The living dead meet self-aware machines, and the secrets are revealed of the once-booming Manitoba frontier border town of Snowflake -- who knew research at the University of Manitoba could be so much fun?
Budding Manitoba authors Daria Patrie and Sean Braun are this year's recipients of $10,000 grants apiece from the U of M and C.D. Howe Memorial Institute to work on master's of arts degrees in creative writing.
This isn't stuff that starts with "It was a dark and stormy night..."
Patrie's thesis will be a collection of short stories bringing together zombies and artificial intelligence. Braun will write a Manitoba gothic novel set a century ago in Snowflake.
"The highest-paid publication I've had is $22.50," laughed Patrie, a College Churchill grad who worked eight years in a tech support call centre after getting her undergrad degree. They'd sit around talking about how best to fortify the call centre if there was a zombie outbreak ravenous for human flesh.
"There's a lot of dehumanizing effects of working in a call centre," she pointed out.
Patrie's eyes light up like a reanimated corpse spotting a slow-footed human when she talks about George A. Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead body of film work.
"Zombie movies always have social commentary," says Patrie, whose tote bag carries the logo of author Max Brooks' terrific book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars.
Zombies, it's redundant to explain, can be the reanimated dead, or infected live people, or controlled by evil humans. Her thesis will explore all sorts of ways of examining just what constitutes being human.
"I am looking at ethical questions, moral questions," she explained. "I call it mindless bodies and bodiless minds.
"It's very much the intersection of zombies and artificial intelligence."
Can artificial intelligence be self-aware if it doesn't see its own reflection? she pondered: "Is Google already self-aware and doesn't realize it? Google... doesn't have a body, so it can't get to that stage."
How that plays out in a short story, with zombies involved, that will have to await her thesis.
Meanwhile, down in Snowflake a century ago...
Braun's from Snowflake in southwest Manitoba, went to high school at W.C. Miller Collegiate in Altona, and did his undergrad work at Brandon University, a tad peripatetic.
Braun's been published as a poet and while he'd certainly like to see his novel published, he hopes to become a professor. "I wrote more of a novella as my undergraduate thesis. It was called Stained Glass. This character named Liam falls in with these transients in a squatter church."
So, on to Braun's proposed novel.
"It takes place in Snowflake around 1910," said Braun. "The piece will be told by first-person accounts, they'll contradict each other.
"I always wanted to explore the impact that landscape has on relationship -- the bald prairie gives way to the Pembina Valley," he envisioned.
"It will examine the border. You had civilization versus the frontier, the wild; north-south; white versus aboriginal. The ghosts of the past inform the present -- the present is haunted by what went before."
Braun started thinking a couple of years back about setting his novel in Snowflake when he came across a New York Times article from the early 1900s about a California fugitive who kidnapped a Snowflake teacher, who was a niece of the premier, and made for the North Dakota border with a lynch mob in pursuit. So far, Braun's still researching what happened to everyone involved, but, "That will be a key event."
It's the second year of the Howe scholarship program and a decade from now, some of the students may have become successful authors, says Prof. Warren Cariou, director of U of M's Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture.
"We're a research centre" for faculties and departments promoting creative writing, he said. Within English, there are about 30 creative writing students each year and one-quarter will write a major work as a thesis.
Patrie and Braun don't just write -- they do all the intensive research that other grad students do in the program.
"They have to step back and think how this fits into literary or cultural history," said Cariou. Students presenting a major writing project also submit a critical statement which 'contextualizes' their work into theories of literary and cultural history, Cariou said.