- Re-emerging Relevance:Did we just re-live the apocalyptic novel World War Z?
This book might seem an unorthodox choice for a favorite novel. But who didn't see parallels between dystopian fiction and the realities of the year 2020? World War Z by Max Brooks1 is a work of fiction that reads like non-fiction, now more than ever. Fully titled World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, the book follows the pattern of Studs Terkel's The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two2 by reporting documentary-style on a global zombie pandemic through a series of first-person interviews with survivors. The Guardian called the parallels between today and Brooks' episodic, geopolitical perspective of a pandemic "breathtaking."3
Students assigned to read the novel for English composition and rhetoric class have sometimes questioned World War Z's sense of realism, arguing that while the style of writing draws comparisons to nonfiction, the outrageous events are uber-fictional. Then came 2020, with its Covid-19 pandemic, racial injustice and social unrest, and a contentious election, all followed in early 2021 by a Capitol insurrection, political and ideological divisions, and a campaign to vaccinate millions. Suddenly fiction became reality and the themes in World War Z reemerged as relevant, prompting me to read the book again despite its disconcerting apocalyptic feel.
World War Z is born from a government report akin to the real 9/11 Commission Report. The author's boss, chairperson of the fictional United Nations Postwar Commission, deletes half of the report, arguing that it contains "too many opinions, too many feelings. […] We need clear facts and figures, unclouded by the human factor."4 In response, the author compiles extensive personal accounts into the 342-page oral history, arguing that "by excluding the human factor, aren't we risking the kind of personal detachment from history that may […] lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn't the human factor the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as 'the living dead'?"5 As I re-read World War Z during the Covid-19 pandemic, I considered how key scenes and characters mirrored the current and real threats to Max Brooks' notion of the "human factor," not only in a literal and physical [End Page 17] sense through the virus, but also by diminishing our abilities to care for our most vulnerable and to interact civilly with those who hold perspectives other than our own.
The first parallel between the book and reality is the stories' origins: World War Z begins with a virus that originated in China. Chapter 1, "Warnings," opens with an interview with Dr. Kwang Jingshu, who discovers patient zero running a high fever, shivering violently, and with a bite mark on his right forearm.6 While readers might dismiss similarities between the virus in World War Z and Covid-19 because of the "bite mark," this scene represents the beginning of the shared politicism of a virus. In reality, then-President Trump ordered travel to and from China to end and states' governors imposed stay-at-home orders hoping to flatten the curve. Americans reacted as typical capitalists, hoarding toilet paper and Lysol. Like World War Z's third chapter, titled "The Great Panic," primary responses were fear and denial. In March 2020, author Max Brooks created and shared a video about the importance of social distancing, pointing to his father, legendary comic Mel Brooks behind a glass door: "If I get the coronavirus, I'll probably be OK. But if I give it to him, he could give it to Carl Reiner, who can give it to Dick Van Dyke, and before I know it, I've wiped out a whole generation of comedic legends."7 Brooks seemed to realize that we were entering into a time eerily similar to his fictional zombie apocalypse.
When staying at home and flattening the curve did not end the pandemic, some citizens began to mistrust science, and here readers see another parallel. One of the more despised characters in World War Z is...