World War Z
by Max Brooks
Where It All Goes Down
The Not-So-Distant-More-Or-Less-Parallel Future
It's hard to pin down the definitive setting of World War Z. Partly, that's because the setting changes every time the Interviewer chats it up with another character. Partly it results from not one but two fractured timelines to consider. But mostly this difficulty arises from the fact that Brooks can be super helpful with some setting details while being exceptionally tight-lipped with others. As a result, we're going to have to do some sleuthing and see what clues we can dig up to help us out.
To simplify the matter, we're going to focus our setting analysis on the elements of time and place in relation to the whole novel. Yes, there are other aspects of setting you could tackle if you wished to. For example, you could analyze each chapter's unique time and place within the zombie war—what we'd call a microsetting—to discover the purpose that specific setting serves to develop the characters inhabiting it or the novel as a whole.
But for now, we're going to stick to the broader strokes.
World Wide War
Unlike when, Brooks lets you know exactly where these stories are set, and the short answer is all over the place—except, oddly, Australia. We have chapters taking place in Russia, China, South Africa, America, Britain, France, Germany, the Caribbean, the Pacific Ocean, and even outer space. In other words, when Brooks titled his book World War Z, he put extra emphasis on the world part of things.
Why such a broad scope? For us, we like to go back to the idea of the "human factor" the Interviewer brings up at the novel's beginning. The Interviewer mentions the world is plagued by problems such as "[m]alnutrition, pollution, the rise of previously eradicated ailments, [and] not enough resources" (1.1.4).
Like the zombies, these problems are worldwide, affecting everyone currently spinning about on the Earth's surface. So, from the very beginning, Brooks points us toward considering these problems on a global scale rather than focusing only on individual countries or nationalities. The zombies then become a symbol of worldwide issues: no one is safe, because we're all connected.
Do You Have the Time?
Brooks gives us very few concrete details about the setting's time. What little we can say comes from the few temporal breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout the novel as well as a dollop of assumption.
For starters, let's be clear that there are two timelines—the timeline of the Zombie War and the timeline of the Interviewer. The story technically takes place in the Interviewer's timeline, but the events of the story proper happen in the past during the Zombie War. So, we'll probably have the best luck solving this time mystery if we tackle the Zombie War first.
The chapter titles give us a very rough timeline of the Zombie Wars themselves. The sections in "Warnings" tell us of the first zombie encounters while "The Great Panic" details the initial, and rather unsuccessful, battles with the human-devouring dead-brains before "Total War" gives us the human's final push toward victory. Since these stories take place all over the world, they overlap one another. So, it's hard to piece together any specific dates in how these things are connected (not that we won't try in the next section).
What we can safely assume is that Zombie Wars take place in an era very close to our present one. The technology of Brooks's zombie-infested world is roughly parallel with our own. The characters don't rely on the horse-and-buggy to get around, and they don't shoot zombies with ray guns. Instead, they fly in airplanes, use computers, and fight with modern day weaponry. And what this means is that it's a pretty safe bet Brooks is using zombies to say something about our very own era.
Just for fun, we're going to give our best guess as to the specific years of World War Z's timeline. Please remember, this timeline supports itself on a lot of supposition and is in no way official. Rather, our bootleg version of the timeline simply exists because we found it fun to create and to give you a starting place for your own conjectures.
A few key details point us in the general direction of some more specific dates:
• Mrs. Mary Miller mentions watching Celebrity Fat Camp. We believe this show to be Brooks's please-don't-sue-me way of renaming Celebrity Fit Club, a TV series that had its first season in 2005 and its last in 2010.
• Jesika Hendricks mentions people bringing Gamecubes with them during the initial stages of the Great Panic. This Nintendo console was discontinued in 2007 after the release of the Wii. We imagine diehard video game fans would probably have wanted to carry their Wiis and Xbox 360s had the Great Panic occurred anytime after that date.
• The Land Warrior system used at the Battle of Yonkers had its military funding cut in 2007 and silently died.
• Also, let's not forget that people who lived through World War II are still alive. The farther we go into the future with this timeline, the less likely that's to be the case.
So, here's what we're proposing. The first zombie warnings took place early in the noughties, and spread throughout 2003 and 2005. (Hey, these zombie invasions don't happen overnight.) The Great Panic probably kicked off sometime after 2005. Our guess is Spring of 2006 because Jesika Hendricks's story starts in August "two weeks after Yonkers" (5.4.3).
So, while this world had to deal with a zombie invasion, at least they only had to put up with two seasons of Celebrity Fat Camp. You win some, you lose some.
The Great Panic lasted one winter at minimum, so the war's tide didn't start turning until at least 2007. But the United States basically surrendered every state east of the Rookies. We're going to assume it took time to lose that much ground and say the chapters "Home Front USA" and "Around the World, and Above" don't start until sometime in 2008.
Terry Knox mentions being stranded on the International Space Station for three years. If we assume the world would have to be winning the war to gather the resources necessary for space flight, then we believe the "Total War" chapter begins in 2010 at the earliest.
Our best guess puts VA-Day or "Victory in America" Day sometime in 2011 or perhaps early 2012. We believe this because the Interviewer mentions China's V-Day to be ten years ago, meaning they've "been at peace about as long as [they] were at war" (1.1.4). If the war was truly a decade long, and our start date of 2003 is accurate, then VC-Day would be sometime in 2013 or 14, and VA-Day was two years before China's. This also means the Interviewer performs these interviews sometime in the early to mid 2020s.
So, how'd we do? Agree? Disagree? Did we miss something? Feel free to take what we've put here and tweak it to come up with your own personalized World War Z timeline.