Max Brooks, zombie apocalypse author, sees reality mirroring fiction

Author Max Brooks knew what a disastrous pandemic would look like in the United States more than decade ago.

His take on the zombie apocalypse, “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War,” hit shelves back in 2006, and was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt in 2013. The plot of “World War Z,” which starts with a “Patient Zero” in China who triggers a viral outbreak that spreads to the U.S. during an election year, is at times eerily similar to the coronavirus pandemic – and Brooks knows it.

“The problem is, I wasn’t trying to predict anything,” Brooks, 47, told USA TODAY. “I was just looking back into history. The history of disaster tends to follow a pretty predictable cycle. There tends to be denial, and then the longer the denial goes, you can almost predict the severity of the panic that will follow. That’s with everything.” 

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Brooks wrote “World War Z” after studying widespread diseases like the Black Death and influenza. He also noted similarities between coronavirus and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. 

The resemblances between Brooks’ take on the zombie apocalypse and today’s COVID-19 outbreak are there, too. 

“I’m not some prophet-genius,” Brooks said. “I’m just a guy who looks at history. And history follows very predictable patterns. This is the pattern, I just zombified it.” 

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In his novel, for example, the virus begins in China and spreads around the world. False hope is peddled in the form of medication (the FDA has already ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to stop selling fake coronavirus cures) and eventually there’s a Great Panic, when people realize the spread of the zombie virus is out of control. 

Brooks said we’ve already hit our great panic when it comes to the novel coronavirus, with people panic-buying toilet paper and getting into fights over bottled water, which wasn’t in danger of running out. 

Obviously, there are key differences – COVID-19 isn’t turning people into ravenous walking corpses – but the dynamics of a pandemic are the same, Brooks said.

In “World War Z,” Brooks also paints a picture of government officials unwilling to take on the problem. Brooks said he hasn’t been impressed with how President Donald Trump’s administration has taken on coronavirus in the U.S.

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“We are facing a combination of incompetence and cowardice and blatant lies,” he said. “Because the narrative is, ‘We were caught completely unaware,’ which is not true at all. The master plans are sitting right here on my shelf, including a master plan for pandemic, which not only was developed by our own government, but which is open-source. It’s supposed to be read by our citizens.” 

He’s referencing the National Response Framework, which is available on FEMA’s website. 

“The fact that we have trained for it, prepared for it, planned for it, proves that it was not a failure of imagination,” he said. “It was a failure of compassion, competence and courage.” 

Brooks was on board with social distancing in mid-March, before any state had issued a stay-at-home order. He said alarms for him were raised in January by retired Navy Vice Adm. James Wisecup, former president of the Naval War College. 

The gist of Wisecup’s email was simple: “Have you heard about this thing happening in China?” Brooks started “stocking up” after that. 

Brooks – the son of comedic legend Mel Brooks – decided he wanted people to take the budding coronavirus outbreak seriously. To do that, he said, he wanted to make things personal. He posted a video of himself with his father on the other side of a glass door, imploring people to wash their hands and stay home to keep legends of comedy safe.

The video, as of Sunday, had been viewed nearly 16 million times. Brooks said his 93-year-old father is “alive and well.” 

“That’s how you deal with crisis,” Brooks said. “If you just lecture and load people down with charts and graphs and facts and figures, you’re either going to scare them away or you’re going to bore them to death.

“You gotta make it personal. You gotta make it emotional. So, I thought, I’m just going to make a video about … a son who doesn’t want to infect his father.”

Brooks is still writing books that deal with societal collapses.

His newest book, “Devolution,” is set to be released in June — after it was delayed because of problems recording the audiobook caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

The book, Brooks said, gets started with a high-tech eco community in the Cascades, which is cut off when Mount Rainier erupts and the community — full of highly educated people — is unprepared for disaster. The community has to ready for winter while dealing with a pack of “very large, very hungry Sasquatch creatures.” 

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