Sunday, May 10, 2009

world war z

Not so long ago, I decided to join GoodReads, a pseudo-social networking site for book lovers. Mostly, a repository of reviews and recommendations, a place for friends to share their thoughts on what they've been reading. About the best thing I can say for GoodReads is that it's not ubiquitously "in-your-face" like MySpace and Facebook. I have also benefited greatly by receiving graphic novel recs from my friend, DP.

GoodReads, predictably, has an unhealthy obsession with lists. As in, the "Best Books Ever," etc. These are generated by users' votes and ratings, so as long as one views them for what they are (heavily biased popularity contests), one can avoid being offended or distractingly bemused (e.g. The Book of Mormon is currently ranked as the 2nd best book of all time, behind To Kill a Mockingbird). Indeed, lists like these can even be viewed as windows into the diseased collective unconscious of American society.

Regardless, the point of this exposition is that I stumbled upon a ranking of the Best Zombie books and was intrigued by #1: World War Z: an Oral History of the Zombie War. Like others, I suspect, I was initially turned off by the fact that it was written by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks), who generated the mostly fluff Zombie Survival Guide. I wasn't in the market for a coffee-table novelty. But solid and surprising reviews convinced me to take a chance - and now having finished World War Z, I can say in 100% seriousness that this may very well be the best book I've read this year.

World War Z recounts a fictional war against a zombie horde, set in our time and the near future. It is told in Studs Terkel style, via transcripts of oral interviews with key personages involved in the conflict. Perhaps its greatest strength is that World War Z takes its topic very seriously. Nothing in this book is done "tongue-in-cheek" and there's a consistent effort throughout to convince you of the reality and horror of this fictional war. Furthermore, Brooks takes the opportunity to fire off some well-aimed critiques on various facets of contemporary society, including Pharm industry greed, the conservative nature of our military, and our collapse into consumerism-malaise. It's a surprisingly eloquent and engaging piece of work - and it's about the Zombie Apocalypse.

The outbreak begins in the interior of China for reasons that are never quite explained. But zombie-ism spreads with alarming rapidity, crossing international borders as more and more people attempt to escape from remote villages and areas that have become over-run with the walking dead. South Africa gets hit early as well, leading to initial, misguided theories that the disease is a new form of African rabies. Of course, no one takes the possibility of Undead seriously until the situation is out of control. Israel is the first nation to set up an official quarantine, which sparks a brief but bloody internal civil war. This particular section of the book highlights Brook's commendable ability to successfully weave modern issues of international policy and conflict (Arab-Israeli tension, political factions within Israel, etc.) into his narrative. At its best, World War Z reads like a thoroughly convincing alternative history.

The plot progresses as the plague spreads around the world, nations finally recognize the threat they're faced with, a "Great Panic" ensues, and zombies nearly push the human race to extinction. There are sections which are very horror genre, except that they're relayed via interviews, which infuses them with a greater sense of objectivity and weight. From "The Great Panic":

"It stretched to the horizon: sedans, trucks, buses, RV's, anything that could drive... People were flashing their lights, bumping the cars in front of them, getting out and throwing down. I saw a few people lying by the side of the road, barely moving or not at all. People were running past them, carrying stuff, carrying children, or just running, all in the same direction of the traffic. A few miles later, I saw why. Those creatures were swarming among the cars... People couldn't open their doors. The cars were too tightly packed. I saw those things reach in open windows, pulling people out or pulling themselves in. A lot of drivers were trapped inside. Their doors were shut and, I'm assuming, locked. Their windows were rolled up, it was safety tempered glass. The dead couldn't get in, but the living couldn't get out. I saw a few people panic, try to shoot through their windshields, destroying the only protection they had..."

The United States responds too slowly to the threat and is nearly consumed. This is largely because Americans were exhausted from recently extracting themselves from a bloody "brush war" (never explicitly identified). But clearly, these references are meant to link the apocryphal zombie narrative to our own universe and time-frame.

"After this last war, no amount of incentives could fill our depleted ranks, no payment bonuses or term reductions, or online recruitment tools disguised as civilian video games. This generation had had enough, and that's why when the undead began to devour our country, we were almost too weak and vulnerable to stop them."

The plan to eventually counter the zombie-tide is brilliant and chilling. Originally devised by a white South African, Redeker, various manifestations of it are adopted by nearly all the world's nations.

"First of all, there was no way to save everyone... Our forces had to be consolidated, withdrawn to a special 'safe zone,' which hopefully, would be aided by some natural obstacles such as mountains, rivers, or even an offshore island. Once concentrated in this zone, the armed forces could eradicate the infestation within its borders, then use what resources were available to defend it against further onslaughts of the living dead... The second part of the plan dealt with the evacuation of civilians... In his mind, only a small fraction of the civilian population could be evacuated to the safe zone. These people would be saved not only to provide a labor pool for the eventual wartime economic restoration, but also to preserve the legitimacy and stability of the government, to prove to those already within the zone that their leaders were 'looking out for them...' Those who were left behind were to be herded into special isolated zones. They were to be 'human bait,' distracting the undead from following the retreating army to their safe zone."

Without wanting to give away too many spoilers, it's interesting to see how Brooks uses various zombie survival guide factoids to envision how humans might be able to successfully combat a horde of unthinking, unfeeling corpses. Some things to consider:

  • Zombies can walk through water, indefinitely. Thus, they can cross oceans given enough time.
  • Zombies feel no fear and cannot be routed.
  • To kill a zombie requires destruction of the brain: head-shots, incineration, etc. Collateral injuries (including amputations) are ineffective.
  • Zombies freeze in the winter and thaw in the spring.

World War Z is absolutely great fun. Every chapter introduces a new element to the drama, showcases a different facet of the war. We learn about Cuba's wartime economy fueling the industrial-military response that eventually succeeds in pushing the zombies back. We see the importance of propaganda (with a discussion of the war film, "Victory at Avalon: The Battle at the Five Colleges" about a famous siege in Claremont), especially against an enemy that inspires such fear and revulsion in human soldiers. We see the Russian government respond with strict totalitarian cruelty as they struggle to prevent mass defection among their troops. And we eventually see how humans figure out a way to stop the zombie horde and restart their civilization - maybe even having learned a few important lessons along the way.

One of my favorite chapters describes the post-Panic struggle in America to establish a war economy, once a safe zone is set up behind the Rocky Mountains. Getting a workforce up-and-running, building weapons, growing food to support the war effort.

"To be perfectly candid, our supply of talent was at a critical low. Ours was a postindustrial or service-based economy, so complex and highly specialized that each individual could only function within the confines of its narrow, compartmentalized structure. You should have seen some of the 'careers' listed on our first employment census; everyone was some version of an 'executive,' a 'representative,' an 'analyst,' or a 'consultant,' all perfectly suited to the prewar world, but all totally inadequate for the present crisis. We needed carpenters, masons, machinists, gunsmiths... The first labor survey stated clearly that over 65 percent of the present civilian workforce were classified F-6, possessing no valued vocation. We required a massive job re-trained program. In short, we needed to get a lot of white collars dirty."

And who do we turn to for help? The immigrants, of course.

"A great many of our instructors were first-generation immigrants. These were the people who knew how to take care of themselves, how to survive on very little and work with what they had. These were the people who tended small gardens in their backyards, who repaired their own homes, who kept their appliances running for as long as mechanically possible. It was crucial that these people teach the rest of us to break from our comfortable, disposable consumer lifestyle even though their labor had allowed us to maintain that lifestyle in the first place."

Brooks periodically lapses into sophomoric dialogue, and doesn't entirely succeed at capturing the individual voices of people who are supposed to be culturally very different from one another. But overall, the amount of research and thought that clearly went into this book is impressive. Needless to say, great summer reading. And not surprisingly, soon to be transformed into a feature-length film which has the potential - dare I say - to be quite good.

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