Recently I actively stopped reading a book about Zombies called World War Z.
There’s a lot of these books about at the moment because zombies have become increasingly popular over the years. I’m not sure why this has happened but it just has and we all have to deal with it. If you think about what it was like 5 or 6 years ago the chances of the topic of discussion turning to “what would you do now if a LOAD of Zomboes burst in here?” were negligible. Now, however it’s almost an every day occurrence. Usually because it’s me asking the question. If/when a zombie apocalypse does occur then I’ll still be asking people “Yeah, but what would you do though if one of these guys had a chainsaw or something?” regardless of a decomposing shop assistant gnawing on the stump where my hand used to be.
With that in mind you’d think World War Z would be pretty well suited to me. It’s written in the format of a series of interviews with people who survived the massive zombo apocalypse, so it’s not really possible to spoil it by anything I write here. When I started reading it I found it very entertaining. It’s interesting learning about the history of a fictional world apocalypse by piecing together bits of information gleaned from characters’ personal stories, and it’s clear that the author has thought A LOT about the impact a whole load of Zombs would have on the world. There are some incredibly well considered descriptions of how economies, armies, tactics, have to adapt to survive, making it a more fascinating and in depth read than just an action book about some ‘dude’ fighting the living dead. Admittedly a lot of the more detailed stuff is set in the US and the majority of interviewees are American but so what? The author’s American, give him a break alright. It’s not too America-centric and for the most part it’s an even handed account of the effect on the whole of the modern world.
For the most part.
What caused me to actively put the book down was the chapter in which we encounter what I think is the first European character. It’s around 2/3rds of the way through the book and an interview with a writer and“Englishman” called David Allen Forbes who is immediately described as “painfully nervous”. He bumbles a lot, changes topic, gets confused, apologises, and It becomes clear early on that we’re expected to imagine Hugh Grant from the Four Weddings era has survived World War Z and will now give us his run down of the events. We also get the sort of slang you’d expect for a British character allowing avid slang spotters to tick off all the classics within a few pages: ‘bloody‘, ‘chaps‘, ‘sods‘, ‘cracking‘ and ‘wankers‘ all get an airing. Naturally I find this (and I can’t be the only person) stereotyped ‘English’ character circa 1950 incredibly annoying, but I can forgive this, they’re just a few lazy shortcuts to remind the reader that we are definitely reading about a soddin’ Brit. His story is about people being forced to use castles and the medieval weapons contained in them to defend themselves from those annoying Zombers, specifically referencing a lot of the population holing up in Windsor castle. He also describes how some castles were so adapted to tourists that they no longer offered any defensive value whatsoever and got a lot of people killed. Fair enough, that’s interesting.
The big problem, however, comes at the end of his interview. The interviewer is about to leave but is stopped by David: “There’s… more”. David is described as “clearly uncomfortable” as he tells the last bit of his tale. At one point he “clears his throat, his upper lip quivers for a second” so he’s obviously on the verge of crying, “this is going to be one impressive emotional end to his story” I thought. Then he tells his impressive emotional end to his story, and the book is completely ruined for me.
How does he do it? He talks about the fucking Queen. The Queen! It’s all just about how honourable the Queen is because she refused to leave Windsor Castle and escape to safety like the rest of her family even though she was begged to. Begged to! As though during an apocalypse anyone would actually care what happens to the Queen. “Their task [the monarchy], their mandate, is to personify all that is great in our national spirit.” Says David, at this point probably (although it’s not described) crying into a delicate and ornate teacup with Diana’s face on it, “They must forever be an example to the rest of us, the strongest, and bravest, and absolute best of us”. Disgusting. After reading it I had to put the book down and text a friend in detail how annoyed I was (That gives you a pretty good idea of how annoyed I got. Ultra-annoyed). I’m sure that to some readers the concept of a brave and honourable ruling monarchy who sacrifice themselves for their people will be lapped up, but personally it makes me feel mentally unwell. It would be useful to write a guidebook for American authors thinking of including a character from the UK titled “no-one gives a shit about the queen” with the opening chapter called “Hugh Grant is weird”.
If I was in a castle fighting off zombies do you know who I’d expect to lean over and say “Isn’t it great that the Queen hasn’t left us”? No-one. Not even extreme royalists could be pleased about an old lady hanging around, uselessly diminishing resources whilst making everyone feel they should be grateful they’ve got such a bravely altruistic monarchy that’s willing to risk it’s life to personify our national spirit. Get lost. As soon as one of her corgis shits in the water supply she’d be flung off the ramparts. Can she swing a mace? No? Then she should do us a favour, go outside and not come back in again.
If I’m honest, after having to put the book down for a couple of days, I tried to overlook that chapter and read on. However all the while I now felt as though my senses were attuned to spotting ridiculous stereotypes, no longer really reading it but just scouring it for slip-ups. The following chapter was about a guy from Sri Lanka who worked as part of a team broadcasting survival information to everyone from a big radio boat (It’s written more descriptively than that but you get the idea). I noted happily that at no point does he offer to lift everyone’s spirits by cooking them a fantastic curry and so continued reading. Then I get to an interview with two Japanese survivors. To answer your questions, yes, one of them is a Sensei and the other his student, yes the student used to be a computer game loving ‘Otaku’, yes, a samurai sword is involved, and yes, the Sensei is blind. Of course he is. He’s like one of them cool blind samurai you get in films. Sweet. Does he chop a zombies head clean off or slice one so effectively down the centre of their body that they don’t notice until they actually begin to fall into two pieces? No, but I think it’s basically implied. I of course don’t find this as annoying as David Forbe’s interview purely due to the fact that Japanese stereotypes are much cooler than ours, however the damage was already done and this further diminished my waning enthusiasm the book.
It’s a shame because, to reiterate, I was genuinely enjoying the book up until the point a Brit was introduced. After that I just felt incredibly disappointed and patronised. If you’re thinking about reading it all I’d suggest is to avoid David’s story altogether, pages 187 to 194, and it will be fine. However if you do happen to glimpse it, then make special effort to ignore the last line of the chapter:
“They were viewed very much like castles [the monarchy]…crumbling obsolete relics with no real modern function other than as tourist attractions. But when the skies darkened and the nation called, both reawoke to the meaning of their existence. One shielded out bodies, the other, our souls”
Stick with the Japanese though, who doesn’t like Samurai?