Friday, June 21, 2013

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

It's now ten years since the world was almost destroyed by zombies and Max Brooks has determined that the stories of the survivors must be told for the benefit of future generation. The zombie war was almost an extinction moment for humans, as they found all of the military tactics they had developed didn't work on zacks. The technology we expected to ensure our superiority was absolutely useless.

Patient zero was Chinese and the disease spread to the uninfected to the west through the use of illegal organ transplant.  It was believed at first that people were suffering from a form of rabies and a vaccine was created, giving people a false sense of safety.   Government corruption and bureaucracy  meant that many died, who did not have to die.  People seeking to make profit in the face of disaster, caused the infection to spread even faster, as they illegally transported infected peoples across borders. The only country which reacted quickly was Israel and by being the first to shut their borders, actively worked to protect their citizens. 

I must admit that I chose to read this book because of the movie by the same title, which is set to be released in June of this year.  From the clips, I expected an action book and that is far from what  World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is about.  It is a story about desperation, government corruption, families, the military, the environment and most importantly the human spirit and our drive to survive. Brooks makes the story of this zombie war international, which is absolutely unique in this genre.  Most zombies books speak about an infection breaking out in the U.S. or one country, leaving the reader with no idea of what is happening in the rest of the world. 

Unlike other books in this genre, there really is no protagonist in this story.  Every 3-4 pages, Brooks moves onto a new account of the zombie war. This means that the readers must invest in the setting itself, rather than the characters. It is helped by the fact that World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is a global account and therefore the experiences continue to vary and are based on the world's various cultures.  For instance, residents of the U.K. didn't have guns to protect themselves because of their strict gun control laws and so broke into museums and stole medieval weapons.  Her Maj stayed in London and opened Windsor castle to survivors.  The North Koreans simply disappeared below ground, while Cuba moved quickly to eradicate the danger on the Island and opened its doors to Americans fleeing the danger.  

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War dealt with practicalities like law and order.  What happens when it becomes impractical to imprison people for crimes? The solution for the Americans was public whippings and using shame to force people to conform.  What happens to people when white collar jobs like lawyers and executive assistants have no useful skills to help rebuild the world and how does this effect their sense of self?  When one finds oneself being lectured to by the man who used to unplug your toilet, the world has clearly changed. I found this to be a realistic treatment of class and thoroughly enjoyed how realistic it was.

Simply due to the global nature of this story, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War was extremely inclusive. Brooks took great care with the various cultures and humanized each experience. Dystopian has an awful tradition of supporting White male hegemony, or what we commonly refer to as a lo, a White man shall lead them into safety - think The Walking Dead, Falling Skies and Revolution for example. Because resistance is organized by country, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War featured different heroes and many of them were of colour.

Disability was a strong element in this story.  We were told about the people who had PTSD and suffered great depression because of the war.  It's an easy thing to imagine and they were not stigmatized for the inability to cope.  However, the treatment of those who broke down and identified with zombies was decidedly problematic and they were not given the same respect or leeway, though there were clearly dealing with a mental health issue.  One story, focused on the experience of a disabled man in a wheelchair.  Normally when we see disability in dystopian stories, the focus is always on those who are neurologically atypical and so it was fascinating to see how people who had  a physical disability survived the war.  One wheelchair user pointed out that because he was in a chair, he found it far more easy to run away from the zombie threat, than someone who was more typically mobile.  If you think about it, this makes sense.  On a flat surface, a fit person in a wheel chair is able to move much faster than someone who is running, let alone walking.  Ableism however did not end for him and he was forced to fight for the right to go on patrol.

There was one mention of sex in World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War and unsurprisingly, it was decidedly heterosexual.   The absence of sex does not make this unproblematic because without an obvious GLBT character, it is assumed that everyone is straight and cisgender.  Dystopians in particular have a long history of erasure when it comes to the LGBT community.  It leads one to believe that there must be something extra tasty about TLGB people, because they inevitably become zombie fodder, or targets for alien aggression in terms of sci-fi.

I loved this book and cannot imagine for a moment that the movie can even begin to explore the complexity of the story.  Just from the clips, it looks like Brad Pitt leading the charge to save the world, which is far from what this book is about.  World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is not your typical zombie story because it encourages the reader to examine the world and question what they would do in the same situation.  What would you be willing to sacrifice to survive?