Saturday, July 20, 2019
Max Brooks-Using Zombies to Train Minds for the Future
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Max Brooks was headed out to talk with the U.S. Special Operations Command about germ warfare following his appearance in Sun Valley.
 
Sunday, May 5, 2019
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

There’s a reason Max Brooks talks about zombies with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Talking about the chaos that can ensue because of water shortages, famine or germ warfare scares people, he said.

“But you can talk about these same scenarios through zombies and people will listen. You make it fun. And it’s so fun the Centers for Disease control has a zombie preparedness section on its website,” he said. “Fiction helps us wrestle with big issues that would bore us or scare us. And we have to deal with these big issues.”

 
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Max Brooks wanted to call “World War Z” “Zombie War,” but publisher didn’t think women would read a book with zombie in the title.
 

Brooks, who has been called “the Studs Terkel of zombie writing,” came to Sun Valley Monday at the invitation of the Community Library. It was a whirlwind trip that included a talk to the general public at the Community Campus auditorium, a chat with a dozen high school students and a visit to the Hemingway House, which impressed Brooks as a reflection of a home that in its era shouted,  “We’ve arrived!”

The son of actors “Blazing Saddles” Mel Brooks and “The Graduate” Anne Bancroft, Brooks won an Emmy for his writing for “Saturday Night Live.” He redefined the zombie genre when his book “The Zombie Survival Guide” zoomed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list in 2003.

It proved so insightful that the U.S. Naval War College included it on its mandatory reading list. And that led to talks at the Modern War Institute at West Point and The Pentagon exploring such questions as, “Are we prepared for the worst case scenario?” And, “What is the worst case scenario?”

What makes Brooks’ gift for storytelling even more remarkable is the “High Anxiety” he experienced as a child, unable to read because of dyslexia. His teachers called him lazy. But his mother noticed that he was jumbling words and letters. She got him tutors and she had the Braille Institute of America put all his school books on tape.

 
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Finn was among those who showed up to Max Brooks’ presentation as zombies or zombie hunters.
 

By ninth grade Brooks had written a 400-page story about zombies that would serve as the basis for “The Zombie Survival Guide.”

Brooks said he first encountered zombies when he stumbled onto an Italian cannibal-zombie movie as a 13-year-old trolling cable TV for half-topless women while his parents were out one night.

Like many youngsters accustomed to “Leave It to Beaver,” he found himself terrified by the 1968 indie film “Night of the Living Dead,” in which the unburied dead return to life seeking human victims.

Brooks channeled his fright into pondering every detail about the flesh-eating monsters. It was that obsessive compulsive bent, he said, that led to him to write a book that described the origin of zombies on a global scale, rather than the backwoods hamlets where horror movies had relegated them. His book also considered the implications of a worldwide plague and how governments would react.

 
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Max Brooks even has a Zombie Survival Guide iPhone app people can use to scan friends and determine their level of infection.
 

“I wrote it for myself. I didn’t know it would be published,” he said. “In the process of writing it, I had to study world safety nets for things like dehydration and malnutrition. And I realized it was everything I had grown up learning to prepare for earthquakes in California. I realized I was writing about disaster preparedness.”

His attention to detail has endeared his book to local students like Henry Whittier, who was one of the students who got to meet with Brooks.

“I’ve read ‘World War Z’ multiple times,” he said. “I like how he fleshed it out. In most zombie stories, the zombies just spring up on you. This shows how they got spread by things like the black organ market. I also like seeing how governments react—the book brings in the politics, the culture.”

Brooks got a job writing for “Saturday Night Live” following graduation from American University in Washington, D.C., where he studied film. Two weeks later planes crashed into the World Trade Center. And two weeks later NBC News was among the victims of an anthrax attack.

“We got a lecture from the head of NBC about anthrax,” Brooks recalled, “And I realized I already knew about anthrax from my research.”

The following year, Brooks published his book, but it was categorized as humor.

“My first reviews were horrible. They said, ‘This is the least funny thing ever written.’ But there was nothing funny about it. So, I had to go on the road and convince people I was really into the stuff.”

Brooks followed that book up with “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War,” which commented on government ineptitude and U.S. isolationism. Seven years later it was turned into a film starring Brad Pitt.

 “George Romero, who made ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ told me not to worry. He said: They can’t destroy your book because your book is your book. And if the movie gets people to read it, good,” Brooks recounted. “They didn’t ruin my book—they ignored it.”

Strategists at the Naval War College did take his book seriously. And they invited him to speak to them about how military leaders could think out of the box.

“I said, ‘Are you sure you have the right guy?’ they said, ‘When you take out zombies, you’ve outlined exactly how a crisis unfolds.’ ”

Indeed, Brooks’ books outline things like how democratic government systems work compared with dictatorships and how global diplomacy breaks down, using such incidences as the Cuban missile crisis as a guide.

“As a science fiction author, I’m asked if I worry about robots. Yes, but not in terms of us fighting robots but because they take away people’s jobs. Right now, we’re concerned about hacking. We have the technology to stop another country or terrorists from hacking us. What we don’t have is a plan.”

Education ensures people make good choices, he said.

 “If my son gets a fever, I don’t worry he might get polio because we’ve built the public health system in this country. But I had to walk through the measles that have infected LA to go to my meeting this week on germ warfare.”

Brooks’ son Henry, who just turned 14, assisted him as a researcher for a comic book titled “Germ Warfare: A Graphic History.” The book, produced for a Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, tells of humanity’s battles with microbes and the continued need for public health security.  

Brooks also recently co-edited two books of essays teaching military strategy through “Star Wars” and “Game of Thrones.”

“I wrote one essay about rebuilding Endor after the Empire was driven out.  Then I wrote another about the ‘Game of Thrones.’ ‘Game of Thrones is all about who has the right to be king—nobody, because kings are bad. Even most dictators start off as cool guys—you want to be involved with a young Gaddafi, a young Castro. At the end of ‘Game of Thrones,’ I want them to melt the iron throne down and turn it into ballot boxes.”

Every episode of ‘Star Wars’ contains a kernel of truth, Brooks said.

“That’s why I continue to write these things,” he said. “Even my ‘Minecraft: The Island,’ which can be played within a video game, teaches you to be self-sufficient. It’s a game that will train the minds of the future.”

ON SNL:

 Max Brooks said he joined “Saturday Night Live” when it was at a low point, mired in 1990s popular culture. Following 9-11, the show shifted its focus to current events, helping Americans to process a changing world and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

ON MISTRUST OF GOVERNMENT:

Americans began mistrusting their government during the Vietnam War and that mistrust was only fueled by President Reagan when he said, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” There was a wonderful proposal to have Americans serve their country through such organizations as Americorps and the Peace Corps following 9/11, but that idea was squelched by the Iraq War.

ON DEMOCRACY:

If we don’t like the Electoral College, there’s nothing stopping us from doing something about it. But we don’t care enough. We live in a democracy and people don’t care enough to be democratic.

Being Americans is not a right. It’s a privilege. You can’t get to be gay in some countries. You don’t get to exercise rights as a woman in some countries. And, if you worship the wrong God in China, you’ll end up in a reeducation camp.

ON CLIMATE CHANGE

Military strategists are very much aware of the implications of a changing climate. That’s why Vladimir Putin planted a Russian flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, staking claim to oil and gas reserves in the face of the melting ice cap, which will make drilling for oil and gas easier.

ON ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND DRONES:

The No. 1 tool of modern terrorists is an automobile they can drive into crowds. What if you put a hundred self-driving cars on the road with no safeguards?

It wasn’t that long ago that many of us were ducking under our desks for fear of nuclear attack. But safeguards in place prohibit even the President from launching a nuclear weapon. That’s the kind of thinking going now into drone warfare and other things using artificial intelligence.

WHAT TOPS MAX BROOKS’ EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS KIT?

A water purification kit is foremost to purify water wherever I find it, be it a birdbath or a pond. Sunshade is second.

“Where would I go in event of trouble? Good question. Next question?”

 

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