World War Z (Max Brooks)

Posted: June 20, 2014 in fiction
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Last summer I was really impressed with the film World War Z. I went to the theatre thinking, Brad Pitt and zombies, and left it with much more. It ends up being an allegory of the bases of success as a society—the groups based on military might or spiritual faith fail, while science dedicated to serving others wins.

The book is completely different. It’s not some facile Brad-Pitt-and-zombies novelization, though. A “picturization” (to borrow Selznick’s term) of Max Brooks’s World War Z would look like a Ken Burns documentary. After the zombie war is over, someone travels the world interviewing the people who were involved. The interviews are presented in a fairly straightforward manner. There might be an unreliable narrator or two, but Brooks doesn’t use the tropes that normally create Gothic suspense. There’s no mystery. Just one big global problem, and the knowledge that eventually people will survive.

I would be interested to know how people from other countries react. The book is a little America-heavy, but not so much as to be jarringly off-balance. Does he portray other cultures accurately? I’m not qualified to say. Maybe there will be a Holy Russian Empire at some point in the future. Sometimes he uses American phrasing for British subjects, but it’s not pronounced enough to ruin the book.

I did not expect the book to be so patriotic. The movie makes it seem like every society on earth can keep their heads in a crisis and follow orders except Americans, but in the novel everyone loses their shit. And then there are unexpected moments when people stop to define what their nation represents, as in this excerpt from the American vice president’s interview:

The president was cool, a lot cooler than me. Maybe it was all that military training . . . he said to me, “This is the only time for high ideals because those ideals are all that we have. We aren’t just fighting for our physical survival, but for the survival of our civilization. We don’t have the luxury of old-world pillars. We don’t have a common heritage, we don’t have a millennia of history. All we have are the dreams and promises that bind us together. All we have . . . [struggling to remember] . . . all we have is what we want to be.” You see what he was saying. Our country only exists because people believed in it, and if it wasn’t strong enough to protect us from this crisis, then what future could it ever hope to have?

In Brooks’s story, Cuba becomes a major world superpower, because all that isolation really helps protect people from zombies. People leave the United States on homemade rafts in order to escape to Cuba, reversing what we’ve been seeing for the last few decades. And when Americans arrive in Cuba, they call themselves Nortecubanos and they bring their American values for efficiency and equality.

We were the breadbasket, the manufacturing center, the training ground, and the springboard. We became the air hub for both North and South America, the great dry dock for ten thousand ships. We had money, lots of it, money that created an overnight middle class, and a thriving, capitalist economy that needed the refined skills and practical experience of the Nortecubanos.

We shared a bond I don’t think can ever be broken. We helped them reclaim their nation, and they helped us reclaim ours. They showed us the meaning of democracy . . . freedom, not just in vague, abstract terms, but on a very real, individually human level. Freedom isn’t just something you have for the sake of having, you have to want something else first and then want the freedom to fight for it. That was the lesson we learned from the Nortecubanos. They all had such grand dreams, and they’d lay down their lives for the freedom to make those dreams come true. Why else would El Jefe be so damned afraid of them?

And it’s not just American patriotism. There’s a splendid justification for the monarchy, in an interview with a Scot who survived the war in an English castle. This is so England-loving it might have come from Doctor Who.

[David hesitates before speaking. He is clearly uncomfortable. I hold out my hand.]

Thank you so much for taking the time . . .

There’s . . . more.

If you’re not comfortable . . .

No, please, it’s quite all right.

[Takes a breath.] She . . . she wouldn’t leave, you see. She insisted, over the objections of Parliament, to remain at Windsor, as she put it, “for the duration.” I thought maybe it was misguided nobility, or maybe fear-based paralysis. I tried to make her see reason, begged her almost on my knees. Hadn’t she done enough with the Balmoral Decree, turning all her estates into protected zones for any who could reach and defend them? Why not join her family in Ireland or the Isle of Man, or, at least, if she was insisting on remaining in Britain, supreme command HQ north above the Antonine.

What did she say?

“The highest of distinctions is service to others.” [He clears his throat, his upper lip quivers for a second.] Her father had said that; it was the reason he had refused to run to Canada during the Second World War, the reason her mother had spent the blitz visiting civilians huddled in the tube stations beneath London, the same reason, to this day, we remain a United Kingdom. Their task, their mandate, is to personify all that is great in our national spirit. They must forever be an example to the rest of us, the strongest, and bravest, and absolute best of us. In a sense, it is they who are ruled by us, instead of the other way around, and they must sacrifice everything, everything, to shoulder the weight of this godlike burden. Otherwise what’s the flipping point? Just scrap the whole damn tradition, roll out the bloody guillotine, and be done with it altogether. They were viewed very much like castles, I suppose: as crumbling, obsolete relics, with no real modern function other than as tourist attractions. But when the skies darkened and the nation called, both reawoke to the meaning of their existence. One shielded our bodies, the other, our souls.

He really makes it seem like having a king is not that bad. And that William probably is the best choice for successor.

The section on Japan, while it doesn’t stir the same emotions as the country I am from or the country whose culture I have spent my adult life studying, presents the view of society that attracts me the most.

You know I don’t believe any of this spiritual “BS,” right? As far as I’m concerned, Tomonaga’s just a crazy old hibakusha, but he has started something wonderful, something I think is vital for the future of Japan. His generation wanted to rule the world, and mine was content to let the world, and by the world I mean your country, rule us. Both paths led to the near destruction of our homeland. There has to be a better way, a middle path where we take responsibility for our own protection, but not so much that it inspires anxiety and hatred among our fellow nations. I can’t tell you if this is the right path; the future is too mountainous to see too far ahead. But I will follow Sensei Tomonaga down this path, myself and the many others who join our ranks every day. Only “the gods” know what awaits us at its end.

With five hundred years of empire under our belts, isn’t it time to stop? Can we follow the middle path that commands respect from others and also respects the autonomy of other nations? I live in a part of the world that is famed for constant conflict, and I’d really like the conflict to cease. The world is a good place, and people are good. We all love our families and friends and want to do what’s right. If we can remove the imperial bent of religions and communicate openly and clearly with each other, I think we can have a world that is both free and peaceful. But the future is too mountainous to see too far ahead, and none of us knows what will happen. I probably have another forty years on this planet—let’s see what comes next.

  1. Interesting start to your new blog, Ricky. I liked the review. Not sure whether I would read the book, but the review was a good read. It’s Friday, so I’m not getting into any clever debates. Have a good weekend.

    • theoccasionalman says:

      I don’t know as it’s really your thing. The emphasis is on people in positions of authority or who have the power to make things happen, and we both know how women fare on those fronts. I don’t think the lack of female characters indicates any misogyny on Brooks’s part, so much as it acknowledges that women have fewer opportunities to make a real difference in the world, particularly in the event of a zombie attack. The last word from a woman in the book is a Russian who has dropped out of the fighting to become a baby-making machine for the Holy Russian Empire. And it seems that life is difficult enough without zombies . . .

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