The title of Alex Dally MacFarlane’s story, “Selected Sources for the Babylonian Plague of the Dead (572-571BCE),” may be nearly as long as the story itself, but its relatively short word count packs a punch. This is a wonderful, colorful tale allowing a stolen glimpse into a long-lost civilization governed by three powerful princesses whose cities are suddenly overrun with hordes of walking dead which all traditional zombie-slaying wisdom fails to eradicate. The detail and styling of this tale make it a delight to read, and the imagery–at once beautiful, then horrifying–will linger.
Prepare yourself for the coming apocalypse and save yourself a copy of Zombies: More Recent Dead before it’s released in September! You can pre-order a copy from Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books, IndieBound, or Amazon.
1. The Writing Question: What is your typical writing routine? Do you write every day, some days, only when inspired?
I write fiction alongside other work: freelance work, my Tor.com column, postgraduate study (although I’m in-between degrees at the moment). I’ve also discovered it’s advisable to take time off and regularly exercise. Some weeks I write daily, some weeks I don’t write at all – it really depends on deadlines.
2. The Zombie Question: What enticed you to writing this zombie story?
There’s an Assyrian tablet about a fox falling into a well. I saw it and thought: oh, I need to put this in a story! So I did. The rest of the story grows from an article I read on my MA about the Babylonian princesses Innin-Eṭirat, Kaššaya and Ba’u-asītu: the three women in the story. They were real. The article is “Ba’u-asītu and Kaššaya, Daughters of Nebuchadnezzar II” by Paul-Alain Beaulieu. I wanted to write about these women sending letters to each other. Because I wanted to send a story to a zombie-themed anthology, Zombies: Shambling Through the Ages edited by Steve Berman, they’re sending letters about solving the problem of a plague. I wrote it in one day about a third of the way through my MA.
There’s another letter I love, from Šerua-eṭirat – eldest daughter of Esarhaddon, the king of Assyria – to Libbali-šarrat – wife of Assurbanipal, crown prince of Esarhaddon – where Šerua-eṭirat admonishes/encourages Libbali-šarrat to improve her literacy. The history of women is often flat, uniform, oppressed – the reality is more complex and varied than this. Though it frustratingly omits Babylonian evidence, after opening with a criticism of Herodotus’ oft-cited quote about Babylonian sexual practises, Women in the Ancient Near East: A Sourcebook edited by Mark Chavalas is an interesting introduction to the sources for this region. It includes Šerua-eṭirat’s letter.
In hindsight I wish I had put all of the story in letters instead of using a reconstructed oral tradition for part of it, but that’s perhaps a sign of how my fondness for letters grew during my MA.
3. The Random Question: What are you reading currently?
As I write this, I’m reading a few books! Are All Warriors Male? Gender Roles on the Ancient Eurasian Steppe is a book of articles edited by Katheryn M. Linduff and Karen S. Rubinson trying to examine the piecemeal evidence across millennia and a vast geographical region for evidence of gender roles: a daunting and difficult task, which can at best reach a conclusion of uncertainty, but very worthwhile. The best articles question how we ascribe gender on the basis of skeletons, grave goods and other evidence. Destabilising stereotypical assumptions and perceived uniformity is, in its way, the most important thing. I’m also slowly reading Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, which looks at contemporary ideas of sex and gender and deconstructs a lot of bullshit. On the fiction side, I’m reading Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eight (short stories!) and Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail (space!).
Alex Dally MacFarlane is a writer, editor and historian. When not researching narrative maps in the legendary traditions of Alexander III of Macedon, she writes stories that can be found in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Phantasm Japan, Solaris Rising 3, Heiresses of Russ 2013: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction, The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2014 and other publications. Poetry can be found in Stone Telling, The Moment of Change, and Here, We Cross. She is the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters (2013), and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (2014).