Max Brooks’ apocalyptic novel, World War Z, submerges the role of the individual into the realm of the state
Though it may share the same title, it is safe to say this film has very little to do with the book. While the film is the story of a retired tough guy reluctantly leaving his family to save the world from a zombie outbreak, the book is very different. Set in a context which is ten years after the official end of the zombie war, named World War Z, Max Brooks’ alter ego presents an oral history – a series of hypnotic first-person accounts of how the outbreak first began, the ensuing panic that nearly drove humanity to its extinction, and how we eventually turned the tide and finally won the war. While the film creates suspense by withholding the ‘will he or won’t he’ plot device until the very end, the book, by contrast, gives news of our victory in the very beginning. So what remains of its suspense? The story of how it began, the cost, and all that happened in between.
Despite being a book about zombies, WWZ possesses an unnerving ‘realism’, which critics did not fail to note when the book was first released (see for example here, here and here). Unlike typical zombie fiction that tends to focus on small bands of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world, WWZ is penned on a global scale. The international scale of the catastrophe is conveyed all the more effectively through glimpses of suffering in various parts of the world, whether from Chile, Micronesia, Cuba, Iceland, South Africa and so on. In conveying the exploits of ordinary people from the world over, the narrative shifts from one character to another without warning. This ‘fog-of-war’ narrative forces the reader to collude in scrambling all the bits of information together, to figure out what happened and why, our imaginations left pondering about all the musty gaps in-between. Aside from encouraging the reader to assemble a history independent from various points of views, the only constants that reappear are countries and their governments. Ultimately, WWZ is as much about how the Chinese, American, South African, Israeli, and other governments cope, or fail to, as it is about how ordinary people react to the outbreak. In WWZ, the real ‘agents’ are not individuals, but governments.
The central role that government has in the narrative is not surprising. In a story of how the human race got itself back on its feet, only governments have the necessary ‘sovereignty’, ‘legitimacy’, requisite power and resources at their disposal. Only governments can conceivably manage the resources to keep their populations ‘bred, fed and led’. Yet Brooks is careful not to present governments uncritically. When resources are stretched, WWZ does not portray governments recoiling in making ‘difficult’ decisions and expending the necessary ‘sacrifices’ to ensure their respective populations are suitably ‘husbanded’.
Despite these patterns, governments are not uniform in managing the crisis. Critical to the book’s narrative are the divergent paths that governments take and the fortunes that they subsequently find themselves in. However, the geopolitics of the story does not merit much comment. Like typical counter-factual histories, WWZ’s geopolitics is a projection of today’s concerns into the future. Suffice it to say, this is a view from ‘liberal’ New York; Russia apparently reverts to its essence as an expansive theocratic state, the Middle East is encountered only through the Israel and Palestine conflict, Iran and Pakistan predictably destroy each other, and so on. The main narrative is America-centric, where the zombie crisis creates a new depression and America is forced to go back to New Deal economics. The book also exhibits the peculiarly American reverence towards their armed forces, as well as another amusing constant, the commentary towards the Bush administration in the aftermath of the Iraq debacle. Ultimately however, if you find the geopolitics plausible, you’ve probably been reading too much of the New York Times.
By contrast, one of the most illuminating aspects in WWZ is its portrayal of our over-reliance on government to effectively manage our lives. All over the world, as the panic spreads, WWZ portrays the urban populations of advanced capitalist societies – overspecialised in ever-smaller niches, over-reliant on mainstream media, having delegated their protection and security to the state – at a complete and utter loss of how to cope. The only civilians who can handle themselves are those raised in tough neighbourhoods or former members of the armed forces. Populations paralysed in fear wait for their governments to help, wait to be told what to do, and complain when not properly organised or guided (p. 122). It seems that it takes only a major disaster to uncover the reality and extent of our lives as ‘docile bodies’; the majority are unprepared – and possibly even incapable – of dealing with major catastrophes, and are at the mercy of government bureaucracy.
It is no coincidence that when Brooks imagines how America rebuilds itself after the zombie outbreak, his alter ego interviews several people including a New Deal administrator, the former vice president of America, a volunteer to the state-organised neighbourhood watch, a film director who produces state-funded propaganda, and, naturally, soldiers. With the book hinting that America’s efforts to rebuild are mirrored by governments across the world, what is striking is that even in a country typically considered as the most individualistic, all of the characters interviewed happen to be either part of the state administration or somehow associated with it. In doing so, WWZ reveals the extent to which the modern age cannot even conceive of the individual except in relation to the state.
Just like our fictional counterparts in WWZ, our lives – the audience – have become utterly dependent on government. The government tells us what to do, provides jobs for us, keeps us secure, and without it we can scarcely conceive how to live. In the real world it seems we can only react, incapable of controlling the conflagration of factors and forces constantly besetting our lives. We seem not only to be at the mercy of natural forces, but also market forces, health scares and pandemics, forces that can only be controlled, if at all, at the nation-state or international level. If we wish to create effective change, we are unable to do so as individuals or small associations, and even then our efforts are only conferred ‘legitimacy’ after appropriate state legal recognition. It is no small irony that in WWZ, the one with almost limitless power is not a general, or even a president – it is an unelected government bureaucrat. It seems then, part of what makes WWZ so realistic, is the uncomfortable truth that in the modern world, the individual cannot be conceived without an umbilical cord from his navel to the state.
World War Z by Max Brooks (Duckworth Overlook Press: 2006). Page references are to the 2013 edition.
Image from: http://news.discovery.com/earth/science-vs-fiction-world-war-z-130620.htm
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