World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks

WWZ cvr

World War Z’s scenario is that a decade or so after the conclusion of a global war against zombies, bar some protracted mopping up, the author was delegated to collect witness statements for a technical report to be published by the United Nations on the conflict, but much of it was discarded because it focused too much on personal testimony instead of statistical analysis.  Rather than discard the anecdotal material, it was turned into a separate book, which is World War Z.

The arc of the infestation, set in the near future, is well imagined, with rumours of ‘African rabies’ spreading following a mysterious disease outbreak in China (a plausible scenario given the health scares that have originated from there and the woeful state of its public service); ‘The Great Panic’, engendering confusion and leading to even more deaths than from the zombies themselves; denial of the extent of the threat by governments, including the ignoring of expert analyses that say things the top echelons do not want to hear, particularly in countries ruled by sclerotic oligarchies; slow acceptance of the scale of the danger; confusion as order breaks down; inappropriate military tactics by forces geared to conventional warfare; retreat, regrouping, and slow fightback.  One can see that a real zombie outbreak would progress in a similar way, assuming the remnants of humanity were able to organise as effectively as shown here.

A country’s chances of defence depend on various factors such as population density, social cohesion, degree of isolation, government flexibility.  Significantly the one state in the Middle East able to respond efficiently is Israel, which builds a wall (business as usual for them, just the name of the aggressor has changed).  They do better than those American citizens who have the bright idea of moving to Canada on the grounds that zombies freeze in winter (the only respite, although they are just as lethal as before when they thaw in the spring) but forget that keeping warm and feeding yourself in sub-zero temperatures  is difficult.  However, there is one source of ready protein (and it’s not zombie flesh)…

The amount of research in World War Z is impressive, and Brooks manages to inject social commentary that lifts it above straight horror.  Through the prism of the threat we see what is best and worst in people, their nobility but also their baseness. For example there is a thriving trade in fake pharmaceuticals because some people will find a business opportunity in any circumstances, however dire.  Humans can be just as inhuman as the zombies, yet others display nobility and sacrifice.  Old statuses are irrelevant in this world.  People who can make things and do things are valued, sales managers less so.  Laissez-faire capitalism is shown to be useless in fighting total war; a command economy is necessary to get things done.

Zombies turn the world upside down, with Cuba on top economically at the end.  The First World countries by contrast struggle.  A zombie apocalypse would drastically rearrange international relations, all current socio-economic strengths and weakness discarded in favour of new values based on the survival methods adopted by a society.  Ironically the enormously expensive weapons systems deployed by the US are wholly ineffectual in the new war situation, requiring a complete rethink in terms of equipment and strategy.  It feels uncomfortably like a metaphor for asymmetric warfare in which battlefield weapons are irrelevant in the face of an inexorable enemy who attacks from within and will not participate in diplomacy.

Brooks identifies a curious group that would arise as a result of the zombies – Quislings.  This is a psychological condition which leads non-zombies to identify with the undead and mimic them completely, to the extent of biting the uninfected (though of course without the automatically lethal outcome a genuine zombie-inflicted injury would have).  It has its limitations, because the living are going to assume they are zombies, while to the zombies they are still alive and therefore targets.  Attempts to rehabilitate Quislings have patchy success.

Frankly that sounds unlikely, but who knows.  Another phenomenon, once perhaps more likely to happen, is Asymptomatic Demise Syndrome, or Apocalyptic Despair Syndrome (you can see which one was coined by boffins and which one by ordinary people).  The victim goes to sleep and does not wake up; after prolonged stress with no end in sight the organism simply gives up the struggle.  The most effective cure it turns out is hope, in this case supplied by propaganda films.  These morale boosters cut the incidence of ADS hugely.  There is a reminder also that shooting zombies in the head would take its toll, just as shooting live people does, with PTSD a factor in combat veterans.

One section left me wondering if anyone reading about characters who share their nationality will find those characters unconvincing.  There is an English person who talks about the role of castles in the zombie war.  He was holed up at Windsor when England was overrun, and it is clear the Queen was there as well.  There is a toe-curling description of her determination not to run, like her parents staying in London during the Blitz, a schmaltzy paean to how Her Majesty pulled her people together, protecting the soul of the nation.

More successfully there is an amusing in-joke in one of the interviews.  The interviewee is discussing misinformation and myths that inevitably arise in the fog of war, and the effort needed to debunk them.  ‘The civilian survival guide helped, but was still severely limited…. You could see it was clearly written by an American, the references to SUVs and personal firearms.  There was no taking into account the cultural differences…’ (p.197)  That is presumably The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, by Brooks himself, originally published in 2004, two years before World War Z.

The novel’s use of multiple narrators allows Max Brooks to cover the flow of the war, from first inklings of a crisis to a kind of victory over the living dead.  The fast-paced film version tries to emulate the book’s episodic nature, but by singling out one person moving from zone to zone it cannot find a satisfactory resolution to a story about zombies engulfing the entire planet because that would mean shifting the focus from the protagonist.  However, where the film carries the viewer with its dramatic set pieces, the result of the book’s documentary treatment is a bitty narrative which follows the course of the war but cannot sustain any kind of build-up because tension is reset at the start of each interview.   Those through whom the story of how humanity is nearly destroyed unfolds are never given the opportunity to develop, even when we return to them at a later point in the prosecution of the war, being mouthpieces to convey parts of a jigsaw.

It would be going too far to say this is a prescient analysis of future geopolitics because the thing about zombies is that they change the rules by which these things are done, though Brooks is probably correct in seeing a shift in power from the US and western Europe to other areas of the globe, notably ones with the highest fertility and who are not necessarily in sympathy with the ideals of western liberal democracy.  Those changes will happen, zombies or not.  One thing for sure after World War Z is concluded is that there will be a lot more space for everybody, although whether we will learn to get along with each other better than before is another matter.


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