putrefy the beetles are first on the scene. Some of them eat fly larvae. We don't want those. Some of them like the classic Carrion Beetles and a few of the Scarabs have strong jaws that can chew through tough zombie flesh. A few of them even specialize in eating tendons and ligaments. All that undead strength doesn't do you any good if the muscles aren't attached to bone. All you can do is lie there and twitch while the beetles creep closer, jaws chewing, ovipositors getting ready to lay eggs...

Then there are flies. Some of them eat dung. Some of them eat fruit. Screw Worm Flies caused horrible damage to livestock until entomologists figured out how to control them be releasing hordes of sterile males. Some of them, and here's the fun part, only eat dead tissue. On a zombie that's umm like pretty much everything. We already use them to debride wounds where they do an incredibly fast clean job.

The beetles and flies will lay their eggs in Zack. The zombies will move around and take the hard work of traveling away from the things that are eating them. In time the insects will mature and go on to infest more of the unquiet dead. If they are quick-moving 28 Days Later zombies they will spread their own destruction even more effectively. Sucks to be a zombie when something hungrier thinks of you as dinner.

The Ravenous Sea

In a lot of zombie stories the ocean is an eternal reservoir for the hungry dead. They don't drown. They wash or walk up on shore all over the world. Terrible, isn't it?

But death is always close in the ocean. Every sailor knows that there is nothing more terrible than the sea. And it is always dreadfully hungry.

First of all, you have to wonder how the zombies will move. If they sink on the Continental Shelf there's a good chance that some will walk onto land some day. But the ocean floors are big. You could wander a long, long time without making much progress. If they end up in the silty parts of the sea bed they will be stuck in the muck until Judgment Day. Down in the Utter Depths they will move very slowly, if at all. It's terribly cold down there. There isn't any light. And there's not much to eat.

If they float or have neutral buoyancy they will drift with the currents. Even a dog paddle is more efficient than walking. Most of the zombies will end up circulating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or one of the other oceanic gyres. There might be a few surprised Saragossa Eels, but I can live with that. If Zack gets wound up in kelp or plastic bags he'll never get loose.

Just like the fungus in the soil and the bacterium that causes rot the ocean is full of tiny plants and animals and all sorts of microorganisms. They breed quickly and in incalculable numbers. Sooner or later a few will figure out how to digest the undead. See the last section but death will be wholesale, and we won't have to do the hard work. A lot of fish will take a nibble and die. That will be sad. But the zombies won't last long enough for it to make a difference.

One of the most painful, tedious, backbreaking jobs in the Age of Sail was scraping barnacles off hulls. A ship that is at sea for a few months will get slower and slower because of them. They don't eat the things they attach to. They just glue themselves on and filter the water. In a year or two a lot of zombies will look like abstract sculpture. And they'll move just about as well.

The ocean can take care of itself. It's a much scarier thing than a bunch of meat that doesn't know when to lay down.

Epidemics and Evolution

A Virgin Field Epidemic is a horrifying thing. When a completely new pathogen makes its appearance nothing has any resistance. It spreads like wildfire. If it's deadly it kills off everything it infects.

A zombie outbreak is like that. Whatever eats them dies. Whatever they eat dies or gets turned into more zombies. We have no natural resistance. If they really were that bad they'd destroy their food supply wherever they are found. Contain and cauterize is ugly but it works.

Real epidemics follow a predictable evolutionary path. An organism that always kills off all of its hosts goes extinct. The Black Death was terrible when it first hit. It wiped out, well, we don't know how many. They used to say a quarter of Europe, China and Turkey. Now they think it could have been a third. But each outbreak was less severe. By the Seventeenth century it was remarked on but didn't wipe out cities or cause widespread panic. The pest had evolved to avirulence. And anyone who had some natural resistance had passed those genes on because nobody else had descendants.

The 1918 Influenza Epidemic killed millions. In a perverse twist it was more deadly to the young and strong. Some years back I remember hearing about a team of researchers who carefully drilled down into Flu Graveyards in the Scandinavian permafrost. They took enough samples to be absolutely sure. The Killer Flu was Swine Flu. It's nasty, but it's no Plague. Everyone who would die from it did.

Maybe the Zombie Plague would evolve that way. In a few hundred years it might be nothing to really worry about.

But that's not the important part. You see, zombies don't evolve. That's why they're doomed.

And that's why Birds do it, Bees do it,
Even educated fleas do it,
Let's do it, let's fall in love.
With apologies to Cole Porter

Zombies reproduce, but they don't have sex. At least if you don't count some very bad (Really Really NSFW) movies. They don't recombine their genes and pass on their biological advantages to the next generation amplified by reinforcement with other zombies' special traits. When a Zack-eating beetle or a zombiephagic fungus comes along they won't develop resistance to it. But the things that eat them breed quickly and recombine their genes promiscuously. Darwin trumps Design when the designer only gets one chance. What makes it worse is that humans will learn what works and pass on the solutions directly. Cultural evolution, unlike biological evolution is Lamarckian.

It's not even a Red Queen's Race. Zack started out ahead, but he's not moving. Even if it runs slowly Life will catch up.

The Fatal Flaw

The real problem with this rant is the screen. Doing science is exciting to the people involved in it. It's deadly dull to watch. Scenes of sweaty and artfully disheveled people running from monsters and killing a few of them are exciting. The Ag School approach to surviving the Zombie Apocalypse is more like this:

[Cut to half a dozen people watching petri dishes]
Pale blond guy puts down his coffee cup, smiles, scratches his head, writes something in a lab notebook.

Mark:"Miz Jackson, strain 72 is growing 15% faster than anything else."

Everyone: Yay!

Short woman wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a humorous platypus smiles and writes something down in another notebook.

Professor Jackson: "Great Mark. Split that culture and save twenty grams for PCR. The mycology lab has some spare Polymerase."

Science is full of great stories but precious few action films.