Leah's Reviews > State of Decay

State of Decay by James Knapp
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Mar 29, 10

Read from March 07 to 27, 2010

In my quest for zombie fiction, I was recommended State of Decay by James Knapp. Let me say this upfront: State of Decay is not a zombie book. It uses the concept of reanimation in a modern, technologically-oriented way to explore unsettling questions about identity: what makes us who we are? Is it the delicate spark of life that sustains our bodies that makes us human? Are we our memories? And what if we have reason to doubt those memories?

Science fiction has rehashed these ideas for decades, most memorably for me in films like Moon, The Matrix, Vanilla Sky, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as well as in books like Permutation City by Greg Egan, or numerous works by Philip K. Dick such as We Can Remember It for You Wholesale , which was the basis for the film Total Recall.


Knapp's foray into this realm is not as sophisticated as the aforementioned works. He deals with rudimentary concepts of memory-as-self, but uses a clever plot device to expose the fragility of the human mind. This stuff is headier than terms like "zombie" can account for, so Knapp calls his reanimated undead "revivors." Revivors are people who are brought back to (computer-assisted) life after death, to serve as soldiers and domestic peacekeepers. In exchange for this, the revivor enjoys elevated citizenship while he is still a warm-blooded human: access to better jobs, social prestige, higher quality of life.

State of Decay begins when FBI Agent Nico Wachalowski busts up a ring of revivor traffickers who are illicitly reanimating bodies for use as mindless sex slaves, and to other exploitative ends. Only it seems the revivors he's found—along with a cache of weapons—may have some more nefarious purpose. On the other side of town, Detective Faye Dasalia is investigating a series of homicides, while telepath Zoe Ott sees visions of the dead—or soon-to-be-dead. These narrative threads are gradually drawn together to unveil disturbing connections and culminate in an explosive revelation.

Strengths and weaknesses

Knapp has constructed a solid foundation for his revivors and their place in society. So it's puzzling that he then decided to toss in a trite and contrived Psychic Powers (TM) arc on top of it. As the book draws to a close, it becomes clear how the psychic aspect fits in to the greater narrative, and this is thankfully satisfying and important to the underlying conflict—but the psychic powers are never explained, despite plot indications that they should be better understood. The psychic POV character, Zoe, is sympathetic and believable, but gives merely cursory reference to her past. Knapp has left room for himself to explore this in the implied sequel, but I felt it should have been addressed more thoroughly in the first book.

Aside from plot issues, the action is rapid and engaging, and the prose, if simple, is lucid. Characterization is where Knapp stumbles. Psychic and alcoholic loser Zoe is his strongest character: flawed, unrepentant, emotional, sympathetic. She is the beating heart that pumps blood through the story. But other characters display markedly less dimensionality, particularly in the weak and needless subplot consisting of a cliché-ridden bad-girl female boxer and the mysterious youth who bails her out of jail. Knapp could have dropped this entire thread, cardboard cutout characters and all, to general improvement.

While there are some tidy plot twists, they are too clearly telegraphed and predictable. To Knapp's credit, even though you'll guess where the plot is going long before it gets there, he keeps the journey lively with relentless action. But he has a tendency, most noticeable in the middle third of the book, to resort to dialogue to move the exposition-heavy action forward—a common problem with genre fiction.

Too many directions, going nowhere

The main problem with State of Decay is that the book can't decide if it's a whodunnit, an FBI investigative thriller, a psychic drama, or (insert genre cliché here)—nor can it decide on being a cohesive synthesis of its parts. FBI Agent Nico's thread is the most prominent, incorporating elements of the whodunnit and psychic subplots. But those subplots in turn suffer from lack of attention and development, particularly the serial killer plot.

Much ado is made about Detective Dasalia's gradual breakdown as she investigates the murders, but it resolves in an unsatisfying way: she's just another plot device. Because her character was so one-dimensional and event-driven, I wished there had been fewer POV chapters from her, so that I wouldn't feel cheated that I didn't care about her when I obviously was meant to.

State of Okay

James Knapp's State of Decay is a rapid-fire sci-fi thriller with a clever premise, undermined by thin characterization and predictability. It poses Big Questions about the self and the relationship between memory and identity, but doesn't pursue them seriously. The book is at its best when it makes us care about the marginalized losers of society: washed-up alcoholic psychics and exploited undead ex-humans alike.
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