Before diving into some of my thoughts about the book, I’d like to digress for a second and tell about my experience reading this book. Probably, like many people in our class, I was at home over break reading this book while also balancing family, food, and friends. I realized that the only way I could get myself started reading was if I could convince my whole family to do it as well. For that reason, I downloaded the audiobook for free (you get two free audiobooks with an Audible trial, I discovered). After first accidentally downloading the German version, I finally found a narration that we could all understand. My parents and I were traveling around Death Valley which was fitting in some ways, not only because of the spooky namesake, but also because traveling in that seemingly lifeless desert valley forces one to think about survival in a similar way to how this novel forces one to think about what one’s own response would be in the face of a zombie invasion. Every so often, between chapter breaks my mom or dad would chime in, “Well, I would just go find an island,” or “This place would be perfect as long as you could bring enough food and water with you!”
I have to admit that after listening to the details of how a zombie dismembers a human while passing through the Mars-like landscape of Death Valley has left me a little jittery, jumping at every little shadow. As we made our way through World War Z, I was stunned by the way Max Brooks dutifully explored and deconstructed almost every possible response to the zombie invasion. My family and I thought we were intelligent and on top of it by thinking that escaping on a boat or to a mountain or island would be the answer. However, Max Brooks carefully deconstructs each of these responses, explaining the way in which virtually every response would crumble in the face of a crisis. For me, this was one of the most impressive aspects of the novel, the vast amount of research and care that Max Brooks must have taken to construct these detailed narratives of individuals in each country.
After our discussion in class, I was curious to know what sort of research Brooks put into his novel. I also really wanted to know how various countries received these packaged analyses of their potential reaction to an epidemic. After a bit of research, I could not find any answers to my latter question. However, in an article Brooks wrote dispelling the comparison of his novel to the Ebola outbreak, he commented briefly on the extensive research he did to create this novel. http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2014/10/16/is-ebola-the-real-world-war-z-spoiler-alert-its-not/ In addition to studying the history of pandemics and responses to natural disasters, Brooks interviewed a number of doctors, soldiers, journalists, and intelligence personnel, “in an attempt to illustrate the fragile global systems that shield our species from the abyss”.
Not only was the benefit of these interviews reflected in the details or content of the interviews, but also in his writing style, including the interaction between the narrator Max Brooks and each character. It must have taken a great deal of care and knowledge to construct a fictional oral history that is still based in research and some fact. Brooks chose a challenging style in creating an “oral history;” however, this chosen style does additional work for the story as we see the interaction between narrator or interviewer, Max Brooks, and his interview subjects. The interview structure of this novel forces Brooks to make a number of admissions in the Introduction as he identifies the importance of recognizing the “human factor”. Additionally, in the introduction, Brooks writes, “ I have attempted to reserve judgment, or commentary of any kind, and if there is a human factor that should be removed, let it be my own” (Brooks 3). Brooks’ decision to include this disclosure is especially ironic, considering the entire novel is his own commentary on humanity and human systems. However, in my opinion, the awareness that this comment reflects does give the novel an extra element of legitimacy.
In all of Max Brooks’ gory descriptions of zombie attacks, it is not the grisly details that have continued to haunt me; it is the government’s ineptitude and inability to deal with such a massive crisis. As I may have made clear in class, the metaphorical zombie that this book represents for me, is climate change. Brooks has done us all a favor by going through the thought experiment of identifying where major world powers are going to crumble in the face of a massive, devastating, faceless enemy such as climate change. Yet, despite this example, among countless other writings that detail how our national and international systems will be stressed under increasing temperatures, very few actions have been taken internationally to mitigate the effects of climate change. Up until this point, refusals to create international cooperation, and uncertainty as to how to address the unevenness or “unflat” nature of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions have made progress on climate mitigation almost non-existent. World War Z only worsened my “climate anxiety” as the international systems that we depend on crumbled in the face of the zombie invasion. As a result, I honestly have very little hope for international cooperation in the face of global threats. The COP 21 in Paris will be an interesting case study in how much our world leaders have learned in the past year.
While I don’t have much hope for the effectiveness of international treaties and cooperation in the face of an imminent yet faceless threat, I do think that outside of government structures, humans have an incredible capacity to build resilient and cooperative communities. In her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit posits that the large problems in response to disasters come from governments, not individuals. However, most do not distinguish between a government’s response and that of individuals or society. This lack of distinction leads to an overall perception that in the face of a disaster individuals will turn on each other for their own benefit. However, in World War Z we see certain examples of individuals banding together in the face of a common enemy. This is also supported by non-fictional examples in Solnit’s, A Paradise Built in Hell, as she describes a number of examples from Hurricane Katrina to earthquakes in San Francisco where individuals formed a community and truly supported each other in the face of a disaster. There are clearly a number of reasons why the smaller scale, national examples in Solnit’s book differ greatly from something as large and international as a zombie invasion. There also exist many examples in these two books and elsewhere of individuals turning on each other when it comes to the ultimate question of scarcity and survival. However, it seems that depending on the ability of individuals and communities to organize and protect each other may be the only option in the face of an issue as dangerous, international, and unwieldy as climate change.
Also, if anyone is interested in hearing additional breakdown of zombie invasion theories and IR theory, here is a Foreign Policy blog: http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/08/18/theory-of-international-politics-and-zombies/ . Apparently the author of the blog also wrote a book, Theory of International Politics and Zombies