World War Z Pt. 5: As they say in American English

Our intrepid narrator has arrived in Barbados, which is now part of the "West Indies Federation", in order to interview his latest subject. But first, we get to witness a world-changing piece of technology, described in a surprisingly flippant way:

I was told to expect a “tall ship,” although the “sails” of IS Imfingo refer to the four vertical wind turbines rising from her sleek, trimaran hull. When coupled with banks of PEM, or proton exchange membrane, fuel cells, a technology that converts seawater into electricity, it is easy to see why the prefix “IS” stands for “Infinity Ship.” Hailed as the undisputed future of maritime transport, it is still rare to see one sailing under anything but a government flag. The Imfingo is privately owned and operated. Jacob Nyathi is her captain.  

We were earlier told that the world is still nowhere near recovery from the zombie crisis, but they must be doing pretty well if they've invented free energy.

That is essentially what this technology is. It's not just the "future of maritime transport", it's the future of human civilization. The ability to generate electricity from nothing but seawater would change the course of history, as well solve the global warming crisis to boot. Sure, it's implied to be extremely expensive and can probably only power vehicles right now, but you can be damn sure that scientists would figure out how to scale this technology up extremely quickly. 

The fact that narrator-Brooks has to explain this to the audience also strains credibility. It wouldn't be a case of "here's this intruiguing scientific curio that you might not know about", it would be more like "here's that epoch-making invention whose creator is currently being showered with Nobel prizes on live TV 24/7 that you, reader living contemporaneously to these events, have obviously heard about." The in-universe reader not being aware of this is like Brooks needing to remind people that humans visited Mars at some point between now and when the book takes place.

Our interview subject, Jacob Nyathi, started out life in much more humble surrounds: a South African slum. Because there's three types of South Africans in fiction: a) slum dwellers, b) Apartheid goons or c) Nelson Mandela. Those last two are foreshadowing, by the way.

On a related note: quick, name some things you know about South Africa! If you said "poverty, racism and rugby" then Max Brooks has you covered.

And so we settled in Khayelitsha, one of the four main townships outside of Cape Town. It was a life of grinding, hopeless, humiliating poverty. It was my childhood.

The night it happened, I was walking home from the bus stop. It was around five A.M. and I’d just finished my shift waiting tables at the T.G.I. Friday’s at Victoria Wharf. It had been a good night. The tips were big, and news from the Tri Nations was enough to make any South African feel ten feet tall. The Springboks were trouncing the All Blacks . . . again! 

Of course Nyathi was born right before Apartheid ended. Of course his story starts with him walking through a slum, immediately following the end of a rugby match that appears to still, decades later, be a primary cultural touchstone for him. He couldn't just have been sitting at home watering his plants or making model airplanes out of Diet Coke cans or something when the zombies came. That wouldn't be South African enough. 

Nyathi hears a violent commotion of some kind in the distance, there's more references to Apartheid (BECAUSE IT'S SOUTH AFRICA GUYS) and things quickly start going south. It's a zombie attack!

One of my frequent complaints against this book is that it's very bad at showing the crisis point where the zombie problem started to get out of control; we see occasional appearances by single zombies, and then suddenly there's thousands of them and people are evacuating entire cities in a mass panic. This chapter is the closest the book come to ever showing that transition, and it mostly glosses over it.

I know I've mentioned this before, but the Remero-esque zombies featured in this book are extremely slow, unintelligent, and can only attack people by biting them. I posit that you could have a mid-size zombie attack going on in a large city without anyone on the next street over even noticing, simply because one individual zombie isn't all that threatening.

Moreover, where are all of these zombies coming from? How can an area be zombie free, and then the next moment there's a dozen of them shambling up the road? Are they working together to coordinate attacks? 

Anyway, Nyathi runs around a bit, almost gets bitten, then gets bonked on the head by a car and wakes up in the hospital, where he overhears some worrying dialogue. 

I just remember voices in the hallway outside my ward, loud voices angrily arguing. “That wasn’t rabies!” one of them yelled. “Rabies doesn’t do that to people!” Then . . . something else . . . then “well, what the hell do you suggest, we’ve got fifteen downstairs right here! Who knows how many more are still out there!” It’s funny, I go over that conversation all the time in my head, what I should have thought, felt, done. It was a long time before I sobered up again, before I woke up and faced the nightmare. 

Well that sounds like an issue. Let's find out what happened next. 

Next up it's over to Tel Aviv to meet with Jurgen Warmbrunn, a (possibly) former Israeli intelligence agent who was one of the earliest people to start putting the scale of the zombie pandemic together. 

Although never acknowledging which Israeli intelligence service he was, and possibly still is, employed by, he openly admits that at one point he could be called “a spy.” 

Given how much this book loves stereotypes and cliches, I'm amazed it didn't just come straight out and say that he was part of Mossad. 

(Oh and tick that off our Israeli WWZ Tourism Checklist: every seventh person is a Mossad agent). 

Warmbrunn starts into his story and gets a whole two paragraphs before referencing the holocaust (because he's Jewish, you see). As he tells it, he first heard of zombies in Taiwanese decryptions of Chinese military communications; Taiwan's intelligence services had bought Israeli decrpytion software, and the Taiwanese contacts thought something was wrong with the program because the messages didn't make any sense. Warmbrunn assumed all the zombie talk was code for something else, but he couldn't quite shake the suspicion that there was something more to it.

Still, as one of your great national heroes used to say: “My spider sense was tingling.” 

Oh my god no one fucking  talks like this. It's Spiderman. Everyone knows who Spiderman is. If he was going to reference Spiderman, he'd just reference Spiderman. This AS THEY SAY IN YOUR AMERICAN PARLANCE thing comes up repeatedly in the book, and it's just as hacky and cringe-inducing every time.

While Warnbrunn's spider sense was tingling (in the manner of the American superhero, Spiderman), he ran into someone at a wedding who recounted a strange story from South Africa about reanimated corpses. Well, actually the guy filtered the story through the lens of golem, probably while saying something like "As featured in the famous Jewish folk tale of the golem, which we constantly reference and allude to because we're Israeli, do you see." But the book doesn't go into that much detail. 

Warnbrunn brought this story and the emails to his superiors, and they decided to see if there was anything to it due to a unique security arrangement of the Israeli government. 

And this is where I directly benefited from the unique circumstances of our precarious security. In October of 1973, when the Arab sneak attack almost drove us into the Mediterranean, we had all the intelligence in front of us, all the warning signs, and we had simply “dropped the ball.” We never considered the possibility of an all-out, coordinated, conventional assault from several nations, certainly not on our holiest of holidays. Call it stagnation, call it rigidity, call it an unforgivable herd mentality. Imagine a group of people all staring at writing on a wall, everyone congratulating one another on reading the words correctly. But behind that group is a mirror whose image shows the writing’s true message. No one looks at the mirror. No one thinks it’s necessary. Well, after almost allowing the Arabs to finish what Hitler started, we realized that not only was that mirror image necessary, but it must forever be our national policy. 

I know I've been harping on it incessantly, but just to drive home how pervasive the cultural stereotyping in this book us: we're less than two pages into Warnbrunn's chapter, and he's already mentioned Hitler, the Holocaust, the war of 1973 and Golems. Literally the only character trait the guy has is that he's Israeli. If you talked to a random Israeli person for the three to five minutes it would have taken to say all of this, how likely do you think it is that any of these topics would come up naturally in a conversation, let alone all four of them? 

But anyway. I have no idea if any of this is accurate, but according to Warnbrunn the Israeli government has a standing policy of assigning one person to look into any possible threat, no matter how outlandish it sounds. He got assigned to check out the whispers of zombies and found out that yep, there were zombies. 

I also made one very encouraging discovery: how to terminate their existence.

Going for the brain.

[He chuckles.] We talk about it today as if it is some feat of magic, like holy water or a silver bullet, but why wouldn’t destruction of the brain be the only way to annihilate these creatures? Isn’t it the only way to annihilate us as well? 

I've never understood the rationale behind the whole "destroy the brain" thing. If the zombie is literally a walking corpse--as the ones in this book are--then its brain is already dead, and shooting it isn't going to make it any more dead. The way I see it, there are only two possibilities when it comes to "realistic" zombies: either they're 28 Days Later "infected" and just as fragile as normal humans, or they're magical walking corpses and the only way to neutralize them is to burn them or dismember them completely. I'd argue this would make them far scarier. 

Paul Knight had been a friend of mine for a long time, going all the way back to Entebbe. 

Warnbrunn was involved in Entebbe, becuase of course he was. 

Our boy delivered his findings to his superiors, and they came up with a radical solution, which we'll hear about in the very next chapter. That's right: we're not leaving Israel yet, because Max Brooks has opinions on Israel and Palestine and this whole region of the world. 

At least, I...I think he has opinions.  It's honestly kind of hard to tell.