Thursday, July 2, 2009

World War Z by Max Brooks

If someone were to lump in Max Brooks' World War Z along with other zombie books, more than likely he wouldn't be insulted. Zombies give the plot its general structure, starting with Patient Zero, the resulting global outbreak, and their eventual downfall after the living finally figure out ways to contain the situation. Brooks rarely breaks from the stereotypical zombie characterization in the story; their mindless brutality, eternal search for live bodies, and inability to negotiate, all these characteristics are perfectly intact and unchanged. He takes it a step further by making advanced military weaponry all but useless against the zombies, it's instead the classic decapitation/shotgun blast to the head or letting the zombies freeze over the winter that prove effective. Chandler would be satisfied with World War Z's classification as a “zombie book” because any reader who picks it up expecting to find bloodthirsty zombies and shotgun blasts should be more than pleased with the general product. He writes: “Since it [the genre] is also a practical device for enabling individual media users to plan their choices, it can be considered as a mechanism for ordering the relations between the two main parties to mass communication.” The zombie genre does a good job in conveying the content within the story and that was the predominant reason why I picked it up,but in the end I found it to be much more than a story on zombie outbreaks. 

It strays from genre conventions however due to its massive scope and the way in which the story is told. In World War Z, each chapter serves as a separate interview (conducted by the author himself) with different individuals across the world who play all sorts of roles in the global Z War. They range from a soccer-mom mayor in Montana, to an astronaut on the International Space Station, to an officer of the Korean Intelligence Agency. And from the moment the story starts, Brooks creates this facade that the book you're reading is a collection of accounts created after the war, which itself was very real, and absolutely devastating. The story is typically told with extraordinary detail and is written in a way that events unfold in a plausible and realistic manner. This is no Dawn of the Dead, where the survivors are isolated in a mall with a conveniently placed gun shop and endless supply of food. Instead, the few survivors must dangerously scavenge for food, struggle to keep their cities alive or retreat, and eventually build their own sort of war-economy as their prepare to fight back en masse for the first time. 

What this bizarrely realistic war serves to do is to provide social commentary on troubling issues across the world. The story makes attacks on the potentially dangerous dependence on technology worldwide, the uselessness of bureaucracy in times of crisis, nuclear tension between Pakistan and India, and what forced isolation may well do to many nations across the globe, among others. In Dawn of the Dead, Romero criticized American consumerism, but these types of social commentary have generally been the exception rather than the norm. Chandler quotes Steven Neale who illustrates how changes in context can impact a genre and vice-versa: “'a genre develops according to social conditions; transformations in genre and texts can influence and reinforce social conditions.'” World War Z uses its genre framing to play with social conditions, and differentiates itself from the vast majority of zombie works while attempting to evolve the genre. 

It's difficult to say what it is about zombies that allows the genre to continue to survive over the years. Being a destroyed version of humanity, their mindlessness and destructive nature reminds the audience what humanity may very well succumb to if they give into complacency. The zombie symbolizes a human who has completely lost his individuality and become one of many who has mindlessly given in to the world around them. Yet they selfishly only think about their own survival, meanwhile mankind is composed of individuals who must band together in World War Z and think selflessly before they are able to successfully defend themselves and survive. 

1 comment:

  1. Good work Thomas. Two things will help you a great deal with this as we go along: First of all, you would benefit greatly by comparing the book to a 'typical zombie story' That is, an example where we find all of 'their mindless brutality, eternal search for live bodies, and inability to negotiate, all these characteristics are perfectly intact and unchanged' would be very helpful. Secondly, you'll want to quote the text much more in the future. "is typically told with extraordinary detail and is written in a way that events unfold in a plausible and realistic manner" is less helpful to the reader than a quoted example of that detail, or a passage that is especially 'plausible'

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