Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ourselves in the Zombie Wars

A certain subculture exists out there in the tangled knot of culture that is The Nerd — a culture of people who read of, write of, speak of, and prepare for the return of the dead. Not a religious reincarnation, not a Biblical resurrection, but the living dead, the waking corpse plague. Zombies.

Max Brooks, son of Mel Brooks, wrote a book in 2006 called World War Z, an “Oral History of the Zombie War.” Released to fairly decent critical praise, the book is a series of small interconnected short stories that take the form of interviews with characters who, in one way or another, have survived the Zombie Apocalypse.

In the beginning, the book follows all the trends of zombies. The plague begins, somewhere in the depths of Africa. The plague spreads, and governments begin to fight, ineffectively, against the living dead. People rush to wherever they feel safe, only to encounter zombies there, or other hazards of terrain, overcrowding, weather, violence, disease, or any number of threats.

This is where the typical zombie story branches off. The usual focus is on a single person or small group as they fight to survive the hopeless flood. World War Z goes an entirely different route. It begins where most others end. Max Brooks has written a masterful image of the world as it would be if the dead begin to rise. The zombies themselves are almost incidental. World War Z is not a novel about zombies and a few people who fight them; it’s a novel about a world dealing with a problem unlike any every seen.

(Think really hard here — any allegories come to mind for a real-life biological threat that the world has never grappled with before, and is just beginning to face now? Keep thinking… you’re getting warmer and warmer….)

We find out from the introduction that this oral history is being compiled twelve years after the war has ended. Zombies came; humanity fought. Millions upon millions of lives are lost, but humanity pulls through. Our narrator travels the world, interviewing people who survived about how and what they did, what they think of it all, and how they’re living in the new world that’s forming around them. We find interviews with Russian soldiers, a Chinese doctor, an Indian smuggler, a Mercenary hired as a bodyguard, and even a soccer mom from Montana. Each has a unique story to tell.

World War Z takes great pains to be realistic. There’s no super-cure for the zombie disease. The military isn’t an all-powerful entity with unlimited weaponry and unflinching soldiers. They’re a woefully unprepared group of men and women just as afraid as everyone else. Conventional weapons of war don’t work; a disaster at Yonkers shows how weapons are designed to injure rather than kill. Against an enemy that isn’t slowed by disembowelment, the weapons are all but useless.

Brooks’ novel is a delightfully horrifying commentary on society. The inept and unprepared bureaucratic governments of the world crumble, unprepared for the threat. An opportunist, in the first days of the plague, markets and sells a vaccine and uses the money to lease a safe house in the Arctic for himself. Soldiers face a choice; to kill one of their own, bitten in the line of duty, or leave him to suffer. The novel even pokes fun at the subculture from which it was spawned, with a scene of a barricaded college where students held out and survived with makeshift weaponry and cultivated gardens on campus grounds, waiting for the rest of the world to come save them. What other community but a campus full of Nerds is best suited to survive?

We also get iconic American bravado; just when the world is beginning to settle into a few isolated islands, the U.S. President delivers a rousing speech and persuades the nations to fight back, to retake the land that was once theirs. Faced with insurmountable odds, they still wish to fight. This is a nice little bit of 2006 optimism for a 2008 national election when someone whose speeches could inspire, rather than confuse or misrepresent, would come along. It also shows the novelist’s own sense of hope for a changed future, and for a reclaimed country able to lead again.

In the Reagan “greed is good” era, Bret Easton Ellis gave us American Psycho as an allegory for a time when everything — including fellow humans — was a commodity to be used up and destroyed for personal amusement. In the Bush “corruption is rampant” era, Max Brooks gave us an even more powerful allegory for a planet’s ability to persevere against deadly odds, once it finds its resolve to win.

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