Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

22 July 2011

(Novel) World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by: Max Brooks

(Reaction) Is it safe to come out yet by: Jose Angelo Singson

Ever since George Romero first released his horror masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead, the zombie has been seared into the collective imagination and collective fears of people everywhere.

At first blush the zombie really isn't something to be worried about. It's slow, clumsy, none too strong and about as bright as a Styrofoam cup. Depending on the circumstances of how the zombie died prior to re-animation, it may not be too bad looking either; especially if the person was good-looking and all they got was a shallow bite at the extremities. All things considered, a zombie may only prove to be a significant threat to say an elderly person or someone who has some general difficulty moving about.

A horde of zombies on the other hand is another matter entirely, but then again anything that comes in vast numbers is frightening, calling to mind the plagues sent by God upon the Egyptians in the Bible (One frog? Bah. Frogs overrunning everything as far as the eye can see? Get me a new pair of pants, I have officially soiled myself.).

Perhaps the most debilitating effect that the zombie can inflict on a human soul is to cause it to doubt the very cornerstone of human existence: his faith. All forms of human faiths have some eschatological doctrines; a set of dogmas that try to explain the human condition once life expires.

The very existence of a zombie ridicules human faith. The dead are no longer peaceful, silent reminders of from dust ye came, to dust shall ye return again. The dead are now agents of death and extinction. To mourn for loved ones that have perished is now a luxury that is in many situations unavailable. Survivors are left with uncomfortable questions: where is the promise of paradise? or the most riveting where is my kind and loving God?

This immense shaking of faith, not just in a deity but in organized society and overall, life as people knew it before the zombie apocalypse resulted in a type of soul death chronicled in World War Z as a fictional condition called Apocalyptic Despair Syndrome or Asymptomatic Demise Syndrome. ADS was the name given to the phenomenon of extremely depressed or distressed survivors suddenly dying in their sleep with no pathological or physiological cause of death to be found. Literally, people were giving up the ghost despite being in safe-zones. I took the description of this disease as the human body simply following the way of the human soul when it no longer sees a world fit to live in or a life that is simply no longer worth living.

In the novel, the reason behind the re-animation of corpses is ascribed to a fictional incurable virus called Solanum but throughout the novel several different characters keep asking the question why? They know re-animation happens because of the mutative capabilities of the virus and yet they keep asking why As one reads further into the novel one slowly begins to understand that the question of why? is being asked not because they do not understand what causes the dead people to come back as monsters but rather it is asked as a collective cry of disbelief; a aggregate voicing out of the desire to make sense of the current situation.

Later on the question why becomes a communal expression of the disgust and incredulity of the apparent repealing of the most basic biological law: dead things stay dead. The constant questioning of why is a collective heart cry of anguish the characters feel at having the most primordial of life condition, which is that life ends, become null and void in the presence of a microscopic chain of proteins called Solanum.

There are three themes that standout in the novel:

The novel World War Z takes several sharp jabs at the current situation of the world, in fact this theme that permeates most of the novel nearly in direct competition with the horror element of the story. The author does not make attempts to conceal his dislike of government bureaucracy. Many American characters blame the United States' inability to counter the zombie threat on low confidence in the government spawned by conflicts in the Middle East. A character in the novel tries to justify lying about the zombie outbreak to avoid widespread panic and hysteria, while at the same time failing to come up with a solution out of fear of arousing the public's wrath.

There's a section in the book where the author interviews Breckenridge Breck Scott, who developed and sold a rabies vaccine labeled Phalanx during the Great Panic (a term used in the novel to describe the early years of the zombie apocalypse). The character admits to the vaccine to being useless against the Solanum virus, essentially a placebo, but sold it anyway and using the profits he holed himself up in a high-tech bio dome habitat deep in the arctic where it's too cold for the zombies to function. It is striking that the character admits to having felt no remorse for having lied to the general populace about his product. Breck Scott is just one manifestation of The Man (the nameless, faceless bureaucratic authority figure) that the author openly criticizes throughout the novel.

One of the most salient of Brook's social commentaries is about how people have, despite the immense improvements in communication technology, become even better at isolating themselves from society.

There was a conversation between the author and Tatsumi Kondo, a survivor of the zombie war. During the time of the interview Kondo was an athletic, ever-alert, combat-savvy warrior monk but as an interesting twist he shows the author a picture of himself prior to the zombie apocalypse. The photograph reveals a skinny, pimply teenager with dull, vacant eyes and messy, poorly-dyed, bleach blond hair; a virtual poster boy for computer geekdom.

Such a vastly different Tatsumi Kondo that he literally has to convince the author that the boy in the picture was indeed him. Being a computer nerd, he had spent the early months of the Great Panic online, obsessively gathering information about the zombie attacks as his way of coping, or rather escaping reality. Reality eventually caught up with him one morning, as Tatsumi Kondo woke up to find that his parents were missing, there was no electricity, and no internet. He literally suffers from a quick mental breakdown at this point, the rug almost literally pulled out from under him.

I was struck by this scene in the novel where he was literally screaming at the modem and computer to switch on with the desperation of a drug addict suffering through withdrawal symptoms. Kondo was heard by several ghouls who then tried to get into his apartment. This snaps him back into reality and he then decides to make his survival his primary and sole objective.

It is interesting to note that prior to the zombie outbreak anomie, a term in sociology meaning "a personal feeling of a lack of social norms; normlessness" was already present in society. Anomie, describes the breakdown of social norms and values. This idea is crystallized in the example of pre-apocalypse Tatsumi Kondo, a computer geek and super-recluse. Prior to the appearance of zombies, survival was an extant condition that required little or no thinking. There was food to be had and technology that made the rigors of living ridiculously easy. This lack of external stimulus turned the act of surviving into a trivial matter. It is also interesting to note that in modern Japan there is a real phenomenon where people seek extreme degrees of isolation and confinement because of various personal and social factors in their lives. Japanese sociologists have coined this extreme social withdrawal as hikikomori.

As the story progresses and the zombie outbreak worsens; human society begins to deteriorate even more rapidly and the theme shifts from social commentary to survival at all costs. The novel details the lengths that people have gone just to stay alive during the early days of the great panic. There are mentions of people forming into bands of nomadic raiders, capitalizing upon the confusion and chaos that the zombies brought to pillage, murder and worse. This time the author makes a remark about the short-sightedness of modern urbanized society. Upon hearing that zombies couldn't endure in freezing conditions survivors started evacuating en masse to the northern portions of the US near the Canadian border.

This area of the North American Continent is lined with forests. This portion of the novel features Jessica Hendricks an American volunteer in Canadian wilderness. Her family was one of the survivors that had fled to the Canadian border when she was a young girl. She narrates her family's road trip up to Canada and the initial community spirit of the refugee area. Her recounting becomes more gruesome as she describes the community's descent into violence, anarchy and eventually cannibalism. She speaks as a victim of the rather heartless but effective plan adopted by the governments all over the world that defeated the zombies. The plan was to defend a small area of their countries, usually centers of political or economic importance, and leave the majority of their citizens to deal with the plague by themselves. These isolated pockets served as a distraction for the zombies, enabling the government to gather its forces for a counterattack. Jessica roots through the remains of what was once the campsite of the survivors noting how painfully unprepared they were for the rigors of life in the wilderness, for life apart from their gadgets and pre-prepared everything. She accentuates this fact when she cynically remarks who brings DVD's as part of 'survival essentials'? after finding some discarded DVD cases among the debris of the campsite she spent part of her youth in.

Paranoia though, a deep rooted, all-encompassing paranoia, is the overall theme of the novel. Nowhere is truly safe and even during the early parts of the novel when the Great Panic was still in its infancy there was already a general unease in the atmosphere; economic uncertainty because of the war in the middle east, shaky international relations, an uncertain sort of fear that hung over everything like a drape, then the first news of zombie attacks started to hit the airwaves. In a portion of the novel Palestinian youth living in Kuwait refuses to believe that the dead are rising fearing it is a trick by Israel illustrating the excessive wariness that nations had prior to the zombie apocalypse. Despite all this wariness though, many nations were still caught unaware.

When the Great Panic came and was in full swing the covert paranoia was now replaced with a real, tangible threat. People were no longer concerned about faceless terrorist organizations that used conventional weapons to destroy the peace. Now they had to deal with a very real enemy. An enemy that doesn't tire, feel pain, become afraid, doesn't need resources, cannot be reasoned with and grows more numerous with every person that passes away?

All these things that I've mentioned are valid reasons to fear the zombies but out of all these reasons the one that creates the most fear is the zombies' relentless and reasonless appetite for destruction. Terrorists have an ideology that they would like to impose on people. If one were passive enough and willing to submit, there would be a mockery of peace and order but peace and order nonetheless. Film monsters like vampires and werewolves were vicious, predatory creatures but even they operated within certain parameters. Even with their physical superiority they still try to blend in with human society and even when they kill, they do so with a careful, methodical logic: no killing too often, no overt violence, no depleting the hunting grounds etc... The zombie has no regard for these regulations. Like a virus they consume resources and multiply. This is the only objective for them and it is this mindlessness and fanatical pursuit of the goal of the zombie that fuels the paranoia of the novel.

Having said that, what makes the zombie such an effective agent of horror? What is it about a shambling parody of life that makes it such an efficient instrument of overwhelming terror? After much deliberation I have finally come to this conclusion: the zombie or rather the concept of a zombie, as defined in the George Romero films and subsequent takes thereafter, grabs conventional human wisdom by the head, flips it upside-down and plants said head firmly in the soil. It isn't the primal fear of being eaten and losing the position of apex predator that frightens but it is the fear of what cannot be understood given standard human reasoning and the cold, inhuman, mindless drive for destruction that pushes it. This is what the zombie has come to represent: the limitation of man's typical grasp of matters biological, medical, military, and to a great extent, spiritual.

Although time and again popular culture has tried to explain or give some semi-plausible explanation to humans expiring then rising from the dead as flesh-eating automatons it still doesn't satisfy the questions raised by the rational human mind. When a fire breaks out or when crops fail and these matters are attributed to arson and bad weather respectively, one stops asking. One is fully satisfied by the answers: fire was caused by a person, crop failure due to meteorological phenomenon not subject to human control. No further questions asked. Biologically and medically, from a real-world standpoint at least, we know that such a thing (re-animation due to viral infection/mutation) is impossible and improbable. Remove impossible and improbable and you get yourself an excellent plot tool for a horror novel because you in effect, produced an enemy that is not subject to most of the unwritten laws that humans abide by.

The zombie makes a mockery of standard battle doctrines and tactics. Soldiers are trained to fire at the central mass of a human body, i.e. the torso because this is the largest, most easily hit target. The human head on the other hand is a small target, and will often be the most well protected and well hidden part of a soldier's body. In close combat situations, soldiers are trained to strike at vital points, i.e. parts of the human anatomy that cause incapacitating pain such as the genitals or the nose or affect sensory perception such as the eyes or the ears. Many combat strategies applied in large-scale warfare are formulated to keep the fighting from escalating into an attrition war. Armies are trained to fight and ultimately kill yes, but if they can win by intimidation without needing to kill their opponents or by securing some kind of leverage that will turn the tide of battle then they pursue that course of action. War is expensive, that is a fact. When it comes down to it, people would really much like to keep losses to a minimum. The total annihilation of an enemy army is hardly ever pursued. So how do you deal with an enemy force that can only be stopped by massive damage to the head, doesn't tire, feel pain, become afraid, doesn't need resources, cannot be reasoned with and to make matters worse, grows more numerous with every soldier of yours that passes away?


The novel is written ala Studs Terkel oral histories. This was for me, a major draw as it was a refreshing departure from the normal narrative. World War Z is a compilation of individual accounts relayed in the form of first-person anecdote. This gave it a very human touch and made for an easy read. The author, Max Brooks, plays the role of an agent of the United Nations Postwar Commission who published the report a decade after the Zombie War. The interviews chart a decade-long war against zombies from the view point of many different people of various nationalities and social status. The individual reports also describe the changes in the religious, social and geo-political setting of the world in the novel as well as the environmental effects of the Zombie War.

The world we live in, the one without zombies, is every bit as crazy, every bit as dangerous as the world in the novel; the one teeming with zombies. In an interview Brooks states that at this point we're pretty much living in an irrational time, full of human suffering and lacking reason or logic.

In a subsequent interview, the author was asked about how he would compare terrorists with zombies, Brooks said: The lack of rational thought has always scared me when it came to zombies, the idea that there is no middle ground, no room for negotiation. That has always terrified me. Of course that applies to terrorists, but it can also apply to a hurricane, or flu pandemic, or the potential earthquake that I grew up with living in L.A. Any kind of mindless extremism scares me, and we're living in some pretty extreme times.

I included excerpts from interviews with the author to give you a peep in to the mind of a man that is afraid of everything and this spills over to his novel.

To describe the novel in a word: cynical, deeply, unrelentingly cynical. If cynicism were an odor you could seal the book up in a mason jar, wrap it in cement, dump it in a lake and still you'd smell it. The book is, in essence, a collection of 1st-hand accounts of people that have been living in fear and then literally, living with fear.

Mind you, this doesn't mean that the novel isn't an enjoyable read. It is exciting and well researched. The innovative multiple-character, first person narrative format frees you from the feeling that you are reading a book. Instead, it feels like you are being told an urban legend that was heard by a friend from a friend that heard it from another friend... The pervasiveness of the cynicism however made for a rather depressing read. Then again, it is a post-apocalyptic zombie novel and when have you known a zombie anything to have a happy ending?

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