Like most of the media I’ve loved and internalized, the oeuvre of Max Brooks can be as shallow or as deep as you want to make it. It speaks volumes to his skill as a writer that I’m able to ask, Is the message of World War Z ultimately conservative? Environmentalist? Nihilistic? None (or all?) of these? Who’s to say?—it’s up to the reader’s own unique attitudes and interpretation to decide.
Unlike a lot of the other post-apocalyptic media being produced these days *coughAMCWalkingDead*, Brooks actually addresses healthy long-term survival approaches for when the SHTF in his works, and I’m very glad that he continues to comically preach his message of zombie PREparedness at universities around the country.
Of course, everybody always just focuses on the ‘what to use to kill zombies’ chapters—and then becomes disappointed when he explains how M-16s, AKs, and rocket-propelled chainsaws aren’t ideal. Want to have some fun? Hand the ZSG to a twelve-year old boy and see if he picks up on the multipurpose survival knowledge that could see him through hurricanes, earthquakes, or civil unrest. He won’t, because it’s The Zombie Survival Guide.
But look beneath the surface, and it seems that Brooks’ overall blueprint in both the ZSG and WWZ is to form self-sufficient and sustainable communities out of the wreckage of the old world. Or maybe that’s just how I read it; maybe I’m seeing what I want to see. Like I said, it’s up to the reader.
Unlike the victims who populate most other zombie media, Brooks suggests a proactive approach to survival, which essentially boils down to the old adage ‘Leave early, go far, stay long’. He recommends putting together a team not—like everyone else seems to want to—of supercommandos, but of prepared, well-trained individuals with skillsets suited to self-sufficiency—doctors, blacksmiths, farmers—well ahead of time, and taking this team to a remote, predetermined destination far from civilization at the first sign of trouble.
One thing I especially love about WWZ is how timely it is, incorporating “modern fears of terrorism, biological warfare, overwhelming natural catastrophes, climate change and global disease.” As Brooks has explained in various interviews,
“I think the zombie craze is very tied to the times we’re living in. The last time we had a zombie craze was the 1970s, and that was a time of anxiety, a time when people really felt like the System was breaking down politically, economically, socially, even environmentally; there really was this feeling that “it’s not working anymore”, and people were really scared, and they wanted to explore their apocalyptic fears but they didn’t want it to be too real. …. I think we’re living in very uncertain times right now…there’s such anxiety, and we keep getting slammed. And so much of the problem seem so big, and we feel so powerless. Who knows what a credit default swap is? I don’t!”
Although published in 2006, Brooks foresaw our Great Recession, the election of our first African-American president, and private space companies like SpaceX. In addition, he peppers the novel with wonderful satirical critiques (he is the son of Mel Brooks, after all) of modern society. Our celebrity-obsessed ‘reality’ TV culture, the corruption of Big Pharma, and the hubris of the Three Gorges Dam all get raked over the coals. By poking fun at lots of Big Ideas (like the fact that whitecollar Americans can’t do anything for themselves anymore, or that our militaries are always fighting the previous war, or that our globalized, import-based economy has neutered the US&A), he effectively exposes the precipice upon which our modern world stands.
Of course, just because Brooks’ world is nearly overrun with the walking dead doesn’t mean that everything becomes primitive; Brooks still sprinkles high technology into his postwar world. The depleted oceans are crossed on futuristic ‘infinity ships’ powered by solar cells and saltwater (or some such phlebtonium), modern dirigibles dot the skies, and civilian spacecraft taxi astronauts to the International Space Station.
However, what really speaks to me in Brooks’ writings is how DIY and decidedly un-hi-tech his recipe to defeat the undead is: go back to basics (“Everything had a kind of retro feel to it”). Tactics? Straight outta the nineteenth century: marching in two ranks, or ‘reinforced squares’. Weapons? Nothing tacticool, just a semi-auto rifle with a wooden stock “like a WWII gun”, and a glorified head-cracking shovel.
Simple, Efficient, and with a healthy worldview behind it, Sustainable.