An evening with Max Brooks: Zombies, Brad Pitt and being a little bit more heroic

Max Brooks

Last night, I had the pleasure to attend a presentation by Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, at the Mayfair Theatre.

The evening began with a presentation by Dr. Robert J. Smith? (the question mark at the end of his name is intentional) from the University of Ottawa. Smith? has applied the mathematics of disease outbreaks to the zombie apocalypse. His results were chilling, with a city the size of Ottawa being overrun within 4-8 days, even if a quarantine procedure were put in place or a cure for the plague were found. The best course of action would be rapid, incremental attacks against the zombies to wear down their numbers while learning effective strategies, making each attack more successful.

What I most enjoyed was Smith?’s ability to present a very simple mathematical formula for the outbreak, then expand upon it as new ideas were introduced. In the end, we were able to follow a very complex methodology. (And, my inner math geek delighted in being back in a more academic world of formulas and models.)

Then Brooks took the stage (who, I hadn’t realized, had been sitting in front of me through most of Smith?’s presentation). With quick whit, he gave a presentation and then a Q&A about what drove him to write The Zombie Survival Guide, advice on dealing with zombies, and the “Brad Pitt-sized elephant in the room” that is the movie version of World War Z.

Brooks showed tremendous grace when it came to the film. He stated that he freely signed away the rights and creative control, so has no right to gripe about the outcome (nor, he pointed out, is he under any obligation to promote or endorse it). He contrasted himself with Alan Moore, who received a much rawer deal when it came to Watchmen.

Yet under Brooks’ humour was a clearly intelligent and contemplative man. The Zombie Survival Guide was his way of exploring a question he posed to himself: how would he survive? And World War Z came from the challenge of figuring out how the world would react to a global outbreak, not just the common plot of following a group of survivors. His creative works were never meant to be bestsellers, but to fulfill his own curiosity.

While Brooks was professional and graceful in discussing the film version of World War Z, one of his issues with the film was the use of a heroic main character. Brooks doesn't believein heroes that solve things. In real life, we all need to be just a little more heroic.

While Brooks was professional and graceful in discussing the film version of World War Z, one of his issues with the film was the use of a heroic main character. Brooks doesn’t believein heroes that solve things. In real life, we all need to be just a little more heroic.

For example, when it comes to surviving a zombie apocalypse, many react by saying they’d want a gun or big vehicle. Yet Brooks would want a bike and water. A gun will run out of bullets. A car can break down. A bike is simple to repair and carry over rough terrain. And a human can survive for days without a gun; not so without water.

But bottled water is heavy, so one would be better to find a source of fresh, potable water. Yet no doubt others would be searching for one as well, resulting in violent competition and attracting zombies. So to increase the odds of survival, one would need to find a source of water no one would think of or be willing to settle near, meaning more isolated or harsher conditions than most would endure. And to do that takes preparation in the here and now.

How many of us, Brooks asked, are that prepared?

He also showed his knowledge of history and psychology in describing certain elements from his books, especially how the Redeker Plan was based on the psychology of Apartheid-era South Africa and Soviet military tactics in World War II.

What stuck with me most was something Brooks said about how the novel World War Z had no main characters and no miracle cure. He doesn’t believe in either. To solve big problems, we all need to act just a little more heroically. This statement, coupled with Brooks’ declaration that even though he’s been offered money for more commercial projects he’s going to work on the material he loves, had me leaving the Mayfair feeling enthusiastic and buoyed… despite an evening spent hearing how the living dead will consume the world.

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