Let's Read World War Z ch. 2: Zombies Unlimited

Before we get back into the origins of the zombie apocalypse in China, I want to go back and mention something from the book's opening. See, WWZ presents itself as taking place in our future, but there's a reall obvious clue indicating that this is actually an alternate universe:

It is no great secret that global life expectancy is a mere shadow of its former prewar figure. Malnutrition, pollution, the rise of previously eradicated ailments, even in the United States, with its resurgent economy and universal health care are the present reality;

Universal healthcare? In America? What's Max Brooks trying to suggest here, that proud freedom-loving Americans would let the zombies win  by giving up the open marketplace of private insurance that George Washington personally fought and died for? I think I'm going to be sick .

Anyway, we left off with Dr. Kwang Jingshu recounting how he stumbled onto one of the early outbreaks in rural China, only to have the government swoop in and detain everyone, including him. Before that happened, he saw an old woman freak out and that told him that something bad was coming:

Of course this ancient crone’s words had no effect on me, but her tone, her anger . . . she had witnessed enough calamity in her years upon the earth: the warlords, the Japanese, the insane nightmare of the Cultural Revolution . . . she knew that another storm was coming, even if she didn’t have the education to understand it.

(Note that Max Brooks has read the Wikipedia article on modern Chinese history, and is helpfully summarizing it for us here so that we know that this chapter does, in fact, take place in China). 

This happens repeatedly throughout the early parts of the book, where people just somehow know that the zombie plague is the harbinger of something really awful. At the end of the chapter, Jingshu talks to his government-connected colleague and he's also like "shit's gonna be real bad bro", but...why? How is this minor outbreak different from the ones the Chinese authorities have already been clamping down on? They've been containing the situation so far, why does he think they won't be able to do so indefinitely? 

This ties into the framing of the zombie plague, where it's not an inexplicable natural disaster like an earthquake or a mateorite impact that no one could have prevented; instead, it's framed as an avoidable crisis that people could have stopped, but chose not to because they were greedy or lazy or stupid blind sheeple. 

I think the book takes this approach as commentary on global warming or pandemic preparedness or something, but if so it's a bad analogy, because a virus that makes corpses come to life really isn't the sort of thing you could reasonably expect people to be able to plan for. I guess you could argue that the Chinese government is to blame for covering the outbreak up in the initial stages, but Brooks reserves most of his ire for America (because metaphor, do you see) and by the time the virus gets that far, it's probably too late to stop it.

[Kwang Jingshu was arrested by the MSS and incarcerated without formal charges. By the time he escaped, the outbreak had spread beyond China’s borders.] 

Bye, Kwang! 

Next we swing on over to "Lhasa, The People's Republic of Tibet". Since we're in Tibet now, the book name-drops Tibet Things (Llamas! Buddhism! The Chinese annexation!), so you know that it's Tibet. Our interview subject this time might as well be hovering in a featureless void, but thank god he mentioned Chairman Mao. 

Nury Televaldi was a smugger who operated on the Tibetan border, bringing goods (including people) into the country from "the ex-Soviet republics". You know, those ex-Soviet republics in eastern Europe. That's how normal people who haven't been addled by years of Tom Clancy thrillers refer to them.

Where I used to live, in Kashi, the only option was into the ex-Soviet republics. No one wanted to go there, and that is why I wasn’t initially a shetou. I was an importer: raw opium, uncut diamonds, girls, boys, whatever was valuable from those primitive excuses for countries. 

Just quoting this to highlight how deeply, deepy hacky a lot of the dialogue/narration is in this book. If I mentioned every instance, this series would be dozens of posts long. 

The outbreak changed all that. Suddenly we were besieged with offers, and not just from the liudong renkou, but also, as you say, from people on the up-and-up.


This is a thing you see in hacky American fiction of all stripes, where people from other countries on different continents still center America in their worldview, to the point that they'll go out of their way to mention when they're using an American idiom.  

Like, dude, this isn't how cultural exchange and language drift work. Most people who use foreign phrases and loan-words aren't even aware that they're doing it (how often do you think of "tsunami" as being a word borrowed from Japanese, and not just another English phrase?). This is especially ridiculous if the interview is supposed to have taken place in English. 

("Liudong renkou" apparently refers to itinerant Chinese labourers, although I wouldn't take any information from this book at face value). 

These were still good times for China, where the best way to honor Chairman Mao’s memory was to see his face on as many hundred yuan notes as possible.

God, this is so, so hacky.  I apologize for over-using that word, but I can't think of a better descriptor. 

Anyway our boy Televaldi got a lot of Chairman Mao bucks (BECAUSE IT'S CHINESE MONEY DO YOU GET IT) from people fleeing west in order to escape the increasingly severe zombie outbreaks, although at this point the true nature of the disease was mostly not know outside of those who had witnessed it personally. The widespread movement of infected people all over the world helped spread the plague globally.

(This has really iffy undertones, considering that refugees are frequently accused (usually with zero factual basis) of spreading disease). 

But what about infection? Wasn’t there a risk of being discovered?

That was only later, after Flight 575. 

This is one thing the book does that I like: it will sometimes mention events which, in the fiction of the story, are meant to be internationally well-known or infamous, and won't bother explaining them because the reader is assumed in-universe to already know all about them. Some kind of zombie-related air disaster is mentioned several times, as is an American news presenter who definitively blew the whistle on the nature of the zombie plague (but who isn't named or explained in any more detail). 

Of course, this only stands out because sometimes the book does have a character give an as-you-know explanation of some element of world-building, even though both the interview subject and fictional Max Brooks would both already be aware of it. 

Televaldi relates a story he heard from another smuggler about a couple who slipped off to Paris in search of a cure, after the husband suffered a minor bite (which takes longer to zombify a person): 

His wife tried to call the doctor, but he forbade it. He was afraid they would be sent back. Instead, he ordered her to abandon him, to leave now before he lapsed into coma. I hear that she did, and after two days of groans and commotion, the hotel staff finally ignored the DO NOT DISTURB sign and broke into the room. I’m not sure if that is how the Paris outbreak started, though it would make sense.

I guess this is as good a time as any to ask how the zombie virus--an infection spread through direct fluid contact--manages to spread so far, so quickly. Like a lot of zombie fiction, WWZ glosses over this and hopes you won't notice. Note that in the space of two chapters, we've already advanced from small, localized outbreaks to masses of people desperately fleeing their homes. 

We later learn that Paris, like a lot of big cities, was totally overrun by zombies. How could this have happened, starting with a single infected individual? How many people could our Chinese patient zero have bitten initially? Let's be generous and say it was ten--the hotel staff who broke into the room, more staff who came to help, and the ambulance workers/hospital staff who treated him initially. Let's also say that each of those ten people died outside of a hospital and bit more people after zombifiying. 

Yes, a situation like that could get out of hand, but "apocalyptic armies of millions of zombies" out of hand? How? After a few days of an increasing number of sick people coming into hospitals with fresh bite marks, wouldn't medical authorities and the police put two and two together? 

Normally I wouldn't nipick this much--zombie stories are goofy fun, it doesn't need to be plausible--but this book's entire selling point is a veneer or reality, and as such it's disappointing that the story glosses over this so casually. 

(By the way, The Walking Dead of all things actually has a more plausible mechanism for how the zombie situation turns apocalyptic: the zombies operate on classic Remero logic where anyone who dies, for any reason, comes back; you can see how this would get exponentially harder and harder to contain). 

Restrictions were tightened, but only in certain countries. Airline shetou were careful but they were also resourceful. They used to have this saying, “every rich man’s house has a servant’s entrance.”

This doesn’t appear to be an actual saying, since the only references to it I can find are linked to this book. Including this:


#goodwriting, indeed.

There isn’t much else of interest here, just the book laying some groundwork for the spread of the zombie plague worldwide. We end on an intriguing mention of a truck full of infected people heading to Kyrgyzstan, and we’ll pick up there in the next installment.