The Long View: World War Z

World War Z remains one of my favorite books. I liked Brooks’ device of an oral history, and I enjoyed the wide variety of characters we meet through the “interviews”. As with so much of my favorite fiction, the characters seem like real people you could meet somewhere, or maybe have met somewhere, sometime.

I also enjoyed how the book is a covert paean to American greatness, positing a challenge to which we moderns can rise to meet, like unto our grandfathers. While technological mastery is a part of the final victory, organizational mastery is even more important. Some of the most lovingly crafted sections of the book are the descriptions of how the economy was put on a war footing using the techniques of Germany and Great Britain in the Great War.

The Brad Pitt movie version of World War Z was enjoyable, but for me, not nearly as good as this book. They didn’t even use any of the best scenes that John Reilly described in his review. Ah well.

World War Z:
An Oral History of the Zombie War
By Max Brooks
Crown Publishers, 2006
342 Pages, US$24.95
ISBN 0-307-34660-9

Clausewitz posited the concept of "pure war" simply as a theoretical boundary to military activity. It could never be achieved in reality, he thought, because it would mean annihilation for its own sake, an absence of politics either within or between the belligerents. No such enemy was imaginable. At any rate, no such enemy was imagined until Max Brooks wrote World War Z, a wonderfully inventive and fast-paced pseudo-history of a war that almost ends the human race. What we have here is a genuinely new idea in imaginative fiction: The Pure Enemy.

That's not to say that carnivorously inclined zombies are new. They had been shambling across movie screens and the pages of fiction even before George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). Nonetheless, they have rarely received anything like the lovingly detailed treatment that vampires or even werewolves have enjoyed. Brooks (son of Mel, by the way) has written an earlier book, The Zombie Survival Guide, that fleshes out the subject. For the purposes of World War Z, however, there is little we really need to know:

Zombies have no memories, no language, no culture, no lairs. The invariably fatal zombie virus is transmitted by bites or scratches. When the infected person dies of the disease, or for some other reason after they have been infected, the body quickly reanimates. It immediately seeks out the living to eat, or at least to consume: zombies can no more digest than they can breathe. They decay very slowly, especially the ones on the bottom of the sea, from which they sometimes emerge after walking remarkable distances. They can be killed (well, de-animated) only by destroying their brains. Individually, they are not formidable. The nearly fatal danger to the human race comes from their habit of swarming. They give off a low moan when they become aware of the presence of the living, thus alerting other zombies, who in turn alert other zombies, to join in the pursuit. By this means, the undead can form chains that encompass the former populations of whole cities, or indeed of continents.

That said, World War Z is worth reading not because of these tinkertoy nightmares, but because of the ingenious way in which the author projects a struggle comparable to the Second World War onto the lives of the grandchildren of the people who fought in that conflict. As the subtitle suggests, the book uses the device of the "oral history," brief interviews by a single reporter with people all around the world who had lived through a cataclysm that is supposed to have ended, more or less, about a decade before the interviews are conducted. Toward the end of the book, we get this reflection from an ordinary citizen that perhaps best expresses the author's ambitions toward generational drama:

"I wonder what future generations will say about us. My grandparents suffered through the Depression, World War II, then they came home to build the biggest middle class in human history. Lord knows they weren't perfect, but they sure came closest to the American dream. Then my parent's generation came along and fucked it all up---the baby boomers, the 'me' generation. And then you got us. Yeah, we stopped the zombie menace, but we're the ones who let it become a menace in the first place. At least, we're cleaning up our own mess, and maybe that's the best epitaph to hope for. 'Generation Z, they cleaned up their own mess.'"

Just how that mess came to be made is the burden of most of the interviews. The author makes rather direct parallels between the intelligence failures that preceded the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the far more serious failure of the world's major governments to react intelligently, or sometimes at all, to the reports they were receiving about re-animations. The outbreaks spread slowly, over many months, before civil order suddenly collapsed almost everywhere.

The virus was first known as "African Rabies." In reality, it originated in China, where the government had succeeded in covering up news of the initial outbreaks until it was too late. When confused accounts of the disease became public knowledge, panic was avoided for a while by the marketing of a wholly ineffective vaccine. (One of the interviews is with the entrepreneur responsible, apparently the Most Hated Man in the World, at the base in Antarctica he rents from the preoccupied Russian government.) Meanwhile, governments were increasingly unable to suppress the outbreaks that overran rural districts, neighborhoods, and finally major cities. In the United States, the government attempted to reassure the public by giving maximum publicity to the high-tech defense against the mobilized zombies of Manhattan. In the resulting Battle of Yonkers, the Army dissolved on television before an enemy that was not much troubled by anti-personnel weapons or even large explosions. That was the start of the Great Panic.

What makes World War Z so interesting is that there is no easy gimmick that overcomes the zombie threat at the last minute. Neither is there a collapse into post-apocalyptic anarchy, or even much survivalism. Rather, there is a manpower-intensive strategy of retreat to defensible regions, the mobilization of economic resources for a long war, and finally the retaking of undead territory with huge infantry armies of riflemen. In the United States, this meant that a nation that had shrunk to the West Coast and Hawaii had to deal with the 200-million zombies east of the Rocky Mountains. Worldwide, victory in this conflict meant that the number of member states in the United Nations General Assembly had been more than cut in half, and large parts of the world were still wholly in the hands of the dead.

The film rights to this book have long since been sold, so we may speculate about which elements of the book will make it into the screenplay. The most filmable incidents take place in the collapse-phase of the war. One feels sure that the film will include the Decameron-like reality show that is overthrown, not by the undead, but by its own audience. It also is very likely that we will see the teenage otaku realize that his parents are not coming home and his Internet access is down permanently; then we will follow him for a while as he rappels down the wall of his zombie-infested high-rise apartment building and sets out to acquire a samurai sword and a blind sensei. The defense of Windsor Castle (the queen refuses to retreat with her government to Scotland) may be worth a few scenes, especially with the suddenly useful medieval body-armor and pikes. One suspects, though, that the chief action of the film will focus on the Battle of Five Colleges, a self-organized defense by the students of a group of colleges in California that ensured the central part of the state would not become zombieland. For theme music, the author draws our attention to "Avalon" by Roxie Music.

The colleges, by the way, are members of the Claremont group, the great citadel of Straussianism. One hopes the screenwriters will have a faculty member remark that the equality among the zombies perfectly realizes the eschatology of Alexandre Kojève: spiteful, but true.

Finally, anyone contemporary with the time in which this book was written will note that it expresses the free-floating anxiety of the early 21st century. The term "War on Terror" may leave something to be desired as an expression of the strategic situation, but the term survives because the word "terror" has resonance.

Let us not overly psychologize the situation. Certainly there is a quite real jihadist threat to the West. It is associated with a cult of homicidal martyrdom: in effect, it is a death cult that is not quite as inhuman as the zombies but very nearly as morbid. However, the current anxiety does not have an obvious human source, as did the anxiety during the crisis of the Depression and World War II. Maybe the current flurry of books about demographic collapse is a product of the dread; maybe the dread is a sublimation of unarticulated anxiety about the collapse. In any case, World War Z works because the enemy is not an ordinary human enemy, as in a Tom Clancy novel about a hypothetical world war. It is about the Pure Enemy, whose face we have not yet seen.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Directed by Reuben Fleischer
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin 


Whenever I watch or read something about zombies these days, I always pay heed to the warning of my friend John Reilly who warned me that zombies have no valuable metaphysical significance. Werewolves are tragic, and vampires have pathos, because they retain their humanity through their transformation, but zombies are just meat puppets. Nothing good will come of the current obsession with them, he warned me.

I know, but I like the genre just the same. It is perhaps something of the temper of the times that the intersection of millennialism, the germ theory of disease, and inchoately materialist metaphysics should coincide to create the zombie movie. The genre has moved quickly of late. George Romero's Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, but remained a cult classic until the mainstream movies of 2002, Resident Evil and 28 Days Later. Now we have a mainstream zombie parody.

I found Zombieland hilarious. I hadn't really expected a zombie movie to be funny, but there you have it. Dark humor, of course, and mostly by way of reference to the genre itself. I wonder whether it is quite as funny to those who haven't see all the terrible movies that preceded this one.  These zombies are really more comical than menacing, but that is just fine.

Nonetheless, a good movie, and perhaps worth seeing even, or especially, by those who are not zombie fans.

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Patient Zero

I posted my review of Patient Zero, by Jonathan Maberry. This is a book I received through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. It is a zombie book featuring Islamic millennialism.

Update 2014/05/24: reposted the review here after a site architecture change inadvertently deleted it.

By Jonathan Maberry
St. Martins Griffin 2009
421 Pages; US$27.00
ISBN 9780312382858

Patient Zero combines two genres that I had not expected, geeky technological thriller and flesh-eating zombies. This ought to be a natural fit, because the readership of the two likely overlaps. However, I had not seen it done before. An unexpected element in this book is its treatment of Islamic terrorism. Maberry described his terrorists believably, and did not need to invent fairy tale mad scientists. In the world of books, the closest comparison is to Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. However, one ought also to look to the world of videogames, with Resident Evil and Left4Dead salient examples. The debt to George Romero is clear. However, among these works, Patient Zero stands out because it posits a believable motivation for those who unleash the zombie apocalypse.

I found Maberry's terrorists quite believable. Their motivations ring true, even if their abilities do not. It is plausible that an evil mastermind could be born in Afghanistan with a unique knack for microbiology and genetic engineering. It is somewhat less plausible that if she were a woman she could acquire the education necessary to make use of her talents. No amount of talent can make up for poor laboratory technique, which is learned by apprenticeship. However, the part that is unbelievable is that you could find that many laboratory technicians in remote Pashtun-speaking villages. That being so, the religious fanaticism that underlies the biological experimentation does not suffer from these difficulties. While Patient Zero could not be considered a treatise on Islam, the basic beliefs of Islam, the Five Pillars, and the Six Articles, are presented accurately. Within this framework, the Islamic interpretation of El Mujahid and Amirah that makes the plot move is not only plausible, but precedented.

The figure of El Mujahid is probably one of the most interesting in the book. There are two Islamic archetypes that he could fit into, the mujaddid or renewer, and al-Mahdi, the rightly guided one. Based on the phonetic similarity, El Mujahid could be intended to be the renewer of Islam that Muhammad predicted would come every one hundred years to invigorate the faithful. The difference could simply be a differing transliteration of the same Arabic word. However, the lengths to which El Mujahid is willing to go fit better with the Mahdi, who is permitted to interpret the Will of Allah directly, even abrogating previous suras of the Qur'an. This would be especially appropriate, since the aim of El Mujahid is to wipe the unbelievers off the face of the earth, and usher in a new era of peace, which is the mission of the Mahdi. However, he does not fit the rest of the archetype, because the Mahdi is preceded by both by al-Dajjal, the deceiver, and Isa bin Maryam, Jesus. Both of these figures are absent in Patient Zero.

The technological and military facets of Patient Zero rise to the level of gadget pr0n. Fortunately for Joe Ledger, our protagonist, his mysterious superior has access to nearly every scientific instrument and weapon known to man, and some that probably are not. Maberry also makes use of his martial arts knowledge to enliven the combat scenes. Let us be honest, much of the fun of the book is in the ability of Joe Ledger to kill zombies in new and unusual ways. Patient Zero is much better than the average zombie work, because we get to see the process by which a competent and knowledgeable public safety agency learns to deal with the living dead. This process is incremental and tactically aware, although it is not technologically limited.

The psychological aspect of the book is good as well. We get to see the deleterious effects not only of dealing with zombies, which is difficult enough, but the very real toll taken on anyone who kills another human being. Maberry does a better job portraying the very human reasons behind the fatal hesitation that kills many a minor character in zombie stories. This alone makes Patient Zero a good read. Many zombie works are poorly characterized, with little grasp of the human realities at play. The Resident Evil videogames are good(bad) examples of this. [don't ask about the execrable movies] Renowned for their terrible scripts, the Resident Evil games are actually very similar to Patient Zero in the premise of a bioweapon unleashed by wicked and power-hungry scientists. Where Patient Zero is better is in the more human responses of the characters, both good and bad. Resident Evil games often feature greed and cupidity as motivations, yet it is often unclear just what monetary or political benefit these evil masterminds will be gaining from the use of a biological weapon. In Patient Zero, the evil capitalist is just the tool of the far more sophisticated religious fanatics, who have a clear idea of exactly what they want and how to get it. Interestingly, the most recent Resident Evil movie, created as a CG followup to Resident Evil 4, is closer to what you get in Patient Zero. I like this turn in zombie works, and I would like it to continue. Patient Zero is highly recommended for zombie fans.

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