Zone One by Colson Whitehead

On September 26, 1983, the end was nigh.

Lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at the command center for the Oko nuclear weapon early warning system, when the system reported that the U.S. had launched all its Minuteman missiles against Soviet Union. In other words, Petrov’s native country seemed to be under a massive nuclear assault. But the lieutenant colonel did not act on the data. He judged it to be erroneous. If he had shared the report with his superiors, it would have been their duty to retaliate, which would have meant the end of the world as we know it.

Today, perhaps partly because of the end of one millennium and the beginning of another, end of the world scenarios are abundant, and the writer Laura Miller has suggested that, at least in the American imagination, it “is a wish disguised as a fear. [—] Having run out of space, and constructed an overwhelmingly complex, sophisticated and often decadent society, we can only make our way back to the frontier […] by wiping the slate clean in the place where we already live and starting over. Zombies serve as non-human humanoids who can be slaughtered, without a twinge of conscience.”

In Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One, published in October 2011, mankind seems to have dodged the end of the world in the shape of a zombie (or zombie like) plague. Mark Spitz, the narrator, works as a sweeper and clears lower Manhattan of leftover living deads. The main part of the book takes place during three dreary days, mostly inside the head of Mark Spitz. And his commentary is bleak: the fallen world order that he is helping to resurrect is deemed a mental and cultural junkyard – nothing in it has any transcendent value.

Zone One is much like the Cold War that Stanislav Petrov prevented from catching fire – it’s like a cold, wet towel on your head on a chilly and rainy October day. The novel may ask, What’s the point in saving this world? And the reader, staring at the zombies that hide in the book’s pages, may come up with surprising answers.

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