World War Z

By Max Brooks

I’ve written a lot about zombies in recent years (at most length in reviews of Glenn Kay’s Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide and Corey Redekop’s Husk), in part because I find them fascinating, but also because they’ve become unavoidable. Zombies have taken over the culture, their virus spreading like a pandemic global meme. I’ve tried in the past to offer some explanations for why this is. Mainly I think it’s because we already see society as decomposing into vital and non-vital classes: the hideous, shambling, inarticulate neo-proletariat being a species of living dead. Is not their hunger for flesh just Nietzschean ressentiment writ large? “The earth is full of the superfluous; life is spoiled by the all-too-many.” Thus spoke Zarathustra. Why even waste precious health care resources on them? Shoot them in the head and burn the bodies.

That’s a right-wing interpretation of the genre, to be sure, but Max Brooks’s World War Z invites such political musings. When apocalypse strikes, how will civilization – nay, the human species! – be saved? Only a radical form of apartheid will do. The two countries that lead the way and become the great exemplars in the global showdown are Israel (where they know all about building and policing security walls to keep out undesirables) and South Africa. The latter country even originates a functional form of paramilitary triage called the Redeker Plan, which cuts loose the expendables. And we later learn that the most successful archetype of “New Community” for the “New America” is a walled suburb that goes by the name of the “Masada model.” No flyers in the mailbox, please!

And by the way, where does the zombie virus launch from this time? That same unhygienic, steaming mass of slave labour that gave us SARS, bird flu, and the Yellow Peril: China! We should have built a Great Wall around that giant cesspool to keep the subhuman overflow in!

In order to defeat these undying hordes we are going to have to rediscover martial virtues dormant since the Last Good War (that would be WW2, unless you missed the visual rhyme in the title). After all, this isn’t going to be one of those little “brushfire” wars like Iraq, but a global, scorched-earth conflict, complete with giant set-piece battles, mobile and siege warfare, marine assaults, a doughty, behind-enemy-lines resistance, and even the presence of “quislings.” Other conflicts recalled, sometimes directly, are the American Civil War, the Zulu War, the defence of Mother Russia, and the battle for Middle Earth. But don’t you worry, just as in Independence Day, the president of the United States is up to the task, adopting the mantle of Lincoln, FDR, and Moses by leading his people through their great struggle with his inspiring rhetoric only to die just before the final battle’s won.

It’s easy to make fun of all this, but I give Brooks credit for producing a thrilling compendium of zombie legend and lore, complete with its own soundtrack (Iron Maiden, certainly, but Roxy Music too, and even The Smiths!). How you finally respond to it, though, will depend on how you take its political messages. As noted, underlying everything is an anxiety (quite understandable and widely held) that this planet just has too damn many people on it already. Especially Chinese people. Progress is also shown to be a chimera. We have to learn to “break from our comfortable, disposable consumer lifestyle[s]” and learn other lessons from the greatest generation, chief among them the value of real work and austerity. Take a moment to have some sympathy for the poor head of the U.S. Department of Strategic Resources having to build a wartime economy from the ground up with this pathetic labour pool (i.e., pretty much all your friends and neighbours):

“Talent” describes the potential workforce, its level of skilled labor, and how that labor could be utilized effectively. To be perfectly candid, our supply of talent was at a critical low. Ours was a postindustrial or service-based economy, so complex and highly specialized that each individual could only function within the confines of its narrow, compartmentalized structure. You should have seen some of the “careers” listed on our first employment census; everyone was some version of an “executive,” a “representative,” an “analyst,” or a “consultant,” all perfectly suited to the prewar world, but all totally inadequate for the present crisis. We needed carpenters, masons, machinists, gunsmiths. We had those people, to be sure, but not nearly as many as were necessary. The first labor survey stated clearly that over 65 percent of the present civilian workforce were classified F-6, possessing no valued vocation. We required a massive job retraining program. In short, we needed to get a lot of white collars dirty.

Instead of these lazy, spoiled, F-6 Americans, what is needed are more “first-generation immigrants. These were the people who knew how to take care of themselves, how to survive on very little and work with that they had. These were the people who tended small gardens in their backyards, who repaired their own homes, who kept their appliances running for as long as mechanically possible.”

It would seem that the zombie virus has melded with global warming and peak oil to bring about a long-anticipated environmental and economic shock. Our modern technology doesn’t even work that well in combat (as described in the wonderful account of the Battle of Yonkers), and soon we’re back to swinging away at “Zack” with picks and shovels and samurai swords, which are more effective anyway.

The apocalypse, in other words, isn’t a disaster carrying away 90% or more of the world’s population so much as a chance at our species’ redemption. The Old World was decadent, lazy, wasteful, corrupt, and going to hell anyway. Five thousand years of human history turns out to have been a failed experiment. Let’s wipe the slate clean and start again.

And this time we’re going to . . .

Review first published online July 8, 2013.

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