Monday, June 18, 2007

That Was the Zombie War That Was


It’s an article of faith among fans that any time science fiction says something important, it is not taken seriously outside the fan community. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War fits this model, as novels with much larger palettes (Dune and Foundation) did before it.

Author Max Brooks sets World War Z 10 years after the last major world power has subdued a plague of zombies, which occurs sometime in the near future. It includes wide-ranging interviews with those who survived the decade-long war against the undead, putting the novel’s “present” somewhere around 2030 and gazing back at the 2010s.

Brooks’s zombies are pure George Romero: mindless yet strong, vulnerable only if you destroy the brain. Hungry. They spread, of course, by killing and partially eating victims who then return to ‘life’ as zombies themselves. They generally cannot climb obstacles, and the moans of one attract others within earshot to an unlimited extent.

But zombies are just the gory gift-wrap for some acute social commentary. Like Warner Brothers cartoons featuring smart-aleck rabbits and overconfident coyotes, World War Z works on several levels. For teenagers and young adults, Brooks paints a pulp picture of the near-destruction of humanity.

For adults who think about U.S. society and international relations, the book has a second level:

Take a threat with X qualities (add robustness and strength to normal humans; subtract reason, speed and tool use; the zombie disease spreads by direct contact). How will X threat affect Y type of society (post-industrial, high-tech, increasingly insular)?

Seen through this lens, World War Z is an examination of society’s weaknesses and strengths relative to that threat.

The zombies overrun large sections of the earth, including the entire U.S. east of the Rockies, before humanity manages to counterattack years later. World trade collapses, and widespread fires combine with a small nuclear exchange to drop global temperatures 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit.

Various societal weaknesses aid the zombies’ rise:

The high-speed international trade in bodily organs speeds zombies’ spread via transplants—especially from China, where the zombie plague is thought to originate. It also makes advanced Western hospitals the sites of zombie outbreaks, quickly crippling nations’ medical capabilities.

First-world militaries’ shock-and-awe attacks fail against opponents that cannot be shocked and awed (read as “non-deterrable” in current jargon).

Training riflemen to aim for center body mass, rather than to take head shots, also works against human forces.

Many spend time Googling for answers rather than grappling with physical-world factors that could help them escape or fight the zombies.

A sedentary class of white-collar workers is useless to a society that suddenly must fight a large-scale infantry war. Physical stamina and blue-collar skills (as farmers, machinists, factory workers, etc.) are suddenly highly prized, leading to general social upheaval.

The unwillingness of some societies to accept an unimaginable threat causes much unnecessary death, adding to the zombies’ numbers. For example, many Arabs initially believe the zombie plague is merely a Zionist lie.

China’s penchant for secrecy catches up with it, as it successfully deceives foreign intelligence agencies into thinking that early zombie outbreaks are themselves rumors spread by the PRC government to hide a massive political purge.

On the other hand, various societal strengths help humanity eventually beat the zombies:

White South African paranoia emerges as the unlikeliest virtue, in the form of an apartheid-era plan that becomes the basis of each country’s merciless decisions about which human groups to protect and which to abandon, essentially as bait, so that others may reach safety.

As with invaders throughout history, even one that gets behind its lines, Russia’s vast interior and unforgiving winters give it periodic respite from the zombie invasion (the zombies are inanimate when frozen, then thaw each spring).

After a disastrous opening engagement in Yonkers, N.Y., the U.S. military completely redesigns its weaponry, doctrine and training to fight a years-long war on foot, which sweeps the U.S. from west to east. Needless to say, this infantry focus does not please the Air Force, whose high-tech weapons platforms are now useless and largely mothballed in favor of low-tech aerial resupply.

Max Brooks had previously written The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, which treated episodes from horror movies as straight-faced fact and showed how one could avoid the mistakes that caused the deaths (and undeaths) of so many B-movie actors. World War Z is a logical brand extension—but one that also happens to illuminate some of our current world societies’ weaknesses.

I contacted Brooks’s publicists about an interview for Beacon in which we could discuss this further—does he realize this is the most entertaining social commentary in years?—but they replied that Brooks won’t be doing interviews until the fall release of the World War Z paperback. I’ll try and get hold of him then.

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