Wednesday, June 12, 2013

World War Z

"The monsters that rose from the dead, they are nothing compared to the ones we carry in our hearts.”

In an attempt to enter into and better understand the entertainment shaping my kids and the rest of today's youth, I submit my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at how the story reflects and shapes the readers' worldview.

This review will look at World War Z a novel by Max Brooks. Inspired by Studs Terkel's The Good War, this book is being rightly credited with transforming the zombie genre.*  Paramount's film starring Brad Pitt hits theaters on June 21st. It remains to be see how well this movie will translate onto the screen.

There will be spoilers.


World War Z unfolds through a series of interviews with the key players who helped humanity survive the zombie apocalypse. It's been 12 years since VA day in America, and the UN has commissioned a Postwar Commission Report. This book chronicles the interviews of one reporter as he journeys around the world to get to the truth about what really happened.

Patient Zero, a 12-year-old Chinese boy, was bitten by an animal.  That much is pretty clear. The how and why of the spread is a story of human ineptitude, greed, misinformation, and tragedy. As opposed to much of current zombie lore, World War Z for the most part looks away from the gore and looks instead at how the world as we know it would change as people perpetuate or fight the plague. In the process, the author’s literary eye scans entire nations as well as the most heartbreaking individual stories. 

The approach is nothing short of brilliant. Brooks examines religion, politics, family structures, international tensions, the pharmacutical industry, the military, economic systems, the impact of geography, weather, and national mindsets…the list goes on. I expected a predictable story of gore and despair; I found a thought-provoking and honest look at death, life, hope and the human condition.

The Dead moved slowly but relentlessly. They burrowed after animals for days, migrated Iin ponderous herds, and overwhelmed people by numbers and virtual invincibility instead of speed and strength. The dismembered crawled; the incapacitated bit people if they got close. All the Dead thrown into the sea came back eventually, walking onto beaches for years after the war was over.

As if the Dead were not enough, a lot of people snapped and tried to assimilate with their new conquerors. These quislings, victims of zombie Stockholm Syndrome, acted like zombies but were almost more dangerous, since they were fast and intelligent. 

Because there were slow burns and fast burns depending on where people were injured, sometimes it took days for symptoms to manifest.  Predictably, airplanes spread the plague quickly until safeguards were put in place (such as dogs who could smell the sickness).  Before the plague was known, infected organ transplants were put into healthy bodies, and inevitably the recipients turned.

As the epidemic became public, people desperately fled the countries that began the outbreak. Nations tried to quarantine the infected, but thanks to the network in place for human trafficking and illegal immigration, the spread was inevitable. Tibet, for example, was good at smuggling human traffic; suddenly the smuggling that once made people rich from the suffering of others spread death across their borders and around the world.

Even well-intentioned traditions backfired. In India, the Ganges River became a killing field. Hindu pilgrims would bathe in it only to be killed by the undead as they rose from the river. The pilgrims would become “water ghouls,” and the cycle would get worse.

In some countries, the rumor was that sex with virgins would bring safety (a rumor which has its basis in some real world pandemics). In general, the reaction of different people groups exposed the flaws in their beliefs or cultural norms. As one embarrassed national noted, “Everyone was furious with their own people…everyone was ashamed…One [person]…used to call it ‘the evil of our collective soul.’”

Those who were used to greed, deception and lies had trouble changing. An American pharmaceutical company knowingly created a “miracle drug” placebo called Phalanx for what was being described as rabies. The FDA ineptly approved; doctors sold a ton; the media was owned by corporations that didn’t want the stock market to take a hit if there was widespread panic; the White House didn’t want a panic. Besides, the label said “May Prevent Some Viral Infections,” so it wasn't a lie, right?  People needed to have hope! Some reported being cured (turned out they were bitten by quislings), and that was enough to move a ton of false security off the shelves and further perpetuating the plague. After the war, it became clear that no one in the halls of power had clean hands.

All armies have to recruit people, feed them, and provide leadership. This applies in no way to zombies.  The Chinese, for example, thought they could withstand the onslaught through strength of numbers. They forgot that all of their dead became undead very quickly. In conventional war, people try to dehumanize the enemy. In World War Z, people were desperately trying to humanize them, to understand, but it was impossible.
     “For the first time in history, we faced an enemy that was actively waging total war. They had no limits of endurance. They would never negotiate, never surrender,. They would fight until the very end because, unlike us, every single one of them, every second of every day, was devoted to consuming all life on Earth.“
The military made worthless weapons that were exceptionally destructive against living people but remarkably ineffective against the undead. The best weapons were the simplest one, such as shovels with modifications. The popular story focused on how awesome the military’s weapons were, because “Americans worship technology…most Americans are still praying for the God of science to save them.” Dogs sniffed out the infected, finding a lot of crawlers that no one would have noticed. Eventually the good guys figured it out and began to cancel the apocalypse.

Not all who waged war carried a gun. Asymptomatic Demise Syndrome (people would die for no other reason than despair) was killing 4% - 10% of the population. A filmmaker’s movies of humanity’s courage changed the emotional momentum in the general population, bringing about a 23% drop in ADS. The director whitewashed horrible crimes in the midst of military victory, but it all served a greater good - right?
      “The truth was that we were standing at what might be the twilight of our species and that truth was freezing a hundred people to death every night. They needed something to keep them warm. And so I lied, and so did the president, and every doctor and priest, every platoon leader and every parent.”
On the other side of the globe, a blind Japanese monk not only survived in the wild but developed a new method of marital art self-defense using common gardening tools. “We might be facing fifty million monsters," he said, "but those monsters [are] facing the gods.”

The Warmbrunn-Knight Report, created by the Israelis in case the outbreak became an epidemic, called for a “voluntary quarantine.”  It was a good call. In fact, the Israelis got a lot of things right. They even pioneered a Masada model of community: houses on stilts with retractable staircases and solar roofs built behind concrete walls and iron doors.

Israel may have self-quarantined, but North Korea disappeared entirely, apparently underground, and perhaps into a dictatorial heaven/hell. At the time the UN's commissioned report, ten years had passed, and still no one knew where they were.
“Imagine what could be accomplished if the human race would only shed its humanity,” said Paul Redeker, whose cold, calculating, and brilliant plan guaranteed the survival of South Africa through purposeful sacrifice of a lot of the people. After taking the most important people to a safe place,  the rest were herded into special isolated zones. They were the ‘human bait’ that distracted the zombies from following the chosen to their safe zone.  For a country with a history of apartheid, this dehumanization of the living made him the most hated hero on the planet. 

The U.S. responded  to the plague with a three part plan. First, they sent Special Forces Alpha teams to the hot spots and killed the zombies. It was immensely successful but insufficient. For a lot of reasons, they never got to Phase Two.

Cuba was a haven for many. Castro put everybody into camps, but once the camps became unmanageable he slowly released people into the country. They brought with them democracy and capitalism. Castro embraced the change, holding the first free election, voting himself out of power, and making himself a national hero.

Not everyone handled it as logically. When refugees from Pakistan and India poured into Iran, the Iranians blew up bridges to stop the flow of potentially infected.  The Pakistanis retaliated, and it escalated into nuclear warfare.

There were unusual stories of survival in the midst of mass devestation. Because they were often isolated and hard to access, mountain monasteries were usually safe havens. Manned space stations stayed in space for years, keeping communication alive and paying a terrible physical price before they were rescued. Internet geeks emerged from their rooms weeks after the War started, only to find that everyone in their high-rise apartment had turned. Millions moved to northern Canada and the arctic, where the freezing cold provided natural protection. It seemed like a good idea until they ran out of food and either starved to death or turned to cannibalism.

Others planned ahead a little better. One incredibly rich survivalist stockpiled his home with every conceivable supply, invited the beautiful and wealthy, and broadcasted a simultaneous webcast to the world. The world was not impressed. The compound was eventually overrun not by zombies, but by a human population desperate for safety.

Fringe groups from both the Right and the Left emerged. The Fundies, the Christian fundamentalists, tried to avoid the rest of God's judgment on the world through mass suicides or implement it through assassination. The Greenies, radical environmentalists on the Left, were happy the zombies ate meat and not plants. 

In the midst of all this chaos, no one had time to monitor a criminal justice system, let alone provide staff for a jail. Stocks, public whippings, and work gangs returned as America quickly rediscovered the motivating power of shame. For better or worse, it worked. As one interviewee noted, Generation Z now had a legacy: “They cleaned up their own mess.”


First, we cannot be reduced to biology. There is more to being human then DNA and instinct. 

Second, human beings are deeply flawed, but they are also full of courage and hope. It's a well-rounded view of the nature of humanity. Somewhere deep inside lurks an evil waiting to emerge – and yet we also have goodness, kindness, and sacrifice.  We all share the imago dei, but it's been broken from within.

Third, both the ends and the means matter. Pragmatism may bring temporary respite, but it will destroy our souls. People found ways to survive WWZ, but not all of them were able to live when it was over. The creator of Phalanx hides in fear in the Antarctica; the South African monster/hero Redeker has dissociated; some mercenaries find that killing is an addiction that may kill them in the end.  As one reviewer noted:
The book’s ends-justify-the-means ethos excites more fear than any walking dead. People are forced to do the unthinkable for the Greater Good or their own skins, knowing it will haunt them for the rest of their lives. The Redeker Plan, the strategy which ultimately saves the human race, is effective on such a level that Machiavelli would have paled. But what could have been done differently? That is the terror that lingers, long after the book is closed.
Fourth, many people longed for God's intervention during and after the disaster, but they weren’t sure He was still there. One survivor had what she believed to be an amazing supernatural intervention. Others could not understand why God would allow this kind of evil: “Only one could have forseen this, but I don’t believe in him anymore.” It’s not sound theology, but it's easy to empathize with the anguish of someone who struggles with the problem of evil in this context.

“I’ve heard it said that the Holocaust has no survivors, that even those who managed to remain technically alive were so irreparably damaged, that their spirit, their soul, the person that they were supposed to be, was gone forever. I'd like to think that’s not true. But if it is, then no one on Earth survived this either.”
And yet they did survive. Communities grew; families rebuilt; quislings reverted to normalcy. Even though many people committed great evil in the midst of crisis, many more rose to the occasion. Ireland apparently reunited, and Israel and Palestine created a combined, peaceful state.

World War Z is both sobering and hopeful. It reminds us that great evil lurks within humanity, waiting restlessly to be unleashed when our structures fall apart. It also reminds us that great good simmers below the surface, capable of defending and rebuilding a devastated world.

* For another interesting subverting of the zombie genre, see my review on Warm Bodies.

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