Young Wizards meta: Wizardry and zombies

by Diane Duane
Two glasses of a pink wine

(ETA: This material is reposted here from its original location at Tumblr, for those who don’t care for the platform’s new T&C as regards data handling.)

A question came in at my Tumblr ask box:

My roommate just finished Young Wizards, so now she’s in musing mode. So, the latest wondering is how would the wizards react to zombies. If you go by the virus mode of zombie, changing them would violate the Oath, and using wizardry to kill them is just feeding the Lone One. (unless directly threatened, we suppose)

Wow, that’s a fabulous question. And not something I’ve thought about much.

Let’s go ask Tom.


It’s such a nice house, especially in the good weather. The patio doors are open: I wander in through the living room, then into the kitchen. And of course there he is, staring into the fridge with the look of a man contemplating a potential sandwich.

“Why are you always in the kitchen when I show up here?”

“Would you rather I was in the bedroom?”

“No, no, let’s not go there. Literally or figuratively.”

“Just as well. Carl would give me one of those plaintive looks and say ‘Are you trying to confuse me again?’”

Snickering. “God forbid. Where is himself, by the way?”

“Saturn at the moment. There’s some kind of issue, he had to go confer with the Planetary: something secondary to the War. Nothing serious, though, I’m told. What’s your pleasure? Tea? Coffee? Something stronger?”

“Is the Sun over the yardarm here?”

“It’s your yardarm. You tell me. Got a nice Spätburgunder weissherbst in here somewhere.”

“Oh God. Please and thank you.”

He goes back to rooting in the fridge. “So what brings you out all this way?”

“Got a question for you.”

“So what else is new.” He comes back with two glasses. “Here.” He pours them each a third full, hands me one. It’s that perfect eye-of-the-pheasant color, caught between rosé and gold: if it were a US wine it would be thought of as similar to a white Zinfandel, the skins removed early from the must of a big-bodied grape to keep it from going all the way to red.

We touch glasses. “Ne’gakh emeirsith,” Tom says, which is one of many local variants in the Speech for the sentiment “Your health”. Probably it would render closer to the Swiss-German usage “En guete”, “may it do you good”.

“Back at you, “ I say, “thank you,” and have a sip. It tastes like summer in a glass, and way down among the tangled flavors of peach leather and vanilla and faint sunwarmed brass there is just a hint of something extra going on. “Of course there are wizards who’re vintners,” I mutter. “Silly me. Kaiserstuhl?”

“Somewhere on the Rhine, anyway. Anyway: what can I do you for?”

“Zombies.”

He rolls his eyes quite hard. “Oh dear God, do not tell me you’re planning on inflicting that on us.”

“By no means. Consider it a hypothetical.”

“Only too pleased.” He tilts his head at me with an expression way too similar to the one John Watson saves to use on Sherlock when his colleague is about to suggest that they do something improbable and most likely illegal (or likely shortly to be declared so) “for science.” “Because we’ve got enough on our plates right now, as you know. But what is it with everybody suddenly seemingly feeling life isn’t worth living unless there’s an impending zombie apocalypse?”

“A question I’ve been asking myself increasingly often of late.”

“Some cultural thing,” Tom says, looking down into his wine and swirling it a little to assess the hang, or because he sees something there I don’t. “An expression of people’s increasing sense of helplessness against an increasingly unmanageable and incomprehensible world: that was one explanation I heard recently.”

“Like the millennial stuff that keeps coming up more and more of late.”

“Well, that’s always been around,” Tom says. “But the two phenomena express different sets of reactions to the same problem, maybe. The millennial business might appeal most to people who just want to escape, but not be seen as cowards. None of it’s their fault: it was the bad people who made the world end. And in a side branch of the trope, not their fault at all that God was going to yank them off the planet and leave the bad people to cope with all the floods and earthquakes and whatnot.”

“Berne does say that the basic existential position of all human beings is ‘I am blameless,’” I murmur. The wine really does hang nicely. “But the zombie thing, well, if that’s the far side of the same psychological phenomenon, maybe it’s the ‘We can too make a difference, damned if we’re going down without a fight’ side. Not wholly incompatible with the wizardly ground-of-being.”

“With the added benefit of being able to machine-gun the neighbors without guilt,” Tom remarks, “once they’ve turned.” He gives me a very dry look. “Seriously, you’re not contemplating this, are you?”

“Not in the slightest. I got any urges in that direction out of my system writing Lost Future, believe me. Never said the Z word, but it was in the background all the time. While I wasn’t contemplating the delights of making Sean Bean run around the landscape dressed only in leather. Anyway, you mean you can’t tell, after how I dealt with the vampire thing?”

“Well, that did rather come down by fiat,” Tom says. “Caught me by surprise at first: thought maybe I’d missed a memo. But ‘no vampires after 1652?’”

“It was an interesting year. A story that’ll get told eventually, I’m sure.”

“A reaction to something else, perhaps?”

“I’m sure I can’t say.”

Tom grins at me. “I note the phrasing. Well, never mind.” He shrugs. “If we’re being spared zombies it doubtless means I won’t ever get to machine-gun the neighbors for mowing their lawn and running their leaf blower at six in the morning, but we all have to suffer a little in this life, I guess.”

I snort into the wine. “Um, okay. Sorry.” Because the image of ActionHero!Tom spraying zombies with a machine gun somehow has its points. “Where were we?”

“Zombies,” he says. “You’re asking me how we would react? From the wizardly point of view.”

“Wouldn’t mind hearing your thoughts.”

“Well.” He leans back in the chair. “What sort of propagation are we talking? Not the vodoun-style one-zombie-at-a-time, old-fashioned craftsmanship type, I assume.”

“No, the viral model.”

“Covers a lot of ground. How viral? Direct transmission? Do they have to run up and chew on you as in Shaun of the Dead? Or passive transmission via body fluids, so you can catch it from a doorknob? Or airborne?”

I shudder a bit. “Let’s not and say we did.”

“I agree. The main questions for a wizard attacking the problem are: how widespread is this thing going to become, and how quickly? Because the Oath does not require us to allow our species to be massacred because we want to avoid killing the poor zombie viruses.” He gives me a dry half-smile. “Smallpox, for example – we helped with that. It’s killed more human beings on this planet than every war there’s ever been, all rolled together, and now it’s almost gone — assuming some idiot doesn’t go rogue and try to weaponize something from the two remaining cultures in Moscow or at the CDC, or some natural cache presently unknown.”

He sighed. “Sometimes you have to make a judgment call. We tried to talk the viruses out of it: we failed. When that happens, we get to defend ourselves. Will some of us wind up in Timeheart having to take responsibility for action against a certain kind of life, and have to explain our actions to those affected by them? Almost certainly. But that doesn’t mean those actions were the wrong ones to take. Especially since it’s nowhere written that wizardry or the Oath forbid us to kill, particularly in self-defense. We’re just required to be utterly judicious about it, because in death as in life, what goes around comes around. Sometimes in unexpected forms. And increasing entropy is to be avoided whenever humanly possible.”

“Well,” I say, leaning back after another sip of the Spätburgunder, “I think change might have been the issue. You’ve got a human. They’ve been turned into a zombie – “

“If killing the virus will allow them to recover, you do so, and change them back,” Tom says immediately.

“So that doesn’t violate Clause Three.”

“The Troptic Stipulation? No. The clause is meant to deal with initiating change. Let’s say I get annoyed at something you say and am about to turn you into a frog.”

“As one does,” I say to the wine.

That the Oath enjoins against,” Tom says. “Inflicting batrachotropsy on you like that would be changing your normal mode of operation just because I felt like it, to satisfy some agenda of my own. It wouldn’t be because you needed it to happen. The Stipulation serves as a specific, simple example or reminder of the more general enjoinder against inflicting your power on others for your own purposes… and also a reminder that as a wizard you are required to think your changes through and determine how they’ll affect the whole system involved. Anyway, let’s step back to the original problem. Reversing a zombie change: fine, you go for it – assuming you’re fairly sure the host will revert to their previous state – because the change you’re making is a reversal to a previously disrupted status quo inflicted on one of the principals without consent. Particularly, sanction obtains because you’re reversing a change that was threatening, indeed rendering impossible, the host’s normal way of being.”

“But it’s the virus’s normal way of being.”

“Tough,” Tom says.

I blink a bit at that: such no-wiggle-room language is unusual from a Senior. “Yet you’re not suggesting this is anything hierarchical: no suggestion that humans are more important than viruses.”

“Not at all. Least of all, for the moment, because from the macro point of view, such assessments are alternately impossible for us to understand – since we do not stand, psychologically, philosophically, or eschatologically, at sufficiently central a point to see widely enough — and unfruitful. Here’s how it would look to me. First, who initiated the attack? The virus. From the wizardly point of view, whether all parties are sentients of equivalent complexity or not, ‘who started it’ is an issue, and my attention will always be on which is most benefited by the action and which is most harmed. Naturally the virus stands to benefit: all viruses that affect humans use us to reproduce. Is mere reproduction enough of an excuse to kill a member of another species? Not from where I’m standing.”

“But you’re one of the two species in question.”

“Yes, which means of course I have a dog in this fight, but no, it doesn’t mean I have to try to be so even-handed about all this that I wind up dropping dead before figuring out what action to take. Or then getting up again to go staggering around and nomming on other passing people. The goal is to have as few life-forms die as possible while solving the main problem. The viruses are going to get into their hosts, reproduce, and kill them, and then die themselves. Importance as such doesn’t enter into this, but a human being is potentially going to do a lot more things in its lifetime, and of a much higher level of complexity, than a virus will: and in that lifetime, some of those things will slow down entropy locally. Which is where our main loyalty lies.”

Tom sighs and has another drink of wine. “Also,” he says, “think it forward to the theoretical end state. Without wizardly interference, pretty soon all susceptible mammalian life on Earth is dead, or wandering around zombie-nomming on each other until they all fall apart and rot. And somewhere along the line, the virus dies out too – because that’s routinely what happens with organisms that kill their hosts in such a wholesale manner. What’s been the benefit of all this in the long term? And consider the huge, huge waste. Especially of a species which, though annoying and problematic in oh so damn many ways, nonetheless would have had before it, over millennia, so many ways to slow down entropy locally. Whereas viruses only have one… of very limited effectiveness or value at best. And one which leaves no one alive to judge whether the price was worth paying. Which fact by itself tells you the price is too damn high.”

“And what would the Powers say?”

“That,” Tom says, “is every wizard’s business to inquire for him-, her- or itself — ”

At which point his phone begins jumping and buzzing against the table.

“Oh crap, excuse me,” Tom says, picks it up, punches the button, puts it to his ear. “Tom Swale. — Oh, hi. – Yes, she is.” His face twists itself into an expression of good-natured mischief. “One moment, I’ll ask.” He looks over at me. “I’ve got a couple of people on the other end with a message for you. That being, ‘Are you scared of the spooning?’”

I come up blank for a moment and then realize what he’s on about. “Oh!” And I start laughing. “No, it’s okay, the spooning’s sorted. Tell them I’m just stuck on ‘the morning routines’ one. Nearly finished with that, though.”

He nods, puts the phone back to his ear. “Did you hear that? Fine. Anything else? Good. Because I’m still waiting for those notes on the volcano thing. –I don’t care that you told me how you fixed it. You still have to tell everybody else how. –Well, so you should have left the contextual recorder running, then. It’s not my fault the controls are so granular. Maybe you should ask Dairine for some help.”

His eyes widen a little and he holds the phone a little way from his ear. I can just make out the sound of Nita saying something about “a horrible death”. Tom rolls his eyes and puts the phone back to his ear. “RTFM, Nita. I’ll just keep saying it until you start paying attention. Read the–“

His eyebrows go up: he puts the phone down on the table again, rolls his eyes. “Did she just hang up on you?”

“No, I think Kit took the phone away from her and he hung up on me. Not quite the same dynamic.”

I chuckle. “How do you cope sometimes?”

“Good question.” He has a little more wine, then puts the glass down. “Anyway, I think we left a loose end untied.”

“Yes. What if such a viral-based change in the zombified humans is irreversible? Even by wizardry?”

“Then with endless regret,” Tom says, “you put the zombies out of their misery with the absolute minimum of pain, to keep them from infecting others and spreading the anguish any further… that being the quickest way to limit the Lone One’s local victory. Of course more elegant solutions might be preferable, but you’re not always offered such opportunities. In fact, you’re usually not. The decisions worth making are routinely the most difficult.”

I nod and have a bit more wine myself.

“Does it seem tangled? So it should,” Tom says. “But then the Oath’s not a be-all and end-all. I would never think to demean it by describing it as a set of guidelines. But every one of the embedded strictures and stipulations has certainly been broken, and doubtless may yet be again, without the person doing that being any less of a wizard, because situation is everything. Your purpose as a wizard is to keep things running as well as they can for the maximum good of as many beings as possible… and ‘good’ itself is so situational. You know as well as I do that on the High Road you run into wizards of species far different from ours whose recensions of the Oath make no sense in terms of the way our minds hold Life and its exigencies. Yet they serve Life as emphatically as we do, they’re our cousins, and we’re all on the same side.”

And then he chuckles a little. “Why would this ever realistically be an easy call, anyway?” Tom says. “After all, this is how you set it up. Who wants a world where all the choices are easy ones? If these stories are meant to be of some use besides entertainment — which is honorable enough by itself, granted — if there’s meant to be a little more meat than usual on these books’ bones, then the choices must be difficult. Like they are in real life. Because what’s the point, if you send your readership out into what we laughably refer to as the Real World with the idea that wizardry and life are black and white? Or even just gray? No matter how many shades of it you’re talking.”

“Oh please, don’t go there.”

He just gives me another of those slightly wicked looks. “Wizardry is not a multiple choice test, or a menu with only a few choices,” Tom says. “Wizardry is a set of multiple interpenetrating strata of intent, event and solution. Or if you want to stay 2-D, think of it as a set of many, many overlapping Venn diagrams. Sometimes the overlap of requirement, intervention and resolution simply cannot be made to work in a way that leaves you or the people working with you, or for that matter the microorganisms you’re interacting with or acting on, entirely happy. Yet will you eventually have to account for your actions? Yes. So you have a responsibility to be prepared to do so. Do you have an understanding that your goal is to get things to work for as many of the parties to a problem as possible? If you’re a wizard, yes, always. Will it sometimes not work out for one party because of a judgment call you made? Almost inevitably. “ He stretches again in the chair. “But that’s the reason ours differs from other wizardly systems, I’m told. Because somebody or other, thirty years ago, thought it was a horrible oversimplification to ‘just wave a wand and have stuff happen.’ Somebody started thinking things through. And look where it got you.”

“Like I can ever stop.” I finish the wine, put the glass down.

“Nope, nope, nope. Sit down and tell me about that Sooper Sekrit Thing you ran off to do in London.”

Far be it from me to argue with a man who’s pouring me another glass of that


Author’s note: Tom Swale, on whom was based a senior wizard in the Young Wizards series, moved on to a larger catchment area (as the cousins say) in 2018, joining his beloved Carl in the Great Wherever. Neither this world nor the YW universe will be the same without you, old friend.

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