April 16, 2014

  • Taking zombies seriously

    A review of World War Z by Max Brooks

    JDN 2456763 PDT 15:26.

    Most media about zombies is relatively frivolous; it’s just there to scare you, or tell a good story, or even make you laugh (think Zombieland or Shawn of the Dead).

    World War Z is not like that. World War Z is a very serious epistolary novel. The tale is told through a long serious of interviews with survivors of, well, “World War Z”, the war against the zombie menace. It could be called a “zombie apocalypse”, yet in its unrelenting realism, World War Z recognizes that humanity would win, eventually. It is a long series of errors and missteps that cost billions of lives before we do, however; and that is what the book is mostly about.

    These zombies are extremely tough: Only damage to the brain will kill them, and explosives are largely ineffective. I found the ineffectiveness of explosives rather implausible, honestly; yes, some explosives are designed to maim humans—claymores, frag grenades—and those wouldn’t be much good against zombies. However, other types of explosives are designed to destroy armored vehicles or structures—hellfires, bunker busters—and many of these latter will essentially annihilate a human body with only tiny fragments left. Need to destroy the brain? There you go, we’ve destroyed the brain and everything within a two-meter radius of the brain. But Max Brooks decided that this would make it too easy, so our explosives are almost completely useless, up to and including nuclear weapons. I guess he needed that in order to have the catastrophic failure at the Battle of Yonkers. A more realistic depiction of the awesome firepower of our military would have had Yonkers end with a massive airstrike and turn the tide of the war.

    I actually get the impression that Brooks has a message to send here: He thinks our awesome military power gives us a false sense of security. He may be right about that—there are plenty of threats to human security that definitely can’t be beaten with massive airstrikes, like disease, resource depletion, fanaticism, and climate change. But zombies? I’m pretty sure we could beat those with massive airstrikes.

    In any case, World War Z isn’t really about zombies. It’s about human beings, and the frailty of the human psyche. The part of the book that rings most true is about the Great Panic, the way that our fear of the zombies becomes exaggerated to the point of triggering a worldwide economic and governmental collapse. Even some of the weirder psychological stories aren’t all that implausible: A major decisionmaker becomes dissociative from the guilt after what he had to do; millions commit suicide or simply give up and die; some people even begin to act like zombies, either hoping to make the zombies leave them alone, or just due to a bizarre mental breakdown. I could easily imagine all these things happening in the face of such terror; think about what happened after 9/11, which was, after all, only 3000 people, roughly the number of people we lose to handguns or auto accidents every month. If a human opponent on the scale of thousands can cause such panic, imagine what a fundamentally inhuman opponent on the scale of millions or billions could do.

    Then again… maybe a human opponent is more terrifying after all. This may be why I was never all that interested in zombie fiction; zombies aren’t as terrifying as human beings can be. Even the robots and aliens that interest me are those who are full sapient beings, who may not think quite like us, but definitely do think. (That’s what made the new Battlestar Galactica so much better than the original.) Zombies are mindless, aimless, pure destruction. That makes it easy: You can’t negotiate, you can’t surrender; you just fight until one side is dead.

    The main fear involves the possibility of becoming one, which is certainly frightening; but when you’re dealing with human opponents there’s a far more terrifying possibility: You may already be one. Nazis and Al Qaeda are made of the same stuff as you and me; they walk like us, talk like us, are us with just a few minor changes. Facing that kind of enemy forces us to confront the fact that in their place we would have done the same. Of course we work very hard to block that out; propaganda campaigns have always tried to dehumanize the enemy. These campaigns do succeed to some extent, but they can’t succeed all the way; deep down, I think most people still feel the humanity of their enemies even as they fight them, and much of the trauma of war comes ultimately from this. A Nazi might be your uncle, your sister, your friend; and while a zombie might have been those things, you know they aren’t anymore and nothing can be done to change that. (The fact that they are currently in the process of decomposition should serve to reinforce that fact.) Unless people still clung to hope for a cure to the zombism, I don’t see how it would be difficult to disconnect all sense of empathy for the zombies and just attack them with everything you have. (This is also how I feel about the Zerg; why would we do anything besides nuke their planets into glass?)

    In all, World War Z is a compelling read with many strong characters and a lot of emotional depth, though it is not for the faint of heart or stomach. World War Z is by far the best zombie novel I’ve ever read, but when you get right down to it, it’s still a zombie novel.

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