J. Brad Hicks (bradhicks) wrote,
J. Brad Hicks

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The Politics of Survival Horror and World War Z

World War Z, by Max Brooks, hardly needs another review. I came late to this party; all of you heard how wonderful this book was back when I started hearing about it, a year ago or more. Presumably all or almost all of you know that it's the sequel to Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide, that it posits that a George Romero-like "zombie" plague turns into a world-wide event, that the first book pretends to be a compilation of useful survival tips from people who successfully fought off or escaped from localized zombie attacks, and that this second book is a deliberate homage to Studs Terkel's The Good War, a compilation of oral histories from survivors as the war is winding down, telling the story of how the zombie war affected not just local communities, but the whole world. You also don't need me to tell you that the book has almost no detractors, that this is one of the most favorably reviewed books in the history of science fiction, and that people who read this book are passing it along to and forcing it on their friends to read faster than, well, faster than a global zombie plague.

All I have to add to that, by way of review, is this. I despise survival horror, but I still loved this book.

The thing about survival horror and me is this. Whether we're talking about proto-survival-horror classics like Ridley Scott's Alien or zombie fiction or psycho killer escape stories like the Saw series or survival-horror themed game shows like Survivor, the survival horror genre gets everything wrong about how to actually survive in adverse conditions, and I just can't get past that. The subject of who lives and who dies, and what makes the difference, when situations go pear-shaped is one that's been subjected to intense scientific and statistical scrutiny over the last hundred years. (I have yet to find a better survey of the subject than Xavier Maniguet's 1996 book Survival: How to Prevail in Hostile Environments, which is both a really fun page-turning read and really thought provoking.) Not the least important by far of the things that the whole genre gets wrong is that it takes it for granted that willingness to triage has to be elevated all the way to callousness. Triage, for the few of you who don't know the technical term, is a technique used in emergency medicine for allocating insufficient medical resources. As you'd expect from the name, it divides all the incoming wounded into three categories. The categories are people who probably will survive whether they get help right now or not, people who probably won't survive no matter how much help we give them right now, and people who probably will survive but only if they get help right now; and only the third group get any medical help until we run out of them. Then the medics turn to group two, in hopes that they were wrong and more people can be rescued; when the last of those dies, they give the remainder the health care they need.

But one of the main conventions of the survival horror genre is that unless somebody utterly callous decides early who isn't going to make it and forces the rest of the group to callously abandon at least half, preferably 3/4ths or more, of the group to immediate death, nobody at all will survive. And scientific study of survival in desperate situations shows that it's just not true. On the contrary, the people who survive the longest are the ones who show the most determination to save everybody who can possibly be saved, who err on the side of keeping the group together and alive rather than on the side of callousness, who wait until it really is inescapably obvious that someone isn't going to make it to give up on them. There are almost no genuinely awful situations that can't be made better by having more help. And this seems so obvious to me that until I read that John Barnes essay I was forwarded the other day and that I linked for you, "The Well-Bitten Hand," I completely and utterly failed to see the appeal of survival horror fiction, let alone survival horror themed game shows. Now I think maybe I get it.

If Barnes is right that new genres and subgenres of fiction arise when society needs new ways to talk about problems, fears, or insecurities that our current fiction didn't equip us with the vocabulary for, then survival horror has almost certainly caught on because it is the perfect genre to talk about Reaganomics. During the Reagan years, American business decided that the only way to save the American economy was to triage out (depending on where you were) anywhere from 20% to 90% of our workers. For almost 30 years now, every American has had to live with the knowledge that he or she is being watched constantly at work for the slightest sign of weakness, that the first time the business hits the tiniest bump in the road they will be abandoned no matter how much help they were being before, and that nobody they worked with will show the slightest sign of grief or remorse that they are gone. When the supposedly unproductive are culled, people in American workplaces tell themselves the same lie that people in survival horror fiction tell each other after somebody they previously liked, and who may have even helped the group as a whole survive some previous attack, tell each other: might as well just accept that they're gone, they never really had a chance anyway, and it was them or me. If Barnes is right and I'm applying his principles correctly, the appeal of survival horror as a genre is that it gives us a way to talk about survival strategies in a world like this one: what traits are valued, and which ones are baggage, and how should I feel if somebody I like doesn't make it, or somebody I don't like doesn't make it, or even if I don't make it?

And if nothing else, World War Z deserves to be elevated over all of the rest of the survival horror fiction I've had shoved off on me over the last couple of decades for this recognition: survival strategies that are designed to get a group of 8 to 10 people through a week-long disaster do not scale well to whole nations over decades, let alone to a species aiming for even longer-term survival. I don't think Brooks gets all of it right, but he gets tremendous credit for me for putting at least some serious thought into the question. OK, this book asks, your home town has been over-run by zombies, and you and a few others survive. Now how are you going to link up with other survivors, and where, and once you do, how do you plan on retaking a big enough area to farm on and manufacture weapons in, how do you plan to organize an army big enough to clear a continent, how will all of the world's reorganized armies address the entirely separate problem of eradicating a plague that can re-explode exponentially if even one zombie staggers up out of the ocean or thaws out of the permafrost, staggers into even one unprepared town, and bites somebody?

Remember that centuries ago, a smallpox epidemic crossed the North American continent at a steady 4 miles per hour, 24 hours a day of 15 minute miles, as panic-stricken (and unknown to them, already plague-infected) Indians tried desperate to outrun and escape the plague that was killing anywhere from 1/3rd to 90% of the towns they were escaping from. And that was before air travel, before the interstate highway system. Even once an almost sure-fire way to detect asymptomatic infectees with the zombie plague is found (within minutes of a bite, dogs go homicidally nuts trying to kill infected humans), can a plague be contained at all? Let's say your plan involves starting by retreating to zombie-proof fortresses, since it's not that hard to keep out even an infinite number of humanoids that can't operate even simple tools, who can't climb any but the most shallow of slopes, and who can't keep moving after exposure to more than a few hours of sub-freezing temperatures -- how long will your zombie-proof fortress last when the nearest couple of hundred thousand desperate human survivors try to batter their way in to escape the zombies behind them? Let's say that there is no vaccine against the zombie plague, but your plan for your own survival is to fund it by selling people a fake vaccine, so that they calmly go about their jobs and don't disrupt the real evacuation plans; does that make you a good guy for keeping the economy going as long as possible and letting the secret official evacuation be unmolested by national panic, or does that make you a bad guy for tricking hundreds of millions of people into not even trying to escape?

When the survivors have to be reorganized and retrained to be put onto a national war footing, how do the leaders maintain the political aura of legitimacy necessary to get the army, let alone the public, to obey them? Which nations are best positioned to feed and re-equip the survivors in other nations, and how does that change the politics and economics of the world, and how do they get the food and weapons flown over vast zombie-infested areas and dropped to the surviving enclaves in other nations? And remember, once your army starts retaking your continent, scattered on the upper floors of buildings all over the continent are going to be a handful of really resourceful people who, because of (or in some cases even in spite of) the incomplete and not always helpful advice of rushed-out government publications like The Zombie Survival Guide, who are still surviving on their own. Not a few of those people are legitimately bitterly angry at having been left behind to fend for themselves or die; how do you integrate them back into your society once the zombies are cleared from their areas? You may not agree with or like all of Brooks' answers, but he's asking an awful lot of interesting questions. (And having a blast with it at times. Some of the highly recognizable celebrities are riotously fun, as we get to see how the zombie war affects people like Colin Powell and Howard Dean, or Bill Maher and Ann Coulter, or even Paris Hilton and Tinkerbell.)

Whether or not I think Brooks got all of his answers right, all of these are a lot more interesting questions to me than, "do I have what it takes to stab a relative or a friend in the face in order to survive myself, or am I loser who deserves to die?" And that's why, even though I utterly despise almost all survival horror, I loved World War Z.
Tags: books, science fiction

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