Praying While Tokyo Burns

Takao Mountain (高尾山), on the western edge of the Tokyo metropolis, is a low (approximately 500m high) peak on the edge of a small nature reserve, easily accessible on the Keio line or the Chuo line. The mountain top hosts a temple, Yakuoin (薬王院), and some hiking paths, and although it is a steep climb it is easily reached by foot in 40 minutes, on paths that zig-zag through light forest. It’s also accessible by a ropeway (essentially a ski-lift) or a cable car (that is really a type of train). At the base of the mountain is a small and cute village of tourist shops, noodle stores and another small temple. As such it is a popular tourist destination, and also popular as a place to do hatsumode (初詣), the traditional new year shrine visit. My friend went with a billion other people to see the first sunrise of the new year, and I went with some friends in the afternoon for the traditional shrine visit.

In addition to being an excellent tourist day trip, Takao Mountain is also a viable zombie survival spot, offering short term defensibility, an easy escape route, and some possibility of sustainability. It’s probably not entirely suitable to a solo survivor, but a good choice for a group.

Review

Defensibility: The mountain itself is accessed by three pathways on the Tokyo side, at least one of which is wide enough to drive cars up. As far as I know there are no direct pathways on the Western side, which in any case faces onto low population density areas and a wide range of bushland. There is a single railway line leading up to the summit (for the “cable car”). All three pathways have a series of steep switchbacks interspersed with periods of long, straight, steep climbs, they are narrow, and there are regular viewing spots on the higher sections of these paths from which defenders can look down on the lower sections of the slopes. Other hillsides are steep, heavily forested and slippery, scattered with sheer climbs or scree slopes that make climbing extremely difficult for mindless undead. Any of these paths would be easy to block off at lower sections, and easy to defend with suitable firearms. From higher vantage points, with a large supply of ammunition, it would be easy to pick off approaching zombies in complete safety. The main difficulty with defensibility is in monitoring all these approaches: to properly defend the mountain would require maintaining constant vigilance over all the access paths and the forests of the western side, and opens the risk that occasional lone zombies would make it up to a higher location without being identified. This would necessitate continuous caution and the establishment of safe inner bastions. Fortunately the Yakuoin temple offers just such a bastion, as does the monkey park. Overall, the area is highly defensible, if your group contains more than 5 people.

Escape routes: Although not ideal, the forested slopes of the western face offer a last-ditch escape route in the event that the temple and the path to the higher slopes are cut off simultaneously. Furthermore, the ropeway offers an ideal rapid escape route. In the absence of electric power, one could use a simple flying-fox type arrangement to return to the base of the mountain in just a few (hair-raising) minutes, and it’s likely that zombies will lose track of you due to the speed of descent. Even if a zombie horde had come up from the base station, it’s likely given the defensibility of the setting that the zombies would have all left the base area by the time evacuation became necessary; thus, one would arrive at a relatively depopulated lower camp area, and be able to escape rapidly – possibly to a pre-established safe house in the lower town, there to wait until the mountain could be retaken after the horde dispersed or moved on.

Location: Far removed from central Tokyo, Takao Mountain is also slightly separate, being located on the far side of a small rural area. This means that its local zombie population is likely to be small and scattered, and it is less likely to have been raided extensively by non-local populations. Additionally, it contains significant supplies for the tourist industry, as well as a non-transient local community likely to have themselves stocked up on food, leaving more supplies for scavenging. The mountain is not on any major road transport routes, though it is near(ish) to an expressway. It’s also on the end of a train line, which is likely to be the only way to get to the location – roads in Tokyo will be blocked and car transport over long distances likely impossible. But a railway line is a relatively safe and easy way to move across Tokyo – it is elevated and likely clear of obstacles. The mainline to near Takao is the Central Line, which is about 8 tracks wide – it may be possible to drive small cars along this line, enabling transport of supplies and rapid escape from central Tokyo. The mountain also has a tourist centre and various restaurants at different elevations, so even if one arrives without supplies it may be possible to go straight to the top and subsist on scavenged foods for a few days while the world goes to hell.

Concealment: From the base of the mountain, almost nothing is visible of the human habitations higher up, and many of the main tourist attractions – especially the temple – are set back from the slopes of the hill. The sounds and sights of a functioning group of survivors would be virtually unidentifiable from the ground, especially in the temple, so it would be possible to have lights, cooking and reasonably normal human interaction without fear of alerting zombies or humans. This means the necessary preparations for survival over a Japanese winter could proceed fairly smoothly, and even an electricity generator could be used without alerting zombies. Movement between locations on the mountain would also be fairly unlikely to attract attention from zombies at the foot of the mountain, which would make defending the mountain very easy.

Sustainability: The mountain holds several tourist restaurants, a monkey park, visitor centre and temple. Even if a group arrived on foot carrying only the supplies in their backpacks, it would be fairly easy to subsist on the mountainside for a few days. The temple almost certainly contains a generator, and it’s likely (though I didn’t see any) that there is at least some solar power somewhere on the hill, so at least some lighting would be possible. There is a parking space containing some snow ploughs, which means that they also have batteries and fuel (and probably some spare fuel). The mountain is riddled with vending machines, but the restaurants sell dango and fresh soba, so likely hold stocks of buckwheat and barley flour, oil and – if they had been evacuated rapidly – eggs. For the first few days, supplies of water could be obtained from vending machines and kettles, until the first rain filled up some buckets. Of course, buckets and water storage mechanisms are commonplace in a temple, and easily converted to survival. There is enough flat space higher up the mountain to plant potatoes and possibly even a rice crop, and the monkey park comes readily supplied with cages for raising and protecting chickens and goats. In the longer term, the area is already supplied with buildings and a defensible temple, but there is one significant long term problem: water. Being on the top of a mountain, most water will be flowing down, and in dry periods there will be little freestanding or potable water. The best solution to this is to use the higher parts of the mountain to set up a water course for trapping and channeling water. Nonetheless, water storage – in a tank of some kind, and perhaps also in containers looted from the restaurants – would likely be a very wise plan. Otherwise, regular trips down the mountain to collect water would be required, and this would be both dangerous and exhausting.

Longer term, the mountain offers a lot of opportunities to establish a sustainable community. It is reasonably close to Tachikawa, a suburb with large stores, and houses in the nearby town could be looted for solar power supplies. With the elevation of the mountains, it could be possible to set up a solar storage system using pumped water. Plentiful wood means that even when fuel and electricity ran out it would be possible to stay warm for at least the first year, and to build fairly solid barriers against zombie and human infiltration – some forest clearing would even be necessary to establish kill zones. The higher viewing points hold a number of coin-operated binoculars that could be used to ensure that zombies can be spotted at very long distances and monitored, and gun nests with good viewing points could be built around these viewing machines. The mountain holds all the necessities of medium-term survival for a reasonably large group, provided that the water problem can be solved fairly rapidly.

Natural Hazards: Although it contains no sizable buildings capable of collapsing in an earthquake, Takao mountain is obviously vulnerable to landslides, which could be dangerous for those on the lower slopes. However, it’s most significant problem is the risk of forest fires, which could wipe out a community very rapidly. The rope way provides a method for rapidly escaping during a significant fire, but keeping it clear of trees would be essential in order to use it successfully. With roaming gangs of humans likely to spot them, back burning to reduce fire risk is not likely to be an option at first, and in any case water supplies may not be sufficient to do this safely. Constant caution and evacuation planning would be necessary to keep this risk under control. The best solution to this problem would be water and forestry management, and any group unable to do these two things would likely ultimately be driven off the mountain by the difficulties of supply and the risks of fire. But if this problem can be solved, the mountain would no doubt be safe for habitation by even up to 100 people.

Tactics

Takao Mountain is highly defensible, and with suitable tactics potentially close to impregnable in a zombie holocaust. If defenders are armed with rifles, it would be easy to defend against a very large horde of slow-moving shambler zombies. Even if guns were not available, a suitable set of barriers could be established on steeper pathways to enable, for example, a single person armed with a pike to kill struggling zombies in relative safety. At the switchbacks, it would be possible to stand in the crook of the switchback and beat down zombies with a pole or pike. Alternatively, traps could easily be set for mindless undead: establish a barrier at a point on the path just past one of the steeper slopes, and present oneself on a high point of one of the slopes to the side of the path just before the barrier. Zombies then reach the barrier and, unable to pass it, attempt to climb the slope on the side of the path. While they slip and fall on the scree, the defender can easily kill them using a suitable pole weapon.

The railway line is even easier to defend, because the top- and bottom-most extents pass through a smooth tunnel. Using a human target, zombies could be funneled into this tunnel and then trapped against a barrier on the upper side; from there, fire could be used safely inside the tunnel to kill large numbers of them. Alternatively, if active defense is not desired, the lower tunnel could be filled with scree, logs and debris, and a series of large rocks – or even, possibly, the train car itself – used as weapons to clear the upper tunnel. The upper platform itself also has a series of fairly solid barriers for passenger control, and is on a steep slope, so it’s possible that even large numbers of zombies wouldn’t be able to get the momentum necessary to push through them. The station itself thus forms another strong defense point, and suitable use of human bait could enable zombie hordes to be funneled into this killing zone, then beaten, burnt and shot into oblivion.

As the linked map shows, there are multiple stages on the mountain; first the lower peak with the temple, then an upper peak with visitor information centre, and then several more, higher peaks, each accessible by a decreasing number of paths. If a zombie wave overwhelms the lower slopes, the higher sections are all highly defensible, enabling even the most exhausted defenders to repel a numerically superior zombie horde with relative ease. With proper preparation, barriers could be set here and used to slow zombie approach while fleeing. With the steep sides of the mountains a constant threat, it could also be possible to break up hordes by throwing members over the slopes, or using rope traps to drag large numbers off the trail. This wouldn’t stop them permanently, but would break apart the horde so that it would be easier to kill as its members attempted to stagger up the steep mountainsides.

Finally, if long-term defenses were needed it might be possible to use back-burning techniques to establish zones higher up the mountain that are safe from fire. In the worst case scenario, with a huge horde approaching, the lower slopes could be fired – possibly using projectiles lobbed beyond the zombies – and the defenders could then retreat into the back-burnt zones. The zombies, struggling up the steep slopes, would be overrun by the fires and potentially destroyed en masse. This is an extremely risky tactic and only useful in summer, and would obviously attract attention from nearby survivors.

Conclusion

A highly defensible, concealed community can be established on Takao Mountain, capable of defending itself capably from even very large zombie hordes, and able to escape rapidly if overwhelmed. The community could potentially be sustainable and even maintain some of the luxuries of modern society – especially, hot water and some lighting – and, although the early years would be hard work, could become a thriving base for recolonization of the world after a zombie apocalypse. If you’re living in Tokyo and worried about the zombie apocalpyse, you should visit Takao Mountain and familiarize yourself with an escape strategy to this excellent post-apocalyptic base.

A novel I picked up in (surprise!) Iceland, Zombie Iceland is exactly what it says, no more and no less. It’s the tale of a group of survivors in Iceland after a mysterious gas explosion at a local geothermal powerplant turns the good folk of Reykjavik into Zombies, written by a journalist and comedian called Nanna Arnadottir. The book is billed on its official website as a kind of kooky travel guide, and certainly contains a lot of interesting information (in footnotes) about Iceland, which is cool. In addition to wanting to give foreigners information about her country, Ms. Arnadottir seems to have an excellent nerdish pedigree, according to her website:

The Nannasaurus is a small, bipedal nerdivorous dinosaur of the Theropoda genus native to Reykjavík, Iceland.

The Nannasaurus’ distinctive features include small feet, tiny nose, as well as a decent rack and a sizable brain.

The Nannasaurus’ diet predominantly consists of horror films, fantasy books, kókómjólk and whales tears.

It is widely agreed among respectable scholars that the Nannasaurus’ dream is to own a pet Taun Taun and make goats cheese in her basement.

Also she has a blog, though it doesn’t seem to be much in use.

The basic theme of the book is your standard zombie fare: outbreak happens, people have to survive. The particular points that make it interesting are that a) it is set in Iceland – particularly, in Iceland, so that individual streets and place names are given, and we even encounter a zombie Bjork – b) it sets the zombification in a particularly modern context and c) the lead character is self-consciously Zombie Aware: her childhood was spent playing a kind of zombie preparation LARP with her dad, so their house is basically set up for a zombie plague and she has prepared herself for the inevitable…

Which when you think about it is completely reasonable. There’s no chance of people in the modern world seeing the shambling dead in their street and not understanding the context: as a material threat, the zombie plague is not going to win through unpreparedness. So the lead character, Barbara, has a “bug-out-bag,” a kind of survival backpack; and she and her dad have stocked their basement with food and an old generator, and even considered survival tactics. Unfortunately, they haven’t factored in the behavior of her antisocial sister Loa, or her idiot brother Jonsi.

The book proceeds on this basis, and follows all the usual tropes, except that they happen in Iceland and are interspersed with a range of footnotes describing Icelandic life. There is also a moment of Icelandic cultural insertion, where one of the characters’ deaths is described in a classic Icelandic poetic form. But this book’s biggest contribution to the zombie genre is its incorporation of this self-referentialism into the story. Everyone knows what a zombie is, no one is going to be surprised by zombification, and there is a lot of debate about the particulars of zombie science. This is what I expect would happen. Furthermore, there is a chapter in which the zombie plague is tracked through facebook updates, which is exactly what one expects would happen in a modern plague. Google are no doubt already tracking flu alerts in googleplus, and I bet they’re keeping an eye out for zombie alerts too.

Unfortunately, these good points are somewhat impaired by the fact that the book is terribly written and one of the main characters, Loa, is completely awful. Kind of fun awful, but awful. This makes it kind of hard going at times. It’s a short book, however, and the zombie plague self-referentialism makes it interesting, as does the comedy aspect, so if you’re interested in spending 3000 ISK on a badly written book that has some interesting new ideas to add to the zombie-lite (Zlit?) genre, then I recommend it. Otherwise, you can probably skip it…

Apparently there has been a hundred year quest to find them, ever since Darwin’s contemporary discovered the first Zombie ants, but lost all records in a mysterious fire that destroyed his ship. Some new researchers have discovered them in Brazil. But will they, too, be ruined by a strange curse?

I think everyone is probably familiar with the idea of this novel, which is the original tale of Pride and Prejudice set in an England beset by a plague of zombies (or “unmentionables”). I’d been meaning to see how this story worked for some time now but, sadly, it was a little disappointing. The basic story is the same, except that the Bennett’s 5 daughters are all highly trained zombie killers, who spent years under the tutelage of a Shaolin Master Liu in China, and are pledged to His Majesty to devote their talents to killing zombies until they marry. Elizabeth, particularly, is a vicious and bloodthirsty killer, used to eating the hearts of her human enemies, who sees violence as the solution of every problem. Darcy is also a famous zombie slayer, the militia are in town to kill zombies, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh is also (supposedly) a trained zombie killer, who maintains a personal squad of 25 ninjas and sneers at the Bennett girls’ inferior education in China. The zombie menace, and this twist on the original characters, provides for some entertaining alternative interpretations of famous scenes in the original story, but these original interpretations do not change the plot. So, for example, Lydia’s elopement with Wickham doesn’t change in essence, though some aspects of its resolution are tweaked to suit the setting.

I read the book constantly hoping that the plot would take a turn away from the original story, for example towards some kind of Victorian-era survivalism, or a revelation that Lady de Bourgh was experimenting on humans, or something… but it just folllowed the original plot, with these occasional zombie references thrown in to the original text. The zombie references – and the references to the girls’ training and combat skills – were largely well done, fitting both the style and substance of the story, but this left us with one big problem: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is, at heart, Pride and Prejudice. Which means that it’s a shit boook.

Jane Austen’s work is fundamentally shallow, boring, and useless, and her books have the rare distinction of being easily improved by being set to film, because their content is itself so lacklustre and wan. Furthermore, there’s nothing in the characters of her stories to appeal to either the broad populace of their time, or to the modern reader. What about the shallow, empty lives of a bunch of silver-spoon middle class loafers can possibly be of relevance to the modern reader? These people don’t work, they have “three thousand pounds a year” and spend their days at such leisure that the only real entertainment they have is fevered imaginings as to who is going to marry. Somehow, in Sense and Sensibility, when Edward Ferrers is disowned of his fortune, we are supposed to have the utmost of sympathy for him because he will have to find a job. How is the modern reader supposed to relate to this? And looking at their lives, it is obvious that this round of marriages and inheritances and worries about position in society is nothing but a great big ponzi scheme, supported at the bottom by a huge pool of the real “unmentionables” of Victorian society – the lumpen proletariat, who slave away in the harshest conditions so that these rural “gentlemen” can have the privilege of never having to do a moment’s work. Is this the lost rural idyll that was destroyed by the first world war, and that Tolkien pined for? Good riddance to it, and the sooner the shallow ravings of the Victorian chick-lit writers (the Brontes and Austens &c) can be forgotten along with that cruel and unusual period of British history, the better. Though the dialogue in these novels can at times be charming and carefully crafted, they have nothing else to recommend them, even as historical documents. Comparing these works to those of Thomas Hardy, it is clear that the Victorian England that he saw has nothing in common with them – nor do the rare attempts at description in an Austen or Bronte novel compare in any way with the genuine literary prowess of Hardy. They are simply moral tracts, advertisements for a new image of marriage as a binding contract that wraps love and property together for the first time in British history – and in Hardy’s work, again, we see that this new model of marriage was not yet so popular with those real “unmentionables” whose face is never seen in the Austen novels.

As my reader(s) are no doubt aware, I’m fond of finding parallels between real political and social issues and the zombie threat, but in this case I sadly could not see much evidence that the “unmentionables” in the revised novel have any symbolism to be drawn from them. I think this is partly because they aren’t central to the plot, being only rarely inserted into the original story, so don’t have much power in the tale; and also the original books are so self-sufficient in their conceited dwellings on trivial Victorian romance, that the zombies just can’t stack up against the central “love” story. Certainly I don’t see the “manky dead” in this story taking on any imagery, for example, of the true British underclass. And perhaps this is why the two page “reader’s guide” at the end of the book (intended as a set of questions for the literary student) contains questions that are largely quite weak – because the zombies just aren’t that persuasive a part of the book.

So I see little reason to soldier through this romantic waffle if I don’t have to, and I had really hoped that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies would give me a completely fresh take on the novel – whether it be in plot, in resolution of the key stories, in interpretation of the Victorian world, or in politics. But it just scratches the surface of the possibilities, so that what we are really left with is – Pride and Prejudice. Against which – despite my enjoyment of the films – I must, I am afraid, remain prejudiced. So, don’t read this book unless you really are capable of suffering 325 pages of Victorian chick lit, with the odd zombie thrown in.

 

I just discovered a new book, Theories of International Politics and Zombies, by Daniel Drezner, which is nicely summarized and reviewed at Inside Higher Education. There is much speculation on the explosion of zombie cultural material in the 1990s, but little consideration there of the possibility that it’s related to public health awareness rather than international politics. I personally don’t think that this growth in zombie-related product has much to do with fears about the post-cold war world, myself.

Reading World War Z has got me thinking about a lot of different things, but the first thing I noticed was the way in which the modern Zombie tale has increasingly become a commentary on (and, generally, an endorsement of) modern public health and disease prevention principles. Of course, public health principles applied in the breach can ultimately lead to a huge dose of fascism, by which I’m not referring to the anti-smoking campaigns of the modern era, but the extremely draconian and almost-never used quarantine and control rules that governments reserve for the most severe disease outbreaks. And we see these being enacted in every zombie tale – or, if they’re not used, the society in question coming to regret it. In fact, the zombie tale can easily be read as a peon to the public health route not taken – on HIV, on SARs, etc.

In an interesting literary parallel, World War Z reminded me of the excellent oral histories of the early years of the HIV epidemic, which show a similar tone to the early parts of the book, with doctors and community activists trying desperately to work out what is happening before a previously unknown disease wipes out a community. Only the transmission method was a little different, though zombification and HIV show similar issues of incubation period and origin. We even have real life examples of HIV consuming societies, and modern history would have been very different if HIV had progressed through the West the way it did in Africa. I can’t believe that the modern resurgence of zombie stories is unrelated to our own recent development of public health consciousness, and a lot of that development stemmed from the HIV epidemic.

I devoured this novel in 4 hours on the Beppu-Fukuoka return train, and I thought it was awesome. The book is an Oral History of an international zombie conflict, which starts in China and brings humanity to the edge of extinction. It is written as a series of interviews, which were intended to be incorporated into a UN report on the war against the Zombies but were excised at the last moment. They include interviews with Americans, Brits, Australians, Germans, Iranians, Chinese, Japanese, Indians and South Africans, and really serve to give the sense of a worldwide catastrophe. The book really doesn’t spare the terror either, putting these interviews together in such a way that you really feel like the human race is fighting for survival. The contents are arranged in roughly chronological order, starting from the initial signs of the apocalypse and progressing through the collapse of civil order, the ruin of nations, war against the zombies, and then recovery. It includes lots of post-war analysis, so we have the work of historians to divide the zombie apocalypse into epochs such as “The Great Denial” and “The Panic” and we have the self-serving accounts of the people who ignored the threat, buried it, or looked after themselves at the cost of others. It really is an excellent attempt to map the real failings of modern political and social structures onto a fantastic event, and although it has lots of powerful personal accounts, this social and political critique is where it really stands out. Through the personal accounts of people involved in the disaster, from ordinary housewives right up to an ex chief of staff, it attempts to show how our social and political systems would react to an event of earth-threatening magnitude.

The book avoids becoming a dry and uninteresting description of political events, however, and scatters the accounts liberally with stories from ordinary survivors that have powerful personal appeal. The woman who was taken to the frozen North as a child by her parents, and ended up living on human flesh, and who now spends her days cleaning up the frozen wilderness where she lived during the Panic, is a great example of this. Also the interview with the “feral,” a child who escaped an attack on a church and spent 10 years living by herself from the age of 5, is also a gripping personal tale. The first story, about the Chinese doctor who investigates Patient Zero and then gets a hint from a mate in the ministry of health, and manages to warn his family to leave the country, is a brilliantly understated moment of political suspicion, panic, and medical investigation all in one. These accounts serve to leaven the otherwise quite political text with material that keeps us engaged in the very real personal plight of billions, without making this book another survivalist story.

And something that separates World War Z from other Zombie tales is that it escapes from the survivalist paradigm (mostly), giving us an overview of the global response to a global problem rather than focusing on the tough decisions individuals have to make. In this book we don’t see so much the concerns of a family working out where to go next, as we see the tough decisions of governments who have to choose which city to save and which to damn. The usual survivalist paradigm of zombie tales is turned on its head, with governments deciding to throw some communities to the wolves in order to distract the zombies while they withdraw to safer ground. The decisions of individual survivors are shown to be of limited import compared to the agonizing and terrible decisions that the political leadership have to make in the face of the zombie threat.

The book also draws on some very interesting settings and, I suspect, references some quite obscure real accounts to give interesting and engaging stories. The tale of the man trying to escape India through the ship-breaking yards is a great example of an iconic industrial setting being turned into a nightmare vision of our zombie future. Similarly, the tale of the military dog-handlers, whose dogs are tools in the war against the zombies, is evocative of the little-told story of the dog-handlers in the Vietnam war, depicted in the massively under-rated Australian book Trackers (which I cannot recommend strongly enough).The author (Max Brooks) claims to have done quite a bit of research on real settings and on the culture and science referenced in the book, and it feels authentic at the very least.

The book also creates a really compelling zombie ecology, considering their interaction with the environment in detail and presenting strong evidence for the consequences of zombie infection that it posits. It also shows us some really believable models of government response, from the brutality of the Russians to the pragmatism of South Africa. There are some ideas that aren’t believable and the absence of Africa and the Middle East from the narrative is noticeable, but what we do see in the accounts was surely challenging to fit into the limited text (I read it in 5 hours!) so I’m willing to forgive this. I’m also very impressed by the subtle way of working real political events from the time into the narrative. America is exhausted after a “long brushfire war” that has worn down the American peoples’ support for international intervention, and we get implications that Howard Dean is the vice president, and another black person was passed over for the role because the President is also black. There are implications of a rabid right-wing opposition, possibly Glen Beck-ish, but the actual political parties and even their general political bent is unclear – in fact, if we assume that the Howard Dean figure is democratic then it seems likely that the post-Z-War president who implemented national health care was a Republican. We also see delicate references to important historical figures, including the Queen (choosing to stick it out in Windsor Castle even when her government is fleeing) and Nelson Mandela. And there are some other doozies in this story too, particularly the way in which the nature and origins of the South African plan are revealed to us.

I have two main complaints about this book. First, the narrative voices are quite similar, which undermines the idea that the book is a collection of interviews. Somehow, almost every person seems to have the same tone and voice, even though they come from quite disparate cultures. The only people who truly stand out as having a different narrative voice are the two Japanese interviewees, but these interviewees were my main clues as to another problem the book has – national stereotyping. When I read the Japanese interviews they weren’t talking about the Japan I know, but about a western image of a Japan that doesn’t exist, where the social order and “heirarchies” are perceived from an American perspective as an oppressive class structure, which really isn’t how Japan works. This stereotyping extended to Russia and China, whose response was characterized as unnecessarily brutal and stupid, and suggested the book wasn’t able to stray outside of American stereotypical images of China and Russia deal with social problems – an impression that I think is wrong, at least in the Chinese case, and an impression often encouraged by American politicians and commentators to support the continuing myth that American society is able to solve any problem. These stereotypes of America as international saviour and good guy were also a little bit more pronounced in the story than perhaps was necessary. Apparently America even had more successful survivalists than other countries due to its “culture of individualism.” Please forgive me if I appear a little pro-third world, but I suspect your average kazkhstani Eagle Hunter would crap all over your average American “individualist” in a zombipocalypse.

These minor complaints neither detract from the joy of the book as a whole, nor prevent it from being a significant addition to the general corpus of Zombiepocalypse survival thought. The book certainly supports previous thoughts of mine that pure survival skills are not the key to living through such an event, and that survival depends very much on your social support networks and ability to think fast and adapt. Even the military tactics depicted in the reclamation of America make it clear that individual heroism is irrelevant, and present us with an image of warfare Taylorized to the utmost degree. In war against zombies, the person reloading your clip and the background figure who determines that you need a five minute break are just as important as the person doing the shooting. The dog-handlers are a classic example of how socialization trumps survivalism when the dead rise.

Overall, this is a really thoughtful and though-provoking book, which remains a thoroughly excellent read and a classic piece of science fiction at the same time as giving us a really detailed and exhaustive analysis of the failings of our current governments and society. It is well worth reading if you’re interested in zombies, or politics, and especially if you are interested in both.

I started reading World War Z this morning, and so far it’s excellent but the central conceit – that it’s a factual account written in the aftermath of a zombie plague – just doesn’t hold up, because the introduction presents information so implausible that you can’t trust the credibility of the author.

I mean, sure, a worldwide zombie plague I’m onside with, that’s fine. Even the idea that the UN commissioned a post-plague oral history I can tolerate. Israel welcoming back the Palestinian diaspora in a moment of desperation, fine, I can handle that. A social democratic government taking power over the “Llamists” in Tibet, even that I can believe. But the US getting Universal Health Care?

That’s just crazy!

If you want to write a believable account of an apocalypse, you have to take the reader with you, Mr. Brooks…

The Guardian today has a series of pictures from deserted buildings in Detroit, USA, where the economy (particularly, I suspect, the housing sector) has been slowly collapsing. These pictures are exactly how I imagine the world after a zombipocalypse. Who leaves a library deserted but full of books, except someone fleeing a zombie assault?

I think there’s probably a lot that could be said in connection with this about the decline of the US industrial working class, and the economic conditions that various powerful political interests have been willing to bring about in order to secure that collapse. Is the Zombie movie an allegory for this? Given I know nothing about the US, I can’t say… but it’s an interesting thought. One typically associates apocalyptic imagery with the cold war, but maybe there are other fears playing in the back of the movie-maker’s mind when, in producing a post-apocalyptic movie, they envisage the buildings of modern real-life Detroit?

He skipped Cultural Studies for Bicycle Tech Class

Continuing this week’s zombie theme, Grey has raised in comments to my last post the possibility that our modern specialization and lack of basic survival skills – farming, hunting, that sort of thing – would be a major problem in surviving the zombie apocalypse. The obvious implication of this is that your average media studies graduate, pasty white-faced urban public servant, is meat hanging on a hook once the gates of hell open up. Now, every time I watch a zombie movie I’m thrown into something of a reverie of thought about this – how would I survive, what would I do, what skills make one a valuable team member? And I’m forced to conclude that the skills of urban man aren’t actually so useless in your classic urban zombie apocalypse. In fact, I think the classic survival skills that one associates with a man[1] of a previous, simpler, less specialized era wouldn’t actually be anywhere near as useful either in the short term or the long term as one might initially think. This post is my classically long-winded attempt to work out why, but first let’s consider two examples of modern urban humans – one “real” and one not – in a short term and long term zombie survival scenario.

The Short Term Survival Skill of Greatest Importance: Media Studies and Jim from 28 Days Later

In the classic post-apocalypse scenario that everyone is familiar with, Jim wakes up from a coma in hospital. We know Jim is a bicycle courier, and he is in a modern (post-2000) world where the infected have taken over the streets. He emerges into the light of day and in a series of classic scenes stumbles through an empty London looking for clues as to what happened. He enters a church and takes altogether too long to figure out what’s going on, and ends up having to flee the scene with a bunch of infected chasing him, until a pair of survivors turn up with a few molotovs and save his bacon.

What was the key skill Jim needed here? He needed to have attended those early morning media studies classes, so that he could understand the narrative signs of a zombie apocalypse. No amount of gun-toting, pig-farming, deer-hunting experience was going to get him out of this one. What he needed was to know that in a deserted London with signs up at Picadilly Circus looking for lost loved ones who have fled to the country, going into an abandoned church is a bad plan. Similarly, the people who rescued him had a key skill they learnt at too many black block demonstrations – throwing molotov cocktails. And when he started to have his freak out, the woman in the group knew enough about medicine and nutrition to make him aware that he was suffering from his sugar-rich diet.

These aren’t skills or adaptation tactics one learns on the farm.

A Statistician in the Wilderness: Experimental Design and Community Survival in a Long-term post-Apocalyptic Scenario

Suppose that a gang of survivors that includes your humble blogger finds itself needing to carve out a long-term existence in the wilderness, having identified that there is no chance of society as we know it re-forming. Obviously we need to start farming at some point, because while survival hunting might be useful in the short term, it’s unlikely to provide sufficient food for a growing community and anyway, there are zombies out there. So, this community needs an efficient way of learning what farming methods are best within a few seasons, based on what knowledge we have between us. A statistician with training in experimental design is very useful for this sort of enterprise – a single season with a few crop yields will be sufficient to identify the best growth techniques in a well-designed trial, and this is very important for protecting a community long-term against crop failure and the destablizing effects of famine. It’s also essential to enable community growth. So even a skill as apparently useless as statistics can be put to work in the long-term interests of a post-apocalyptic community.

The Importance of Education for Adaptation

These examples are both facetious but they show that there is a key skill in surviving a zombie apocalypse – adaptation. And adaptation is facilitated by a wide and advanced education, popular cultural knowledge, exposure to media, and the coherent exchange of specialist skills in a community. In the short term the ability to farm or hunt is irrelevant to survival in a collapsing urban environment – key skills are adaptability, brutality, and knowledge of the urban environment[2]. In the long term survival is best facilitated not by the ability to hunt or grow food, but by the ability to research, learn and adapt.

If an early group of pre-moderns survived a zombie apocalypse[3] and escaped to the wilderness, they might find themselves at a deserted abbey full of books on farming, the origin of zombies, good herbs to cure disease, local hazards, and the quickest and safest way to the coast, but their illiteracy would render all this information meaningless. Finding good mushrooms would be a process of trial and error, as would building a decent roof. It strikes me that my long-term survival strategy would be:

  • Find a pharmacist
  • Loot a library
  • Start a community based around a source of power, a pharmaceutical manufactory, and a farm

You can’t do this with a bow and a good knowledge of how to grow potatoes. In adapting to a new world, common sense is nowhere near as useful, I suspect, as the ability to synthesize new information and turn it to advantage, and this is very much a feature of the modern urban world. Why, even looting a library is not an easy job if you have to do it in a very short period of time before the zombies come – that takes organization, planning, and knowledge of how libraries work and how knowledge is accumulated.

Also, some skills that seem ubiquitous in zombie movies are actually extremely rare and probably more likely to be learnt anew than randomly occur in any group of survivors. The one that springs to mind most readily when watching US movies is gunplay. Not only is this skill extremely rare in the rest of the developed world, but getting guns is difficult and requires research and the ability to move large distances through hostile urban territory to find them. In fact, finding alternatives to guns is probably a much more viable option, and that – again – relies on adaptation. Not to mention that most peoples’ actual training in gunplay doesn’t extend to “using it safely in the presence of your comrades while exploring a deserted warehouse.”[4]

The Huge Range of Neglected Skills in Modern Life

I think it’s fashionable in the modern world to suppose that many of our jobs and skills are useless and really just represent the icing on the cake of civilization. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Suppose, for example, that you end up in a gang of survivors composed of a weekend warrior paintballer, a retired cop, a housewife and a history teacher – these are hardly the sorts of people who’re going to build the new world, are they? But these people all have skills you might not expect. The weekend warrior might actually be very good at shooting, which is handy; the retired cop would have first aid skills; the housewife might previously have been an urban planner, with knowledge of the sewage system and how to move through the city safely underground; and the history teacher could be the local organizer for the teacher’s union, with a lot of experience of getting disparate groups of people to work together in a common cause. Someone in the group may have studied agriculture at university; the history teacher may know the location of the city’s key commercial food warehouses, which would be an extremely valuable piece of knowledge.

The Importance of Social Connection

In fact that last example is probably the most important of all, because the history of zombie attacks tells us that the single most important survival skill is the ability to play well with others, and to make judicious rules about how a group of people is to work together. This is the pre-eminent achievement of the modern urban world – advanced skills in group dynamics, planning, and getting shit done. Surviving in the zombie world is about fast collective decision-making and coordinated action, not individual prowess with knife, stick or gun. In the short term the ability to coordinate a raid on a supermarket to maximize your useful acquisitions in the minimum time, while guarding the exits and maintaining clear communication, is vastly more important than how many zombies you can kill or whether you can catch fish. If you have no-one in that supermarket who can quickly and rapidly tell the difference between antibiotics and antidepressants in the pharmacy counter (or if you send them to the clothing department to get padded jackets instead), you’re fucked – and having a good supply of antibiotics and machetes and nutritious tinned food is probably going to keep your group alive longer than a gun, 7000 rounds of ammo and a fishing line. Anyone who has spent time in a modern company knows how to function as a cog in a larger machine, what part to play and how to play it, and it’s likely that most modern urban dwellers if forced could come up with a decent group response to their plight.

Conclusion

Never fear, telephone sanitizers and personal shopping assistants of the world, you have more to fear from the global financial crisis than you do from a zombie apocalypse! Especially if you have done enough team-building exercises with your fellow survivors!

fn1: And I think the classic survivalist scenario always assigns these skills to a man, not a woman

fn2: All well evidenced on any Friday night in the centre of London!

fn3: Which seems like an excellent campaign idea!

fn4: In fact, in this scenario would 15 years’ training in a shooting range be even 10% as effective as 3 weeks playing Time Cop at the local arcade?