World War Z, by Max Brooks

The recent review of J. Michael Straczynski’s script for the movie version of
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars
(apparently due out next year) is the impetus for today’s review:
presuming that the review is accurate, the movie is going to be more than a
little controversial, thus suggesting that a review of the original book may be
in order.



If the lycanthrope was the preeminent monster of the
medieval period, the vampire that of the Victorian era, and the bug-eyed monster
that of the 1950s, then the zombie is almost certainly the favored boogeyman of
the modern era.  It’s not all that
unsurprising to understand why.  The
concept of the zombie – and here I explicitly speak of the shambling, undead
human moaning about brains, not the Caribbean metaphor for alienation from the
community – lends itself well to our tastes in horror (which are not so much gruesome as they are exceptionally visual), while permitting a surprising
amount of social commentary to presented alongside the undead hordes.  Every generation finds a suitable monster to
build its scary stories around; the zombie is ours.


World War Z by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks, for those
inclined to trivia) is, in its way, a sequel to his seminal The Zombie Survival Guide (ZSG), a book which is probably on the bookshelves of every fan of the
genre.  The conceit of the ZSG is
that zombies are real, and not overtly supernatural; that their tactics,
advantages, and disadvantages are both knowable and uniform; and that there can
be workable, practical methods of surviving a zombie outbreak.  The bulk of the ZSG is dedicated to
discussing what tactics work, what tactics don’t, and what tactics will just
get everyone killed, with not a hint that the subject matter is anything except
completely real.  While it is not
necessary to have read the Zombie Survival Guide in order to enjoy World War Z,
the latter uses the zombie described in the former for its template, and the
ZSG is an entertaining book in its own right.


World War Z
is presented in the form of after-the-fact
personal interviews with survivors of a world-wide zombie outbreak (one which
was as apocalyptic as possible without actually destroying either human
civilization, or even the human race itself). 
The story is traced through the first cases in China, followed by the
slow spread of the undead through Western Asia and South America, then Western
Europe and America; step by step, the reader is led through an increasingly
nightmarish scenario brought about in equal parts by bad planning, wrongheaded
assumptions, shortsighted thinking, and a simple unwillingness to accept that
the dead could be walking around, hungry for human flesh.  The middle part of the book explores the
permutations of the “Great Panic” (somewhat a self-explanatory
description of the almost-collapse of civilization) and surviving governments’
retreats to defensible territory; obviously, given the aforementioned conceit
it shouldn’t be surprising that the last part of the book is dedicated to how
humanity finally was able to reclaim the Earth from the zombies.


All of this is presented as oral accounts, in a style
deliberately evocative of biographers such as Studs Terkel.  This method of presentation is one of the
strengths of the book; Brooks’ characters are all well-defined and easy to tell
apart from each other.  While a plurality
of the interviewees are American, the book takes pains to emphasize the global
aspects of the story, giving it a certain breadth not always found in horror tales.
 Brooks also makes a point of making it
clear that, while humanity was eventually victorious over the undead, it was
not done without heavy cost – and that neither the world nor the survivors
would quickly recover from the disaster (it is, in fact, open to question
whether the immediate survivors would ever really recover at all).  This note of realism in what is after all a
story of supernatural terror (and never mind the “scientific”
explanations for the walking dead) improves the experience for the reader.


One legitimate criticism of the book is the politics found
in it – more accurately, the fairly topical politics found in it, which are not
an issue now, but will probably make the book slightly less comprehensible ten
or so years down the road.  It is probably
safe to say that Max Brooks is a mildly left-of-center Democrat who does not
approve of the War in Iraq; and while the level of resentment against the Bush
administration present in the book never even approaches that of, say, Jo
Walton’s Farthing it is nonetheless a mild distraction from the book.  Fortunately, neither that, nor the faint whiff
of condescending towards the military mindset, is sufficient to make
World War Z
unreadable, although it would be interesting to find out whether an earlier
version of the book had made things more explicit.


Overall, I would recommend this book: it’s well written,
internally self-consistent, and possessed of both strong characters and an
easily-followed plot.  Max Brooks knows
his zombies, and knows how to use them to tell a killer story.  Don’t give this book to a twelve-year-old who
can’t handle the concept of gore, but there’s nothing in here that won’t be
cheerfully visualized for him by television or the movies.
World War Z
is a good choice for the horror
fan in your life, as is The Zombie Survival Guide. The former is in
now, so if you
have a gift card or three it’s a good choice for eating up the balance.

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