Thursday, May 20, 2010

After the Apocalypse - Three Books on the Third World War

Few topics offer the scope and interest of a world war.  In terms of creative and historical interest, the Second World War continues to resonate with readers today.  Simply Searching for WWII in Amazon yields nearly 45,000 book titles, and an additional 2,700 in movies and television.

Here we'll consider three books which the prospect of global war and break it down into what such a war would mean to our daily lives: War Day, End in Fire, and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

Much of our interest in the Second World War stems from a certain historical nostalgia.  For all its devastation and heartbreak, WWII was, in way, the last conventional war.  Today, we cannot fathom a large-scale war without nuclear weapons and inevitable annihilation.  As a result, we've had no major wars since the dropping of the atomic bomb.  And yet we wonder: "What if?"  What if there was major war today?  A major war between the United States and Russia?  Or - something we discuss in hushed whispers in-between worries of the National Debt - a war between the the U.S. and China?  Would such a war end the world?  Would we finally realize the dread technological nightmare of our own terrible intellect?

We start with War Day by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, a work which took our Cold War fears and transcribed them into a realistic image of post-Armageddon.  Published in 1984, the story emerges with a unique courage from under the shadow prospect of nuclear apocalypse.  Unlike the widely-accepted belief that nuclear war would end the human race, Strieber and Kunetka reveal how life as we know it would go on.

The premise of the book assumes a "limited" nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union - from the cover, "It lasted thirty-six minutes...and changed the world."  Afterward, two journalists - Strieber and Kunetka, writing as themselves - take a trip across the U.S. interviewing survivors.  And these vignettes - taken in oral history style from doctors at a British Aid Camp to a weary college student on the way back to classes - reveal the tapestry of a nation that has been reduced from superpower status of beggar nation.  The descriptions of postwar "Triage" based on radiation exposure will certainly cause readers to view health car reform in a new light.

Syne Mitchel's End in Fire takes a similar direction in assuming a limited nuclear exchange between great powers - the United States and China.  Unlike War Day, this story is written as a novel moving from the opening moments of the war and all the way up to the out-with-a-whimper finale.  Most of the novel also takes place off-planet, following astronaut Claire Logan as she and her crew try to accomplish their mission and return home as nuclear weapons make space flight less and less possible.

One aspect I especially liked about the novel is the way it pushes the very real problem of energy shortage just a step closer to the crisis point.  Here, the prospect of a world war over oil becomes very believable, even as "civilized" nations are doing their best to "solve" the crisis with limited measures such as launching a massive solar panel into orbit.  Unfortunately, too-little-too-late takes on very real meaning when nations like India and China begin vying for limited resources.

Although I enjoyed the novel a great deal, some reviewers on Amazon found the characters to be rather flat and cliche.  Although I didn't notice this, I did find a few aspects of the military to feel a bit off, but I was also in the army when I read the book.

Naturally, you'll feel some skepticism regarding my last choice here.  World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks is about a war which simply couldn't happen - at least, not in the world we know today.  Like War Day, it is written in the oral history style of Studs Terkel at a time ten years after the war.  But there are no nukes - instead it's a war against hordes of reanimated dead.

I'll admit, I was interested by the premise of the book when I first saw it, but I avoided it because it struck me as "just another zombie novel."  It wasn't until a friend of mine - an accountant working on his MBA - pointed out the real nature of the book that I bought it.  "It really shows how the different governments react to the crisis," he said.  "It's not so much a fantasy as a look at the disaster relief measures and where they would break down."


I'm about halfway through the book now (I just bought it yesterday), and I'm hooked.  Brooks doesn't simply describe zombies or the horror of what they would do.  Instead he captures the very human emotions of fear and hope and love and mostly fear.  The descriptions in the book aren't chilling for their gore, but rather for the turns of thought that people follow to simply survive.  Although it's not a book about war between nations, per se, it very effectively captures the mentality of human beings facing an enemy they hardly understand and cannot accept.

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