[This is the first in a continuing series, Late to the Party, talking about culture that’s not so ‘pop’ anymore, because sometimes you have things to do for years on end instead of reading the latest book or watching the latest movie. Max Brooks’s World War Z came out in 2006 and I’m only now getting around to read it.]
On the gorgeous Friday of Memorial Day weekend, my partner and I set off to Portland. I had heard good things about the audiobook of World War Z and, knowing little about it except that people liked it and there were zombies, we downloaded it for the 3.5 hour drive.
[Note: An unabridged audiobook came out May 14 of this year but was not available for purchase on iTunes on Memorial Day weekend. Or I didn’t see it. Whatever. Either way, this article is primarily about the abridged version of the audiobook, which has been in the market since 2007.]
I do want to be clear about this up front: I like a LOT of this work, both the audiobook and the book. (After I finished listening to the audio, I ended up borrowing a copy to compare the two.) Brooks’ prose isn’t necessarily anything to write home about, but the level of research and commitment that he brought to this hypothetical situation is outstanding. I think that it achieves one of the most important objectives of science fiction, which is an earnest re-examination of our lives as they are through the lens of what they might become.
But (you knew there was a ‘but’ coming!), this achievement makes Brooks’s failures stand out in greater contrast.
Spoilers: There will be some about this work and the seminal zombie masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead.
A brief background on the book for readers unfamiliar with the work:
Brooks’s unnamed narrator (voiced by Brooks himself in the audiobook) has worked for the United Nations in as a recorder of oral narratives discussing”the Zombie Wars” for purposes of historic preservation. (Brooks avoids giving dates at any point in time, but given that the work obliquely references the second Bush administration and the “brushfire” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the events likely occurred within the first two decades of the 21st century.) The format is a series of interviews from different witnesses, grouped together by the major stages of the epidemic and the conflict – for instance, “Warnings,” “Blame,” “Total War,” “Good-Byes”. The witnesses vary in terms of position and expertise – some are medical professionals detailing how the epidemic initiated and spread; others are refugees from the crisis; still others are military or governmental personnel grappling with how to handle the situation.
The zombie apocalypse is unlikely, and as such is a subject ripe for parody… perhaps to excess. Brooks takes a completely different tactic, instead exploring the geopolitical consequences that such an epidemic would entail if it happened today. And he doesn’t half-ass it! Such an epidemic would realistically affect and complicate conflicts already occurring in the world – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, North Korea vs. South Korea, Cuba vs. the United States, so on – and Brooks introduces outcomes that seem plausible. What I most appreciate about the work is the global outlook that Brooks presents, highlighting not only international relations but underlying cultural, political, economic, and historical circumstances within those nations that alter each nation’s reactions to the crisis. While much of the book does still focus on the issues facing America specifically and some of its problematic solutions, much of that discussion centers around what was once a world power tackling an unprecedented catastrophe, and the hubris inherent in the situation. I appreciated the diversity of viewpoints in what would realistically be a global catastrophe rather than the Euro-centrism that I honestly expected.
Brooks’s doing well in that area, however, makes his lapse in another all the more obvious.
Maybe it was the fact that I was actually hearing actors voice the characters rather than reading their words myself, but after about six interviews (30-40 minutes in), I realized that we hadn’t heard any women. We were still in the first two sections of the book, “Warnings” and “Blame,” covering the very beginning of the epidemic and international response. There was the occasional reference to a wife or a daughter of one of the interviewees, but those mentions were set firmly in the past rather than when the interviews were taking place. Once the awareness of the absence of present women had dawned on me, I couldn’t ignore it. I wondered if it was intentional – if the later stages of the epidemic wiped out women, leaving none to interview, and we simply hadn’t gotten to that twist in the story yet. My partner suggested that perhaps it was stylistic, that soon there would be a string of 10 or so women interviewees. After two hours, however, the benefit of the doubt that I was granting the book started to wear thin.
I heard a woman’s voice for the first time after 13 interviews, about 2 hours and 40 minutes into the audiobook. So there are still women after the apocalypse. Ok. Jesika Hendricks relates her childhood experience of fleeing north with her parents to escape the zombies and instead contending with growing distrust and malice between refugees, starvation, and a nuclear winter. Jesika is justifiably bitter about the situation: another government official relates later that, in order to stem the tide of refugees flowing west beyond the Rocky Mountains for protection from the undead, the government told other refugees to go north, where most refugees starved or froze to death. I’ll admit that I had slight qualms about Jesika’s role as a refugee – while other male refugees had spoken before, there were also plenty of officials, scientists, and experts. I was wary of the only woman having spoken so far being so firmly in the “victim” role, but I pushed this concern aside, certain that there would be other women in more active roles to balance it out.
Another male subject follows her interview.
At this point, I started paying close attention to any mention of women in the book at all – they were so rare that every mention became abnormally significant. Which is the most efficient way to suck the enjoyment out of a work of art! Every new interview with another man, every fleeting mention of a refugee made particularly sympathetic by being a mother with a child, every new little girl undead that an interview subject unhappily had to kill, was a new disappointment.
The next mention of a woman who was not a momentarily glimpsed refugee or zombie was “a dumb bitch” initially skeptical of interviewee Joe Muhammed’s ability to kill zombies (Joe is wheelchair-bound) who avoids saying so directly because of political correctness. Not exactly auspicious. Later in the same story, a fellow patroller almost gets Joe killed due to her having to take “a powder break” while they are on duty together. The fact that both of these instances of weakness and doubt are by women shouldn’t be significant, but the fact that they are the only two women mentioned in this 20-minute segment makes them so.
The next (and, it turns out, last) woman we hear interviewed is Colonel Christina Eliopolis, a fighter pilot. The brief joy I felt at hearing her voice and her position – finally, a mention of women in the military! – was dampened pretty quickly. She begins her segment by arguing against the destruction of some of the military’s more specialized weapons, a destruction justified convincingly by more than one interview subject earlier in the book. From the beginning, her perspective is undercut by what we’ve heard earlier. Next, she loses her plane and her crew when she needs to pee during a long flight and the plane malfunctions. (A lesson of this book is apparently that women peeing gets people attacked/ killed?) She manages to parachute to safety and get in radio contact with a woman HAM radio operator, who talks her through dealing with the trauma of the crash, followed by the horror of having to kill one of her reanimated crew members. Over the next few days, “Mets” guides Christina to a safe pickup location, where a passing helicopter rescues her. Trying to thank Mets over the radio, Christina receives no answer… and a resulting investigation reveals that no HAM radio operators were in the area, Christina’s radio was damaged in the crash, and Christina likely imagined the entirety of the exchange. Christina adamantly rejects this hypothesis, spinning a convoluted scenario to make Mets’s existence possible. The two ways to interpret this are 1) another blow to Christina’s credibility as an officer or 2) Christina is a magical minority.
And that’s it. Of 21 speakers in 30 interviews (several of the speakers are given more than one segment), there are two women. Two.
This is when I turned to the book. The audiobook was an abridged version, after all. Maybe there were more women’s voices in the actual text.
Five out of 42 speakers. Not much better. Even those few ended up making me even more angry and disappointed by what they failed to say – for instance, Mary Jo Miller is introduced as a mayor of a small town that was specifically designed to repel zombie attacks, with Miller the driving force behind construction. Does she tell us the story about how she created these designs, found followers, created a city government from scratch?
No. We hear about how at the start of the invasion she went all mama grizzly and tore a zombie’s head off to protect her children.
To be clear, this wouldn’t be a bad or offensive story if it wasn’t the only one she told and one of only five stories by women in the book. Badass moms are excellent! But this emphasis of this side of her existence does continue to play into limited gender roles of how women are valued even in this brave new world. Perhaps not by all characters in the world, but certainly by the author in telling us this story.
Of the other women in the book, one is a developmentally disabled gorgeous woman who can imitate zombie sounds like no other living human (another magical minority), and the other is a young soldier in the Russian army who gets scared, reads Seventeen, and is protected by one or two more heroic soldiers. Nothing particularly bad about any of them, but also nothing to redeem or subvert most perceptions of women and how women are pictures as existing in Brooks’s world.
There are a few reasons why this is particularly frustrating in World War Z:
- So many of what Brooks describes are narratives that could easily be told from a women’s perspective without any changes. No, there aren’t yet women generals in the US military, but there are women astronauts, K-9 handlers, soldiers and officers, cabinet ministers, academics, diplomats, politicians… Brooks’s characters even mention some of these women in these interviews. We’re told that a woman is president after the end of the Zombie wars. But none of these women get to talk to us, which makes those scattered inclusions feel more like easy tokenism than anything else.
- As I mentioned, the book is really quite good at emphasizing that the Zombie Wars was a global issue. While many of the characters and much of the history specifically covered is American, we also hear from South Africa, Cuba, Russia, China… And with that, we are introduced to characters of different ethnicities, religions, economic background, historic assumptions, physical/mental/emotional disabilities. There’s truly a diversity of viewpoints in this book in everything except gender. (Also sexuality – Brooks’s book is pretty firmly heteronormative – but that’s a separate discussion.) The inclusion of so few women makes those scarce characters seem more the product of tokenism than anything else, no matter Brooks’s intentions.
- The book convincingly portrays scenarios that, on the surface, seem completely implausible. He goes beyond the dead reanimating into situations that are idealistic to the point of being a progressive’s wet dream. For example, because of the damage to the United States, Cuba turns into the economic powerhouse of the Western hemisphere, transitioning organically into capitalism and democracy. The UN is even a powerful and functioning organization! But the parts of life that are already real, like the growing percentage of women in the military and leadership positions in the United States and abroad, or even just 50% of the population in general, are made invisible. That’s what’s heartbreaking. A woman speaking as the vice president of a major democracy, or as a member of the infantry, or an astronaut, or a cabinet member, or diplomat is not unimaginable, because it is happening more and more frequently in real life. It’s just… unimagined.
First listening, then reading World War Z, it started to hurt personally that the author of an erudite, mostly well-executed, and truly fascinating look at both a possible future and the current trajectory of our own world could not think of me, or anyone like me. Not in the numbers in which we exist. And of the times that we are seen, there are even fewer times in which we are heard.
I realize of course that the omission is not out of malice. (Although I’m not sure if unconscious neglect is preferable in this situation.) And the book is part of the steady, gradual improvement we’ve seen in science fiction literature and film of women becoming more than sex objects and rewards to heroes. Huzzah to that! But we can do more.
If you haven’t taken a gander at the history of the zombie, there are worse ways to spend a few minutes. Most people are vaguely familiar with the idea originating from Vodou as a corpse animated by a sorcerer to carry out their bidding. Less clear is the transition from human automaton – not that dissimilar from a golem – under the conscious control of a living human being, to the mindless flesh-eater that bears disease and infects others. A number of films and stories contributed to this shift, but George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead indisputably reigns supreme as the most influential zombie film in the last century.
I saw Night of the Living Dead for the first time only within the last year. Another party I was late to, I know. I went into it with essentially the same knowledge with which I entered World War Z – there will be zombies! – and that’s about it. And, like World War Z, Night of the Living Dead is in many ways extraordinary in craft and concept, if somewhat uneven in execution. It’s a reminder of how essential the challenge to social and narrative norms is to the zombie movie. The cinematography combines elements of both film noir and a brutal found-footage amateurism to present a morally grimy world of the film. The film’s protagonist, a well-educated African American man – a shocking enough casting and character choice for 1968 – even more stunningly dies at the end of the film. Duane Jones’s character Ben survives a zombie onslaught, being the one character with a moral center and any goddamned sense, only to be killed by a posse of white men who mistake him for a zombie.
I think this is a huge part of the reason that zombies have so captured our imagination over the past six decades. Zombies are us. They bring out the worst in human behavior, both among the infected (human beings as insatiable consumers) and among those resisting the infection in how they turn upon each other. Yet to call zombies evil entirely misses the point of mindlessness. Zombies are the inscrutability of entropy rather than an embodiment of sin, as with other undead. One doesn’t need to have had a family curse, be in a cursed house, trespass into a cursed tomb, or be seduced to be attacked by – and become – a zombie. The closest horror parallel to the zombie’s lack of moral causation is perhaps the alien invasion (another genre that really started coming into its own around the time of the zombie flick), but aliens do not possess the innate infectious quality of the zombie. With the zombie, all of us bitten become the monster over enough time, regardless of race, gender, sexual identity, age, state of innocence, whatever. (While gendered and often sexist tropes appear in zombie films – the Final Girl, the Dumb Blond Slut Who Dies First, for easy examples – those are characteristic of horror films in general rather than zombie films specifically.)
Zombies are equalizers, just as death and disease are, which is no small part of why they are so uniquely terrifying to the modern age. It’s no coincidence that zombie films (and some alien invasion films with zombie elements, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers) became a part of popular consciousness during the Cold War. This was prompted not only by the fear of communist infiltration, but because zombies either destroy social compartmentalization that enables how we live our lives around each other, or by their presence turn those social institutions against the remaining humans to divide them further.
Max Brooks takes up some of the same challenge to conventions and expectations that Romero really started. Institutions are questioned, destroyed, reinvented. National and international identities shift tremendously. Social roles, particularly when it comes to white collar vs. blue collar, are inverted and transformed when the manufacturing infrastructure crumbles. But his stark paucity of women’s voices severely undercuts his attempts to create a comprehensive and inclusive view of how our world would change, and ultimately fails to live up to the potential of the zombie genre.
— After seeing this graphic, Lucinda does not particularly feel the need to throw her money at World War Z on the silver screen.