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The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse

The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse - Steven Schlozman Since I do autopsies, it was only a matter of time before somebody gave me this book. I’m not a super big fan of horror, but zombies are a pretty good material. They turn their victims into one of them, which is interesting both literally and allegorically, because charcters who were once allies can turn on each other in short order. This undermines a sense of cooperation among the unafflicted, which can be isolating. Then there’s the whole metaphysical thing with zombies: asking questions about what’s really living and what’s really dead. Zombies are dead, but they're walking around, so what does it mean to be dead then? So I can get into a good zombie story, if I see one. I had a blast once, watching a zombie moview marathon when I was locked on a hospital ward for a weekend. That seems like a weird piece of inforomation to drop without explanation, so I’ll put the details in a spoiler, for those who care: When I was a poor college student, I signed up to make some extra money by taking part in a pharmaceutical study. A drug that was supposed to lower lipid levels was in the human testing phase. To test it, all the participants were locked on a hospital ward for a long weekend (Friday night until Monday night). You couldn’t bring any food with you, and you had to eat what they gave you (mostly macaroni and cheese, as I remember). Then, every hour, on the hour, they’d have people come by and draw some blood. Every hour- even in the middle of the night, they’d wake us up and take a few cc’s of blood! That part was bad because… you know, seventy-two blood draws… my arms looked like I was a heroin addict. So anyhow, the people who signed up for such a thing were either (1) college students who needed money, or (2) very down-on-their-luck people, mostly homeless guys. To pass the time, we mostly played a lot of board games and watched movies. For some reason, the movie selection included a whole mess of zombie movies (as well as, oddly, the movie version of V.C. Andrews’ Flowers In the Attic). Zombies seemed to be a common theme that everybody could agree on. I can appreciate a good zombie flick, but I didn’t enjoy this book, because it hit on a lot of my personal pet peeves. Before I get into all that, let’s get some things clear right from the start… This is the part where I get all pedantic and nit-picky about science, and also tell a funny Neuroanatomy storyThe zombies in this book aren’t reanimated undead corpses like in Night of the Living Dead; they’re people infected by a virus which attacks the brain, like in 28 Days Later. And the "autopsies" in this book aren’t autopsies (i.e. dissections of cadavers); they’re vivisections (i.e. dissection of functional tissue from a live subject). I’m not trying to be over-critical here, but that will be important to remember later on. The premise of the book is that it contains the notes of a scientist (Dr. Blum) performing studies in a secluded island compound, rushing to find a cure to the zombie plague, designated Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency Syndrome (ANSD). As Karen and Ceridwen say in their reviews, The Zombie Autopsies (TZA) can be dry at times, describing various neuroanatomy structures, and all the ways the fictional ANSD virus alters healthy tissue. (Unrelated: I‘ll hide a funny Neuroanatomy story in the spoiler. In most medical schools, Neuroanatomy is generally taught as a separate course from the rest of Gross Anatomy. As a resident physician, I taught a part of that class once. I did brain cutting for the class, with brains preserved from autopsies at the nearby VA hospital, where I was working at the time. One afternoon I was running late, and got stopped for speeding, trying to make it to the class on time. I was basically agreeable with the cop, but made the mistake of telling him that I was in a hurry and that was why I was speeding. So I guess to “teach me a lesson” or to be passive-aggressive, he went extra slow with everything, and ran a check on my car, and started to ask me all these questions. I was getting kind of annoyed, and was going to say something, but then I realized I had three human brains in the trunk of my car, and I wasn’t really sure what he would do if he found them. I mean, eventually it would be shown that they were legally obtained, and I was really going to teach a class, but I just had this idea that he would freak out and maybe like wrestle me to the ground or handcuff me or something before he got the full story. I got lucky and he didn’t ask to open the trunk (although without probable cause I had a 4th Amendment Right to refuse, but I’m not sure I knew that back then). I’ve always wondered what would have happened if the police officer had found those brains.) I think the author’s intent here was to create a very clinical and dispassionate experience, to heighten the sense of realism. Of course realism may not always be such a great thing... most autopsy reports are not exciting to read. Never mind that. Since author Steven Schlozman took such pains to be realistic, I feel justified in making two criticisms about scientific aspects of the book:1) If the very fate of mankind depended on finding a cure to ANSD, I am sure researchers would be provided all the resources they needed; all the best equipment, etc. The stated reason for main character Dr. Blum performing vivisection was so he could visualize a functional infected zombie brain. This is exactly what Positron Emission Tomography (PET) was invented for. PET scans have the added advantage of not destroying the brain in the process of studying it, which is what Blum does in the book. There is also something new called functional MRI, which seems similar, but it’s fairly new, and I don’t know much about how you’re supposed to use it. 2) Schlozman goes out of his way to show how the ANSD virus spares only the parts of the brain it needs for zombies to move around and attack people. In the course of his dissection, Blum removes the top of the cranium and digs down to get at the hypothalamus. In his notes, he observes that the frontal lobe is virtually destroyed, and much of the remaining brain is severely distorted, implying extensive destruction: “the sulci are so wide that there is an absence of gyrations altogether. The fundamental architecture of the frontal lobe is gone, missing. It’s like soup.” Not to nitpick, but the Primary Motor Cortex (M1) is located in the frontal lobe. If that was destroyed, the zombies would not be motile; they’d be paralyzed. Actually, the frontal lobe is very important for motion (Reference). I guess there can be such thing as a suspension of scientific disbelief in fiction. Science fiction stories often feature faster-than-light travel, which I'm told is impossible. Obviously the realism in this story has to break down somewhere, since the ANSD and humanoid zombies aren’t real. It’s just that Schlozman seemed so meticulous up to that point. In that regard, this book reminds me of things like blueprints to the U.S.S. Enterprise, or [b:The Atlas of Middle Earth|92003|Atlas of Middle-Earth|Karen Wynn Fonstad|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1344940268s/92003.jpg|1502479]. They’re like the infrastructure of a larger fictional world. I have no problem with that- it can be fun. This is the part where I get all preachy and holier-than-thouWhat bothers me about the world being created here is that Schlozman -a physician- seemed too easily accepting of the idea that the “zombies” of this book are not human, even though the premise is that they are just regular people infected with a virus (as opposed to something supernatural, like animated corpses). The narration explains that once ANSD progresses to a certain point, victims are designated “no longer human” (NLH), and lose all their rights. (e.g. (#291)“We don’t even afford the same rights to zombies that we do to lab rats- not because we want to hurt them, but because time is short and enacting those rights and safeguards takes time.” ) That’s why no family or guardian consent is discussed when subjecting the NLH zombies to vivisection. Don’t get all up in my grill about how this is fiction, and what an apocalyptic scenario the zombie plague is, and how "desperate situations call for desperate measures"; you aren’t going to convince me that doctors abandoning their humanity or the principle of “Above all, do no harm” could ever be a good thing. From the author’s bio, I see that Dr Schlozman is a psychiatrist, and so should be sensitive to the fact that it wasn’t so very long ago that the mentally ill were treated as something akin to “no longer human”. And, yes, Godwin’s Law-be-damned, I’m going to go there: Nazi doctors also practiced an alien and offensive medicine, when they allowed themselves to believe certain of their patients were “no longer human” (by virtue of being on the Third Reich’s list of undesirables). More recently, there is disturbing evidence in the 2004 CIA Inspector General’s report that American doctors may have also fallen for the “desperate situations call for desperate measures” line, and participated in waterboarding of detainees held in Guantanamo Bay. For as long as there have been healing arts, there have been temptations to discard the altruistic principles of medicine. It’s always a Faustian bargain, so I call bullshit on this yarn which glamorizes a Jack-Bauer-as-pathologist ethos of dehumanization of patients. That’s not what medicine is about; or at least not what it was about. Most of the history of medicine is one of extraordinary selflessness. For centuries, doctors risked their lives comforting patients afflicted with gruesome contagious diseases like leprosy, tuberculosis, and bubonic plague. Some of that altruism is harder to see these days. Physicians still work long hours and make a lot of sacrifices for their careers, but most of them (us) are also very well compensated. It isn’t outrageous to wonder whether the spirit of benevolence in medicine persists, now that risks are lower and pay is higher. Schlozman should know better than to play around with these perceptions.Well, enough about that.This is where I bitch about the police state and Apocalypse pornThe other aspect of TZA that disturbs me is the whole police state theme. Not only does this story feature a United Nations (who else?) declaring the infected “No Longer Human”, you’ve also got them outlawing zombie movies and books, because said materials “might upset the population”. At #34, we’re told “Most of the governed world is under martial law.“ Information about the spread of the plague is kept from the public “to avoid a panic”. Emergencies are a great opportunity to flex the muscles of authoritarianism, aren’t they? Unfortunately, this is by no means unique to The Zombie Autopsies. You’ll find some variation of paramilitary fetishism in most zombie/plague/meteor-hitting-the-Earth/ economic collapse/ World War III literature. I guess fans of Apocalypse porn get off on heavy-handed “continuity of government” shit. I suspect it’s a latent Submissive fixation, maybe tied in with guilt about our modern world having caused all these disasters in the first place.“That’s right… dominate us, we’ve been a bad public! Strip us down in the airport, and shove your hands down our pants! We deserve it! We made all this trouble happen! Humiliate us! Show us who’s boss! God! We can’t get enough! Scan our retinas! Put RFID chips under our skin! Mmmmm, just like that, baby! We’ve been baddddddd!“ Sick fucks.So back to the book. What’s with this idea about withholding vital information from the public? I wish this was just in fiction, but it isn’t. Do a search and find out how much information the Japanese government is currently blocking from the public about radiation levels around Fukushima. Check this out. Or how about this? How about this? Then there’s the issue of law enforcement during emergencies. Sure, looting does occur during periods of upheaval and desperation, but what is the correct response? Do your own search of United Nations troops being sent into unstable areas to provide some law and order. Here’s what I got in five minutes:Sex abuse by U.N. troops in SudanU.N. Peacekeepers Raping Children in the CongoSex Abuse by U.N. troops in HaitiCorruption and Cover-up by U.N. ForcesU.N. Troops involved with smuggling and arms dealingCorruption within U.N. Peacekeeping ForcesMy point is that a lot of fiction seem to assume that martial law will follow calamity, but a lot of real-life experience shows that even the limited martial law of U.N. peacekeeping isn't necessarily better than calamity. The desirability of martial law admidst upheaval is an assumption which should be questioned. If there’s a zombie plague apocalypse, seeing an armored troop carrier roll into town, bearing the big blue U.N. logo on its side won’t make me feel any better about things.UPDATE: [March 9, 2012] THIS JUST IN: great link about Apocalypse PornWrap-upTZA is an okay, if bleak, story- provided you want to wade through a lot of clinical descriptions about a brain dissection, and you don’t mind a lot of predictive programming about how the police state will be your savior. My advice: skip this book and rent yourself George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead.