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World War Z and Spillover
By: Max Brooks David Quammen

Dystopian fiction is relatively new, it's been just over a hundred years since Jack London's The Iron Heel (1908) was published and it is considered to be the first dystopian novel. The nuclear age ushered in dystopia in a big way. Suddenly it was easily conceivable, that the world could change for the horrifically worse in an instant. Today, in 2013, dystopian fiction is wildly popular; added to potential post-nuclear dystopia, are plausible environmental, or viral dystopias. Viral has come to also include the fantastical (biologically, to date) concept of zombies, i.e. a human, who once infected becomes "undead" or reanimated and crazed for flesh, and is also itself highly infectious. Since George Romero's 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead (slightly based on Richard Matheson's 1954 novel, I Am Legend, the myth has hardly changed an iota, with the rules only becoming more established. Of course biological reanimation of a dead human, remains impossible, and some fictions have tried to scrub the "undead" notion and portray being a zombie as being infected with a "rage virus", thus marrying the zombie to a much more biologically possible scenario. After all viruses do exist, in absolute and unknown abundance and variety. WORLD WAR Z; An Oral history of the Zombie War (2006) The undead have never been more popular. Mr. Romero's creation; dumb, slow, and nearly unstoppable in its interest in eating human flesh has set the standard. Many books, many more movies, a TV series, even "Zombie Walks" in many cities, where large groups gather to dress and walk like zombies - need I say, zombies are everywhere. [as I write this the movie of this novel is opening in two days and the previews have been flooding primetime] The appeal of the novel World War Z, and if you're sitting on a beach or a long flight or you just have an empty weekend, I cannot recommend it enough, is that of its excellent structure and purpose. The purpose is to show this as an infection that rages so quickly out of control that any normal prevention techniques are completely overwhelmed, civilization crashes nearly world-wide and governments run for the hills (in the case of the US those hills are the Rocky Mountains). World War Z is structured as oral chronicles, narrated by different survivors from around the world with the author acting as reporter, only occasionally asking questions, as well as providing expository information as introduction to each different chapter. The story is stories told by psychologically-scarred individuals of the world that emerged from this all-out pandemic. One by one they take the reader through the entire war; from an initial "patient zero", to panic, to complete breakdown, and finally to the onset of recovery. The message one could take away from this is that an all-out pandemic of significant virulence could actually completely change the entire geopolitical course of the world. Complacency, and then the whiplash to panic, are the real villains in this, and most, disaster stories. But Mr. Brooks covers the outcome and fallout superbly, while his chroniclers take you individually through the entire 10-year war. Most importantly, this story is more than compelling enough to make you suspend any disbelief, or even a propensity to see a metaphor in the making. SPILLOVER; Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (2012) Less popular than zombies, but perhaps a bit more important, is dystopian non-fiction, such as Spillover, by David Quammen. Mr. Quammen, the author of the modern seminal book on the concept of island biogeography, and how this applies to the current extinction rate, The Song of the Dodo, could be accused of being one of our most serious writers; credibly, persuasively, and thoroughly predicting severe distress from the on-going depredations on what's left of the natural world. Spillover focuses on the emerged and the yet-to-emerge zoonotic diseases, i.e. diseases, especially viruses, that spillover from an animal to a human. From the SARS scare, to our annual 'flu shots, to serious "hot" zones where a zoonotic virus flares up, kills a bunch of humans (and other animals), and then fades into the forest or jungle, Mr. Quammen shows how dystopia is possibly a sneeze or a cough away. In Spillover in his painstakingly and enviable first-hand approach, and a level of research that makes you wonder when he finds time to write, Mr. Quammen takes the reader through viral scientist after viral scientist, through numerous needle-pricks of Ebola and other horrors, and most thrillingly from a single hunter near a river in Cameroon to the misnamed Patient Zero of the AIDS crisis. This is not just a detailed history of zoonotic diseases, though it is that, and eminently readable, but also a clarion call that the combination of our collective actions of environmental upheaval and the ability of a deadly virus to jump on plane, will bring us into ever closer contact with ever more of these new (to humans) and lurkingly unpredictable, viruses. Are zombies our human attempt to anthropomorphize the microscopic, yet undeniably deadly viruses humanity has endured for all of time but is just now beginning to understand as it comes to terms with the veritable onslaught? Is it to put a face on something that doesn't have one, and we realize that this face might be the loved ones we kiss or the neighbors' and co-workers' hand we shake. Mr. Brooks' book presents an incredible, and vivid horror story; not only satisfyingly complete in its scope - though I do want to know what happened to North Korea - but also harrowing in its realism and the voices that tell the story. However, there is real horror to be taken away from Mr. Quammen's book. Not only have the present zoonotic diseases caused significant fright and death, illnesses in the billions, deaths of well over 100 million, but the emergence rate is increasing, especially from new, unprecedented contact with wild animals, "as we besiege them, as we corner them, as we exterminate them and eat them, we're getting their diseases." (italics are the author's). The Next Big One is the fear. Will it be another hellish slow burn like AIDS, 30-some million dead since 1980, 30-some million infected; or a hot flash of influenza like 1918-19 with more than 50 million dead worldwide? One day, in a future maybe not unlike the one described in Mr. Brooks' book, we will look back on the warnings that Mr. Quammen and others have published, and wonder what we should have or could have done differently.

View similarly tagged reviews: Non-Fiction, Science Fiction
Posted by johnnya on June 20, 2013 at 3:45 p.m.


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