World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
by Max Brooks
InstaRating: 5 out of 5
After the debacle that was The Stonehenge Gate, I was looking for something good to read, to wash the taste of failed prose from my mouth. Happily I picked up this piece of psuedo-history. Written by the author of the offbeat, tongue-in-cheek The Zombie Survivor’s Guide, this book purports to be an oral history compiled and published ten years after the end of The Zombie War, a global outbreak of the undead as in The Night of the Living Dead.
Spoilers and more after the break.
This book is good, really good. It’s not tongue-in-cheek at all. It’s gritty and sharp-edged. Not once does Mr. Brooks break the written equivalent of “the fourth wall”; never does he wink at the reader and confess this is all fiction. The book carries extensive footnoting and multiple references to an official UN history of the war. Some things are left out and you, the reader, are forced to fill them in, as they are background details that would be known to any citizen of the post-Z world he described.
The origin of the zombie plague is left appropriately mysterious and unclear, even to the people in the book. It began, it seems, in rural China… but maybe not, as other cases pop up far too swiftly to be easily understood. It’s caused by a virus transmitted by bites; in other words, it’s weird but entirely natural. Except, zombies underwater survive pressure and chemical corrosion far better than any human flesh could, so maybe it’s supernatural. Even a decade after “the War”, no one knows for sure, and so the reader doesn’t, either.
That’s OK. This book isn’t really about the zombies; it’s about the humans. Mr. Brooks sprinkles skin-crawling episodes of horror and despair throughout the book, tales of flesh-eating unstoppable killing machines pursuing mindless but gruesome ends. That’s his hook and he’s true to it. But he also lifts a curtain on what it would take to survive the initial Great Panic, or to fight block by block across zombie America to reclaim the United States.
As the title indicates, the book is presented as an oral history, a collection of excerpts from many thousands of hours of interviews with many hundreds of people. Most of them we meet only once; a handful are revisited in the final pages to see how their lives have continued. The conceit is a difficult one to carry for 250 pages but Mr. Brooks pulls it off. Each interviewee comes across as a unique person with a unique story; there is extremely little “bleed” among the characters. Amazingly, Mr. Brooks is able to sharply define his characters in the course of no more than a paragraph or so each. The French characters feel French; the South Africans feel different from the French. Heck, he even manages to make the Dominion types — Brits, Canucks, Aussies — feel authentic, and authentically distinct. You can easily imagine a Ken Burns documentary being made from this material, including homespun soundtrack and lingering visuals.
Mr. Brooks’ “history” is every bit as sharp as his characterization. He has meticulously worked out the details of the global crisis; he lays it out logically but not monotonously. The book is divided into eight sections, which cover three distinct phase: the early epidemic (“Warnings”, “Blame”, “The Great Panic”); the desperate attempts to stabilize the situation (“Turning the Tide”, “Homefront USA”, “Around the World and Above It”); and the endgame (“Total War”, “Goodbyes”). By the time the reader is done, a whole new world has been sketched out and filled in.
His world is nuanced. The Battle of Yonkers is the almost-mandatory initial military screw-up that nearly costs the war. (Doesn’t every American war have one?) Soldiers are betrayed by the high tech weapons and outmoded doctrine handed to them; it’s a slaughter. But this isn’t an anti-military rant, some 60s fantasy about how all soldiers are idiot killers who can’t adapt. By the end of the book, the armed services have adapted, fostering tactics and strategies matched to the radically different enemy they fight. Nor is it an anti-technology screed. Sure, the tanks proves useless and the warrior-mounted-Internet a liability. But in addition to the “Lobo” polearm, the infantry carry new rifles with ammo specifically designed to kill zombies without splattering infectious brain matter everywhere. Mr. Brooks handles the political, logistical, technical, even propaganda angles, and he does so exceedingly believably.
I particularly enjoyed the many different nicknames for the zombies, invented by the grunts and adopted by everyone: G (for “ghoul”, I assume); “Zack” (joining Charlie and Ivan and Jerry); and even the British “Zed-head”.
For the concerned, let me put your mind to rest: We (humanity) do eventually win the Zombie War, or at least, the much-depleted survivors do. Twenty years of alternate history (or possible future history?) have been scribed, stretching from the first cases through the ten-year war and the decade of reconstruction. The reader is left with the conviction that this is a world that could be.
Is there a message in the book? Maybe. Many times characters speak of the need for us to rediscover our humanity before we could conquer the undead. The reconstructed world is, comparatively, underpopulated, more intimate, less materialistic. Perhaps something larger is intended. There are appropriately uplifting and soaring tales of human spirit. I’ll write elsewhere on possible reasons why this book, and its genre, exert the pull they do on our imagination. At any rate, Mr. Brooks never lets his message (whatever it might be) overwhelm his narrative. This is a thought-provoking book but it’s also a great read that — for me, at least — flew by.
If post-apocalyptica appeals to you at all, consider picking up World War Z. You won’t be disappointed.