Let's Read World War Z pt. 1: When zombies were cool

Who's ready for a new let's read series?

Yes, The Overton Window remains unfinished. My fun neurological condition has fluctuated to the point where I feel like I can work on something, but I'm still not able to handle Glenn Beck's prose or the somewhat complicated political hot takes that responding to it entails. Instead we're going to sink our teeth into the lean, nutrition-free corpse that is Max Brooks' World War Z: An Oral History of The Zombie War. 

Unlike some of the other books I've covered, more or less all of you have probably at least heard of this one. Max Brooks shambled onto the scene in 2003 with The Zombie Survival Guide, a how-to anti-zombie manual that played the idea completely straight, committing 100% to the conceit that it was a real guide informing readers about a real problem. This has kind of been forgotten now, but the book played a big part in the 2000s zombie craze that still hasn't fully subsided to this day. It was a fun, breezy read that was probably most people's introduction to this sort of alt-reality writing, a literary tradition that is now easily accessible in online horror circles and ARGs but which wasn't very common in print at the time. 

Three years later, Brooks followed it up with World War Z. Set in the same fictional framework established by the Survival Guide, WWZ purports to be a history of a global zombie pandemic that took place twelve years before its publication (somewhat confusingly, instead of making this an alt-history affair the zombie plague is meant to have only started in 2006 and and lasted for around a decade, and thus the narrative is being recounted from around 2028 or so; there's a reason for this, as we'll see later). The story of the war is told through interviews with people who witnessed pivotal moments in person, which both tells the tale of the zombie war and reveals details about the post-zombie future.

On paper, this isn't a bad idea. It's a natural extension of the Survival Guide, which includes advice on surviving a theoretical zombie apocalypse, and it's aping the real-life tradition of war writing using oral histories. Brooks' particular zombie universe isn't particularly original or interesting--it's basically Remero zombies crossed with the now-standard "zombie plague" template--but he wrings an unusual amount of mileage out of it by taking it completely seriously.

Unfortunately, it's tripped up by the fact that Max Brooks is a terrible writer. 

This wasn't a big deal in the Survival Guide since it was written as a somewhat dry technical manual, which doesn't require a whole lot of stylistic flair. But WWZ is basically a series of short stories told entirely through dialogue, which is a much bigger ask. Brooks, despite giving it his all, just doesn't have the chops for it, and thus we're treated to some of the hackiest, most amateurish writing to ever grace a bestseller. I originally read the book as a teenager, and even then I remember noticing problems with the writing. Coming to it again thirteen years later, those problems are a whole lot clearer. 

But let's set the scene first. WWZ's prologue is a standard introduction you'd get in a real non-fiction book, laying out the background and circumstances behind the book's publication. Brooks himself is our narrator, cast as the author of a far-ranging UN report on the zombie war that took more than ten years to write. During his research for this, Brooks collected a huge amount of oral testimony that the dry, factual UN report didn't have a place for; what we're reading is therefore an edited selection of that testimony, laying out the events of the outbreak in chronological order. 

I want to highlight this intro, because it reveals that Brooks does have a genuine knack for this "fictional non-fiction" writing. The tone and feel of the prologue is exactly what you'd expect to see in the opening to a Very Important Non-Fiction Book about recent events (speaking as someone who reads quite a bit of non-fiction). I feel like the entire project might have been more successful if he had made it a straight-forward recounting of the war, as opposed to the interview format that requires him to consistently write in a given voice. 

Although this is primarily a book of memories, it includes many of the details, technological, social, economic, and so on, found in the original Commission Report, as they are related to the stories of those voices featured in these pages. This is their book, not mine, and I have tried to maintain as invisible a presence as possible. Those questions included in the text are only there to illustrate those that might have been posed by readers. I have attempted to reserve judgment, or commentary of any kind, and if there is a human factor that should be removed, let it be my own.

The other thing that WWZ is successful at is striking the right emotional notes. The book is meant to be a factual recounting of the most devastating event in human history, a global catastrophe that took our species to the brink of extinction and left the entire planet forever changed. Imagine the emotional gravitas of a book on World War II, but multiplied by 1000 and published while it was fresh in the living memory of every adult reading it. Here and elsewhere, WWZ really does capture what it would feel like to be living in the wake of such an event, to the point where it's easy to get wrapped up in the emotional current of the story. 

Then you get into the actual narrative, and, well... 

Before we move on though, I want to highlight something odd: 

After all, it has been only twelve years since VA Day was declared in the continental United States, and barely a decade since the last major world power celebrated its deliverance on “Victory in China Day.” Given that most people consider VC Day to be the official end, then how can we have real perspective when, in the words of a UN colleague, “We’ve been at peace about as long as we were at war.”

The book consistently frames the zombie pandemic as a war, to the point where we're getting these cutesy allusions to the end of WWII. The elimination of the final zombies in a given area is referred to as the "end of hostilities", as though the zombies signed a peace treaty or something. It's a very odd framing that I think owes more to the time the book was written than anything else--remember, the US invasion of Iraq only started in 2003 and was still the hottest topic on everyone's mind in 2006. Brooks, as will become clear later, really didn't approve of his country's actions at the time, so I feel like WWZ was partially written as an act of national myth-making, a way to replace the depressing, dirty, pointless war raging in real life with a fictional conflict that's heroic and pure and has a clearly-delineated good side that everyone can root for, 

But anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's shuffle over to part one, Warnings, and find out how the zombie apocalypse began.

We open in Greater Chonqing, in the "United federation of China" (you know the book takes place in the future because there are United Federations and New and Greater whatevers all over the place). The first interview subject is Kwang Jingshu, a doctor who witnessed the opening moments of the outbreak and lived to tell the tale. 

As Jingshu explains, he was working in a rural hospital and was called out to an emergency in a remote village. There, he found several restrained patients who had come down with influenza-like symptoms after being bitten by a rabid twelve year old boy, who was himself bitten while diving for valuables in a flooded town. This boy is referred to as "patient zero", but it's made clear that he isn't actually the  "first" zombie--he obviously couldn't be--and nor is this the first outbreak, as Jingshu himself discovers when he calls an old colleague and sinister military forces swoop down to abduct everyone in sight. It seems that the Chinese government has been quietly dealing with isolated outbreaks for some time, to the point that they've developed a playbook on how to handle them.

The Zombie Survival Guide mentions several times that outbreaks are likely to go pandemic if they happen in countries with repressive or totalitarian governments, which...actually directly contradicts something later in the book and sort of doesn't make sense. It seems like a new disease would have less chance of spreading if it took place in a country where the government could just shoot everyone who got sick, as is heavily implied to be the case here.

I assume all of this is inspired by the SARS epidemic, where the Chinese government really did go to some lengths to keep the whole thing secret, and were heavily criticized for doing so as international cooperation is vital to stopping public health crises. 

But SARS was a respiratory illness spread through droplets discharged by coughing and sneezing. The zombie virus is spread by direct fluid contact. Rounding up and eliminating all of the infected, while obviously immoral, would actually be a very effective way or curbing such a disease. There's a reason we respond to rabies-infected animals by killing them. 

This opening section highlights Brooks’ approach to the international scope of the book, which is to just name-drop every detail of a particular country’s past that an average American reader is likely to know about.

China? Chairman Mao! Communism!

Russia? The Soviet Union! The Tsar! World War II!

Germany? Hitler! Nazis! East Germany!

The UK? The Queen! The Blitz! Winston Churchill!

Ireland is only glancingly mentioned despite one of the interviews taking place in the North, but if the book had spent more time on the subject I’m sure Brooks would have had the interviewee spent the entire section talking about the Troubles and the IRA, relevance to the zombie apocalypse be damned.

Needless to say, this pattern doesn’t hold true with the American sources, who mention (extremely obliquely and vaguely) events current at the time of the books’ publication, but don’t fill every conversation with references to the war of independence and George Washington.

All of this is a problem for two reasons: firstly it’s just bad writing, but more importantly, it’s a window into the profound ignorance most Americans have about the outside world and how little Max Brooks cared to push against it. I don’t know anything about him personally, so maybe he’s a cosmopolitan World Citizen who speaks twenty languages and keeps up on the current affairs of Lithuania and Cambodia with as much interest as local politics; but either him or his publisher clearly felt that American readers wouldn’t care or wouldn’t understand anything but the most broad-strokes, caricatured elements of the rest of the world.

(I’m being very over-generous here; even the parts of the book that deal directly with the United States are filled with cliches and two-dimensional stereotypes).

If you pay attention to which elements of a foreign country are deemed worthy of mention, it becomes apparent that to Americans, their history only exists when it intersects with America’s own. That’s why so much of the American view of the world is tied up in WWII and the Cold War—for a lot of other countries, those were the last times they had any direct, visible involvement with the world beyond their borders.

There's more to say about this chapter, but we're going to stop here for today. Join me next time as we chow down on another hefty chunk of World War Z.