Wednesday, July 3

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006)

By Max Brooks

Compelling. That is the word I keep coming back to in describing this book both to my son, who is interested in reading it, and the friend who gave it to me when he discovered I might be interested in reading it as he was about to donate it to the library.

I'm not really that big into the zombie genre, although I do follow The Walking Dead on TV (not in the comics, though), and thought Zombieland to be quite amusing. Really, though, I think those are the only examples of zombie fiction I've ever followed in any medium, other than incidental appearances in stray episodes or issues of series I was already into. Mindless predatory ambulatory corpses as a plot device in horror/thriller stories just never appealed to me in and of themselves. Zombieland is of course a satirical send-up of the genre, with its own appeal (and Woody Harrelson. And Emma Stone). What attracted me to The Walking Dead TV series – not immediately, I might add, but as a result of good reports from colleagues – was the focus not on the “mindless predatory ambulatory corpses” but rather the “survivors,” and in fact I seem to recall that comics creator Robert Kirkman has indeed said that they are the true “walking dead” in the story he's telling. At least in the case of the TV series, the focus on a small group of people fighting for their lives on a day by day basis in a world of virtually unimaginable horror makes for some really gripping story-telling.

World War Z tells much the same story, but on a much broader, world-wide scale. Brooks presents the narrative in the form of interviews by a UN inspector compiling a post-war report on the apocalyptic events of the past decade and more.* Through the eyes of dozens of individuals the reader witnesses the progress of the contagion from initial scattered outbreaks through the world's initial disbelief transforming into panic as the apocalypse overwhelms our civilization, which nevertheless rallies and ultimately wins out – more or less – at a staggering cost in humanity, both in sheer numbers with a death-toll of billions and in the desperate measures that are taken to assure survival, both by individuals and by various nations facing utter annihilation. Brooks' accomplishment is truly amazing, both in the breadth and depth of research that obviously stands behind the story he tells, giving it a startling verisimilitude, and which is scarcely less than what he imagines for his fictional interviewer, and in the imagination that then constructs a variety of very distinct interviewees describing many different experiences and reactions to the horrific catastrophe as it unfolds. In particular, the various ways different countries meet the crisis, some ultimately successfully albeit, again, at universally staggering cost, others ultimately unsuccessfully, ring true to the multifarious national conditions and characters that prevail around the world. What emerges from the holocaust is an irreversibly changed world that will never again be the same, that has, in the end, adjusted to a radical new reality. And yet, in the end, this book does chronicle a triumph of the human will against darkness – humanity has survived, more or less intact.

In that regard, World War Z seems ultimately more optimistic than The Walking Dead, which seems to have constructed a world in which there is ultimately no possibility of human survival. That may be a result of the far more limited scope of the latter, focusing as it does on a small group of people who have little or no knowledge of how the rest of the world is faring, but it is definitely the impression I get.

Perhaps it is because I am such an Anglophile with a traditionalist's gut affinity for monarchy (at least in the abstract) – in addition to being a medieval historian – that one passage spoke directly to me. I think it provides an excellent taste of the depth of Brooks' narrative, and would like to share some excerpts from it here:

The subject of the interview is an Englishman, currently engaged in a study of how medieval European fixed fortifications – castles – proved valuable in contributing to the survival of European civilization. It's based on both his ongoing research and his direct experience –

Castles. Well … I don't want for a moment to overstate their importance for the general war effort. In fact, when you compare them to any other type of fixed fortification, modern, modified, and so forth, their contribution does seem quite negligible, unless you're like me, and that contribution was what saved your life.


... [M]any defenders chose to remain in their strongholds even with the opportunity to flee, be it Bouillon in Belgium or Spis in Slovakia or even back home like Beaumaris in Wales. Before the war, the place had been nothing but a museum piece, a hollow shell of roofless chambers and high concentric walls. The town council should be given the VC for their accomplishments, pooling resources, organizing citizens, restoring the ruin to its former glory. They had just a few months before the crisis engulfed their part of Britain. Even more dramatic is the story of Conwy, both a castle and medieval wall that protected their entire town. The inhabitants not only lived in safety and relative comfort during the stalemate years, their access to the sea allowed Conwy to become a springboard for our forces once we began to retake our country. Have you ever read Camelot Mine?”

[I shake my head.]

You must find yourself a copy. It's a cracking good novel, based on the author's own experiences as one of the defenders of Caerphilly. He began the crisis on the second floor of his flat in Ludlow, Wales. As his supplies ran out and the first snow fell, he decided to strike out in search of more permanent lodgings. He came upon the abandoned ruin, which had already been the sight of a halfhearted and ultimately fruitless, defense. He buried their bodies, smashed the frozen Zed Heads [just one of a variety of different terms for zombies that Brooks posits], and set about restoring the castle on his own. He worked tirelessly, in the most brutal winter on record. By May, Caerphilly was prepared for the summer siege, and by the following winter, it became a haven for several hundred other survivors.

[He shows me some of his sketches.]

A masterpiece, isn't it, second largest in the British Isles.

What's the first?

[He hesitates.]


Windsor was your castle.

Well, not mine personally.

I mean, you were there.

[Another pause.]

It was, from a defensive standpoint, as close as one could come to perfection. Before the war, it was the largest inhabited castle in Europe, almost thirteen acres. It had its own well for water, and enough storage space to house a decade's worth of rations. The fire of 1992 led to a state-of-the-art suppression system, and the subsequent terrorist threats upgraded security measures to rival any in the UK. Not even the general public knew what their tax dollars were paying for: bulletproof glass, reinforced walls, retractable bars, and steel shutters hidden so cleverly in windowsills and door frames.


[Takes a breath.] She … she wouldn't leave, you see. She insisted, over the objections of Parliament, to remain at Windsor, as she put it, 'for the duration.' I thought it was misguided nobility, or maybe fear-based paralysis. I tried to make her see reason, begged her almost on my knees. Hadn't she done enough with the Balmoral Decree, turning all her estates into protected zones for any who could reach and defend them? Why not join her family in Ireland or the Isle of Man, or, at least, if she was insisting on remaining in Britain, supreme command HQ north above the Antonine [Wall – the main British line of defense was fixed along the line of the old Roman Antonine Wall near Edinburgh].

What did she say?

'The highest of distinctions is service to others.' [He clears his throat, his upper lip quivers for a second.] Her father had said that; it was the reason he had refused to run to Canada during the Second World War, the reason her mother had spent the blitz visiting civilians huddled in the tube stations beneath London, the same reason, to this day, we remain a United Kingdom. Their task, their mandate, is to personify all that is great in our national spirit. They must forever be an example to the rest of us, the strongest, and bravest, and absolute best of us. In a sense, it is they who are ruled by us, instead of the other way around, and they must sacrifice everything, everything, to shoulder the weight of this godlike burden. Otherwise, what's the flipping point? Just scrap the whole damn tradition, roll out the bloody guillotine, and be done with it altogether. They were viewed very much like castles, I suppose: as crumbling, obsolete relics, with no real modern function other than as tourist attractions. But when the skies darkened and the nation called, both reawoke to the meaning of their existence. One shielded our bodies, the other, our souls.”
(pp. 188-194)

Thanks for reading.
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Note:  I'll probably go see the movie now.  I understand it is completely different from the book in almost every way imaginable, except that it does tell the story on a world-wide scale.  I generally don't like such considerable departure from source material, but I figure in this case I'll apply an appropriate variation of the "Troy Rule" as I present it to my students when they wonder how I could possibly like the Brad Pitt Troy movie  "The thing to remember is that Troy is not about The Iliad, it's not even about the Trojan War.  It's about Brad Pitt playing Achilles.  Once you understand that, everything else makes sense."
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* As best I can figure without specific dates being given – or even firm indications of the passage of time –, Brooks places the appearance of the deadly reanimation virus in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, i.e., contemporary with the book's publication, although the story is told from the perspective of ca. 2020 or later, given that the war lasts a decade or so in the US, plus a couple of years in China, plus at least a few years for the narrator to conduct his research and prepare the resulting book. I base this conclusion on cultural and historical references sprinkled throughout as well as the fact that several world leaders of advanced age are either referred to by name or so specifically described that there is no doubt as to their identity – Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth II, and Fidel Castro come most immediately to mind. While all are still living as of the time of my reading, Mandela in particular is 94 and appears to be on his death bed while in this book he is described most intimately of the three in terms that indicate frailness, to be sure, but still active.

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