…by Max Brooks. In World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, the author tells the story of a massive zombie outbreak through interviews with key participants and survivors from all across the globe. These interviews, of soldiers, politicians, bureaucrats, and everymen, chronicle the Zombie War from outbreak to eventual triumph. It’s one part fictional historical fiction, one part novel-in-short stories, with plenty of horror and sociological commentary thrown in.
It’s an awesome idea – the kind I wish I would have come up with – and Brooks (son of Mel) not only turned the book into a bestseller, but used it’s predecessor, The Zombie Survival Guide (Beemsville review here) as a sort of research thesis to lay the groundwork for this story. The audiobook version features a host of familiar voice-talent, and I’m told is quite good. To the surprise of nobody, a movie is currently in development.
But back to the book itself… The narrative takes place approximately ten years after the end of the war. It’s an oral history commissioned by the UN to collect first-hand accounts. Brooks splits it into three basic sections: the initial outbreak, the great panic with humanity in full retreat, and the war to retake the planet. The narrator/interviewer moves around the globe, chronicling the effects and responses of various societies’ showdown with the living dead from China to Pakistan to the UK. The international approach is one real strength of the books – probably a third of the interviews deal with the USA, with the remaining two-thirds focused on the rest of the planet.
Another strength is the depth of research and consideration into how we would react to a ‘real’ zombie outbreak. Brooks obviously spent years thinking about how it might unfold, how people in power and average folks alike would react to an unflinching undead horde. Along those lines, it’s important to understand the kind of zombie we’re dealing with here:
The virus Solanum causes humans to become zombies. These zombies have no respiration, metabolism, or higher brain functions. Their only instinct is to feed – preferably on human flesh. They aren’t the fast zombies of 28 Days Later or the mystic zombies of Caribbean and African mythology. They are single-minded feeding machines in vaguely human form. They survive until the flesh falls from their bones or their brains are severely damaged. Thus does Brooks define his monsters, which seem most like the zombies of older movies and most notably, Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead. -from review of ZSG
They’re not fast or particularly strong, and they have no intelligence to speak of. But they do not stop. In one of the pivotal chapters of the book, ‘The Battle of Yonkers’, in which the US Military tries (and spectacularly fails) to turn back the horde of New York City zombies using the very latest in overpriced technology, we get a grisly illustration of just this point.
Brooks does a decent job of writing from a variety of different voices as the story unfolds. Some of the vignettes are very graphic and creepy, while others are more austere and ironic in nature. Only a few of them were clunky or ineffective.
Chapters that stood out for me include descriptions of human smuggling on the Tibetan border, of Israeli and American Intelligence Analysts utter failure to get their superiors to acknowledge and address the threat, a body guard’s account of the assault on a compound housing celebrities (they’re doing a reality show there) – not by zombies but by regular folks fleeing from the zombies, the story of the Chinese nuclear sub commander and his crew, the retreat of unprepared Americans into northern Canada, South Africa’s response plan that eventually shows how to survive and strike back against the zombies (by retreating to altitude and sacrificing large groups of humans as cover for military forces), and the chilling rise of the Holy Russian Empire in response to the threat – complete with military culls and death-priests performing ‘mercy’ on the newly infected. And, of course, the infantryman’s recollection of the march from the Rockies to the Atlantic to sweep and clear the undead and achieve victory.
The totality of these stories flow together quite well. The reader not only becomes invested with various individuals, but in the overall narrative of humanity on the brink. Brooks obviously had a very good editor. As the pages turned, I would ask myself – I wonder how this would go in India, or what would happen in all the coastal areas since these zombies can survive underwater indefinitely, or what about North Korea – and inevitably that would be the next chapter.
World War Z came highly recommended, hailed as a pivotal cog in the whole zombie renaissance mini-movement, and it did not disappoint. If you’re a fan of horror or just someone who enjoys intelligent What If? style speculation (whether it’s zombies or alternative history), you should give this book a read.