I was not surprised when the “occupation” of Zucotti Park was cleared out last November by the NYPD. What surprised me was that it could persist for nearly two months in a place as spatially constricted as Manhattan. New York City is not particularly hospitable to those who wish to live off-the-grid or create autonomous spaces for themselves — artistic, radical, political, or otherwise. New York, it sometimes feels, is the grid.
As urban speculative fiction, Zone One describes, intentionally or not, the problems of the modern American city as a relevant shared cultural space. In its post-apocalyptic world, in which power structures are more diffuse and spread out, meaningful interaction comes from authentic interpersonal exchanges, however fleeting, that occur between nomadic groups of humans perpetually migrating from settlement to settlement. It’s these interactions — based around accumulated rituals, oral histories, shared stories, personal confessions, and folktales — that empower emotionally drained citizens and give them the motivation to carry on. In this world, the values of New York City are increasingly useless — ego, blind ambition, some nondescript, oblique concept of “making it,” brand names, branded identities. Whitehead introduces a genus of zombie called a “straggler,” a zombie whose neural pathways have calcified around a specific, arbitarary task that took up their day when they had a waking life. So it goes, secretaries meaninglessly open and close file cabinets, cashiers blindly punch registers, and the city hums, somehow, at its mindless pace, now a gameshow of gestures and pantomimes that hint at bigger, louder, equally empty ambitions.
Even as the loose governmental body, based in Buffalo, wishes to rehabilitate lower Manhattan for its symbolic value, the protaganist — referred to only by his nickname, Mark Spitz — realizes what everyone else will not say: that the mythic value of the city is beyond rehabilitation. “Let the cracks between things widen until they are no longer cracks but the new places for things,” he muses. New York originally gained its cultural relevance because it was one of these cracks — a city known for its cheap rent, its fluid interclass contact, a sense of freedom that comes from living in a place whose darkness could swallow you whole if not for the infinity of hands reaching out from the shadows. These qualities now seem to describe the New York of a parallel universe, replaced by a city that prices out residents even on the fringes of its outer boroughs, a city fueled by wealth and capital more so than nearly any other on Earth.
Like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and every post apocalyptic film or novel that came after it, Zone One uses the end of the world to muse on other worlds that are possible — as a space to reflect on obsolescence and which parts of our old ways of being will fit into the world we’re left with. It’s not a bad thing to reflect on as we reevaluate our relationships with capital, community, and space. It is also okay if you just want to read for the zombies eating folks up.
Roshan Abraham is a writer whose interests include art and design, comic books, and the intersection of technology and culture. His writing has previously appeared in Denver Westword and Pixelsurgeon. You can follow him on Tumblr and Twitter.