Friday, December 10, 2010

Zombies in Context

This past Wednesday we took part in one of the livelier assignments in my academic career. We arrived to the robotics building and were confronted with the unthinkable: zombies—fast ones—were everywhere, and as leaders from a group of countries as well as two non-state entities (Al Qaeda and Wikileaks) we were tasked with sorting out this fetid nightmare. Admittedly the exercise had its lighter moments, like jokes about Julian Assange’s proclivities and all things Putin (the phrase “one riot, one ranger” should be amended to say “one zombie horde, one Putin”), but I’d like to focus for a moment on why the zombie frame is as useful as it is entertaining.

Since Danny Drezner first did the zombie thing this summer in preparation for his book, I’ve always thought of it as a really evocative way to contend with the prospects of a pandemic in this age of globalization. Consider it just for a moment. In the event of a rapidly advancing disease of unprecedented virulence, nation-states would very well behave with the same motivations that we did while contending with the walking, swimming, running dead. Would China, Russia, or the U.S. be forthcoming about the extent of its problem? Would pursuit of a cure be made more complicated by the difficulties of international coordination in the midst of crisis? Would the trend of increased urbanization in recent human history turn out to be a curse? To some degree, these questions came up in our simulation, but they would also be of paramount importance if we were to experience anything approaching the great influenza of 1918.

If you think this sounds crazy, I humbly suggest you read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza, detailing a truly horrific chapter in human history. As I read Drezner’s article in Foreign Policy I was frequently brought back to Barry’s book. You could argue that a zombie outbreak, comical as it sounds, is just a more cinematic version of influenza.

Barry’s book is fantastic and constantly reminds the reader that disease is not an anachronistic concern. In 1918 the flu killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS killed in 24 years. In the Indian sub-continent nearly 20 million died, a mortality rate of 10.4% was a reality. That means a modern flu half as virulent as the 1918 variety could kill 700,000 in modern day Mumbai.

Barry’s book, particularly the afterword, speaks directly to our chosen paths at Patterson, so much so, that I’d like to see it on the reading list next summer. Another 1918 would require massive effort on the part of our security establishment, our scientific community, healthcare apparatus, and our diplomatic corps. All that effort would be mobilized against something that could not be reasoned with or easily explained to nervous populations.

Science fiction and horror work best when they use the impossible and the macabre to make us think critically about our own reality. Let's just hope that the CDC director is a George Romero fan.

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