Comparing Australian and Non-Australian Speculative Fiction: Uncommon Zombie Narratives in Illuminae and His Dark Materials

Illuminae is an Australian science fiction novel by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, published in 2015. The first novel of the Illuminae Files trilogy focuses on Ezra and Kady, who try to survive the ongoing war over a planet as well as a deadly plague. The story is told in the unconventional form of a dossier of several types of documents and media.

His Dark Materials is a fantasy trilogy by British author Philip Pullman, first published in 1997. As a retelling and inversion of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the novels tell the story of the child Lyra, in who’s world human souls exist outside of the body in animal form as the so-called dæmons. She later travels between the worlds and reimagines humanity’s fall from paradise. Thereby the trilogy mediates themes like the difference between children and adults, innocence and experience, but also deals with the concept of sin and what makes us human.

The zombie is a well-known and popular element of our culture, especially in the Sci-Fi genre. Nowadays, zombie narratives are almost impossible to avoid – examples include The Walking Dead, iZombie, or Dawn of the Dead

However, I would like to take a look at unconventional representations of the zombie, which is why I chose His Dark Materials and Illuminae. What is so different about Illuminae’s zombies? And what does this Sci-Fi novel even have to do with His Dark Materials? Well, please do keep on reading.

“So little between it and us and us and it.” (Kaufman and Kristoff 157)

To start off, I would like to bring your attention to the novel that could not be more relevant to us right now. Illuminae’s zombies draw from the famous plague narrative, leading to an increasing contagion paranoia – sounds awfully familiar, does it not? 

The transformation to zombies happens through the mutagenic Phobos Virus, which was designed as a bioweapon by BeiTech Industries to attack the ice planet Kerenza IV.  Later, the virus spread on the spaceship Copernicus, where refugees were stationed. 

There are three possible versions of the virus: Alpha, Beta, and the final form (Kaufman and Kristoff 155). All of them attack victims’ bodies in rather nasty ways: Patients spread the airborne virus by seeking physical contact and comfort from the people around them and actively try to avoid treatment (ibid.). In the worst cases, victims will start becoming increasingly paranoid, repeat “Stop looking at me” (158) all the time and develop ill thoughts towards others. Consequently, the patients start to murder people by cutting off their heads and removing their eyes – yum! 

As typical as this might seem for a zombie narrative, it is not. Kristoff and Kaufman rationalise the zombies by assigning them a pathology (cf. Mattila). Their depictions are not mindlessly after brains, but their death drive in the final stage is caused by on-growing madness. In contrast to that, Illuminae’s zombies embody the fear of the uncontrollable consequences of a plague. In addition to that, the mutating virus ties into the zombie characteristic of being capable of mutation and quick adaptation, which underlines the danger associated with them.

Most importantly however, the zombies are not reanimated corpses, but they are living, sentient beings. This is why the mindless consumption of human flesh is very much de-emphasised (cf. Mattila). Furthermore, Illuminae makes use of children as zombies (Kaufman and Kristoff 153), which is also rather uncommon, as the depiction takes away some of the hope a reader might have for the future generations (cf. Mattila). By using these apocalyptic and science fiction narratives and turning them around completely, it definitely defies conventions.

“Africans have a way of making a slave called a zombi. It has no will of its own; it will work day and night without ever running away or complaining. It looks like a corpse.” (Pullman 317f.)

Now onto His Dark Materials: While this choice might be a little confusing at first, the novels actually share many unexpected parallels to Illuminae. The zombie in fantasy literature is certainly not as established as it is in Sci-Fi, although Game of Thrones expanded the rule book quite drastically. When I first read His Dark Materials, the zombies did not even strike me as such until the word was clearly written on the page. Reason for that is, amongst other things, the use of two types of zombies. 

At first Pullman introduces the zombies I will call intercision zombies. They include all people who have undergone intercision, a process which severs the link of a human and their dæmon. If the operation succeeds, humans and and their souls do not die, but live on separately. Victims are described as not-humans, ghosts, or something uncanny which does not belong to the world of sense (Pullman 184), while their surviving dæmons are equally ghost-like, “bewildered and frightened and pale as smoke” (222).

The second version is the one I will call Spectre zombies: Their state is caused by Spectres, translucent parasitic entities who consume the dæmons of adults. As their effect is stronger than intercision, as their soul is consumed entirely. Victims of the Spectres are described as “dead in life” (618).

The great difference between these two types of zombies is that the ones after the intercision process are clearly sentient. Reason for that lies in the survival of the dæmons, because they grant humans their consciousness. While they still have no fear, free will, and fight till they are torn apart (522), part of their soul remains. Still, they are weaponised by humans to serve their need for power and acts of war.

This is why these zombies loosely remind us of the Haitian voodoo zombie generation, which finds its origin in slavery and colonialism (Boluk and Lenz 3f.). The reanimated corpses are controlled by a witch doctor, who stood in for a colonial master (ibid.). A great comparison can be made to the character of Mrs Coulter, who gets attributed quite a lot of witch-like characteristics. She uses the zombies she created as bodyguards and her own personal army (Pullman 522). 

Just as the intercision zombie is directly created by humans, the Spectre zombie is created as a consequence of reckless human behaviour. As the window to another world at the end of the first book is created through the energy release of intercision, Spectres begin to flood the world and consume their victims’ consciousness. 

What is so unconventional about this depiction is not only the use of children as zombies, but also the fact that zombies can neither spread their affliction, nor are they actually aggressive. Their state very reminiscent of hypnosis, as the zombies only evoke ill intent when they are told to do so – they are literal slaves. In contrast to Illuminae, the zombies are not associated with madness, but with a general state of mindlessness: “The zombie looks and acts just like a human, but lacks conscious experience, thus demonstrating that human subjectivity consists of more than the physical” (Boluk and Lenz 9).

The point of this comparison? All authors de-familiarise the zombie to such an extent, that one first questions whether they are actual zombies at all. Their representations are taken from the conventions and their characteristics are stretched out, leading to a re-familiarisation, which is so common for Australian Sci-Fi texts (cf. Mattila).

Even though certain aspects of the two zombie narratives differ, they come together in one important point: Both works reflect on humanity’s interference with either technology or biology in order to weaponise members of society. As Boluk and Lenz put it, the zombies reveal “terrible truths about human nature, existence and sin.“ (7). The human body becomes a machine; a means to an end; the themes of power and control are clearly underlined. Furthermore, we find the plague narratives in both series, as the zombie virus is presented as a secular or spiritual force. 

In accordance to the domestication of the zombie in American culture (Edwards 70), the two narratives focus on the transformation of a dehumanised zombie to a sentient being, which can be read as a “metaphor for alienated otherness“ (Spooner 183). In the end, Illuminae and His Dark Materials both shine a light on the monstrousness of humans and, to an extent, defend marginalised outcasts.

Works Cited

Boluk, Stephanie and Wylie Lenz. “Introduction: Generation Z, the Age of Apocalypse.” Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture, edited by Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz. McFarland & Company, 2011, pp. 1-17. 

Edwards, Justin D. “Contemporary American Gothic.” The Cambridge Companion to American Gothic, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock. Cambridge University Press, 2017, pp. 71-82.

Kaufman, Amie and Jay Kristoff. Illuminae. Rock the Boat, 2015. 

Mattila, Lucas. “Impossible to Ignore. Australian Science Fiction.” YouTube, uploaded by Lucas Mattila, 1 July 2020,

Pullman, Philip. His Dark Materials. Northern Lights. The Sublte Knife. The Amber Spyglass, 1995. 1997. 2000. Everyman’s Library, 2011.

Spooner, Catherine. “Twenty-First-Century Gothic.” Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. Ed. Dale Townshend. London: British Library, 2014, pp.180–207. 

Exploring Sexuality and Queerness in Australian Fantasy: Nevernight’s Mia

The Nevernight Chronicle by Australian author Jay Kristoff consists of the three novels Nevernight (2016), Godsgrave (2017), and Darkdawn (2019). The fantasy trilogy (which is very much not YA due to very graphic depictions of sex and violence) follows the story of Mia, who joins the Red Church, an order of assassins, in order to enact revenge upon the men who killed her family. What follows are a lot of plot twists and dark turns sprinkled with some romance on top. The novels break with a traditional writing style by adding ‘historical’, fun-fact-footnotes and overall sassy commentary. 

When I first read Nevernight at sixteen years old, I was, to be quite honest, a little taken aback by the protagonist Mia. In contrast to the many female protagonists speculative fiction offers now, she certainly defies a well-developed stereotype. Of course she does not stand alone, as for example Suzanne Collin’s Katniss clearly showcases, but there is still something special about Mia that I would like to bring to your attention. 

“You think I should have saved myself, is that it? That I’m some gift to be given? Now forever spoiled?” (Kristoff Nevernight 11)

As much as society has changed, female protagonists are still often bound to a very particular set of rules and norms. If we just take a look at the several Disney princesses, the moral is still the same: Female protagonists have to be obedient, sweet, controlled, and can generally only go on adventures if a capable man is at their side (Wheelan 176). Even though Disney may disguise it by putting a frying pan into their modern princess’ hands, the message is still the same (Brave being an exception here):

“[M]en have power and agency, women who are submissive and obedient are rewarded with marriage, and disobedient and powerful women are punished for their attempts to defy the patriarchal status quo” (Hohenstein 92).

The same pattern also occurs in literature time and time again; the most obvious example here Bella Swan from Twilight. Adolescent women’s bodies are still depicted as simultaneously dangerous and desirable, which results in their presentation as creatures who’s bodies and sexuality must be controlled by explicit as well as implicit rules (Day 75).

Kristoff, however, throws all of these stereotypes and demands over board with his protagonist Mia and offers girls and women another perspective on the female body. Mia defies pretty much every regulation ever put on the female protagonist: She is violent, aggressive, short-tempered, swears quite a lot, and her sexual encounters are openly displayed (If you are in search of more characters like Mia, I suggest Korra from The Legend of Korra or Lyra from His Dark Materials). The exploration of her desires is no longer bound to warnings or eventual backlash of (sexual) empowerment (Day 75).

The take on a teenage girl having sex for the first time is emphasised clearly, as the scene is paralleled with her first murder in order to symbolise a loss of innocence in two ways (Kristoff Nevernight 5-11). Right from the start, the reader notices that Mia has conviction and agency, which allows her to decide for herself when it is time to have sex. Furthermore, the narrative makes no heightened fuss about the decision, quite the reverse; it is depicted as the most normal thing.

The importance of this representation is the lack of fetishisation of female purity and the social construct of virginity. If you need an example, just look at Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina; the whole four seasons are essentially about when Sabrina will finally lose her well-guarded virginity. Does any woman need this narrative in 2021? No.

Mia defies society’s expectation and demands by choosing her first time to be with a sweetboy (aka sex worker) – which sixteen year old does that? Mia, because she chose to do so. And no, this does not promote teenagers to go for sex workers, but the importance of choice. Her actions clearly illustrate how her sexual encounters cannot and should not be controlled by society, because these rules and regulations do not apply to her, as it is her choice alone. The emphasis on choice is very reminiscent of Arya Stark and her first sexual encounter in Game of Thrones, who just like Mia breaks free from gender roles and the boundaries that come with it.

Why is this relevant? Because Jay Kristoff’s trilogy allows women to have physical agency, to experience desire and act on it without being vilified like in the femme fatale trope – sex is no longer a taboo topic. Moreover, the overcoming of this cultural conditioning enables girls to gain power necessary to “become women, leaders, and heroes” (Day 76).

“[…] I thought about my life and where it’d been steered and understood I’d never really had a say in any of it. And I wanted something that could just be mine. My choice. […] So I chose her.” (Kristoff  Darkdawn 267)

Just as Kristoff resists the convention regarding the depiction of the body, he also explores the queerness of his protagonist in Godsgrave and the following novel. While there is no limitation to what authors can write about, but there is certainly a risk of getting it wrong whenever straight people decide to elaborate on these relationships.

While we are certainly seeing an increased portrayal of queer characters in several forms of media, it is still far away from the norm, especially when it comes to protagonists. More often than we like to acknowledge, queer representation is reserved for the side characters with minimum importance who ultimately die. This can get easily problematic when the only queer characters simply serve no other purpose than being killed off.

When looking at queer representation and canon relationships in other media, one will notice their high mortality rate and tendency for the very contrast to a happy ending. Prime examples for that are The 100, Holby City, Flores Raras and several others; the list is quite long. The message behind such storylines is quite simple: Queer relationships should not be treated equally, because they cannot be maintained either way. Another issue which just came up again is the erasure of queer representation in, again, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: A queer relationship was suddenly turned back into a heterosexual one, because one woman was apparently a man in disguise. Portraying same-sex relationships seems awfully difficult, even though it is not, as Kristoff’s novels clearly showcase.

Mia underlines how queer representation is done right. When she falls for Ashlinn, who previously murdered her boyfriend Tric (Kristoff Nevernight 369), the arising controversy is not caused by their gender, but by Ashlinn’s previous deeds. Tric, when coming back from the dead, is highly disappointed in Mia and feels betrayed, but Mia remains true to her feelings and shuts any attempts of Tric getting back together with her down (Kristoff Darkdawn 266f.). Thereby Kristoff also lets go of the overdone love triangle trope and allows the readers to experience actual (satisfying) queer representation.

Even though he apparently does not believe in happy endings, Mia and Ashlinn do get one in a broader sense (they die, but then come back like Tric and get to spend the rest of their undead existence together; it is complicated). When taking the other queer relationship of Mia’s father into consideration who died for his affections for his lover, it is extremely important to balance these two events out. Because of that and Mia’s refusal to get back together with Tric, the queer narrative serves to normalise these relationships and stack them up as equally valid, important, and well rounded.

In addition to that, great successes like the Nevernight Chronicle help to spread more awareness of queer relationships and the support that is so desperately needed. Storylines like one mentioned from Chilling Adventures of Sabrina only add to the vilification and avoidance of the LGBTQ+ community and narratives, even if it was not intended. When portraying marginalised groups, ignorance is no longer tolerable, which is why it is crucial to put thought into the narrative presented to the audiences. 

Works Cited 

Day, Sara K. “Sexual Awakening and Social Resistance in Young Adult Dystopian Novels” Female Rebellion in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction, by Sarah K Day. et al. Ashgate, 2014. E-Book, pp. 75-94.

Hohenstein, Svenja. Girl Warriors. Feminist Revisions of the Hero’s Quest in Contemporary Popular Culture. MacFarland & Company, 2019. E-Book.

Kristoff, Jay. Darkdawn. HarperVoyager, 2019. 

Kristoff, Jay. Nevernight. HarperVoyager, 2016.

Whelan, Bridget. “Power to the Princess: Disney and the Creation of the Twentieth-Century Princess Narrative.” Kidding Around. The Child in Film and Media, edited by Alexander N. Howe und Wynn Yarbrough. Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 167-192.