Max Brooks – World War Z (Book Review)

World War Z cover

Max Brooks – World War Z

One strange aspect of zombie fandom is people’s desire to take it seriously. You can’t talk about them for long before someone asks about your “zombie escape plan” or remarks on how defensible the place you’re currently standing is. No one takes this as far as Max Brooks, though. World War Z is his “oral history of the zombie war”, composed of interviews from people all around the world who survived the zombie apocalypse. Never once does the book admit that this is all fiction, or that Brooks isn’t really doing research for a United Nations report.

World War Z can be judged either by its quality as a zombie story or by how “realistically” he handles this hypothetical situation. His realism is impressive. I think he goes past the point where I care, but Brooks definitely thought this through carefully. He uses classic zombies, except that the infection spreads more slowly and humanity eventually wins. But this seems entirely plausible when the story’s scope is the entire world instead of a single town. It makes sense for the infection to incubate and travel like a disease, and it also makes sense that the combined might of the world would eventually be able to save a small number of people. The book covers many different ways nations could react and be changed, and includes perspectives from islands, frozen northern regions, and even the International Space Station. It truly is a global scope (other than a curious lack of African interviews), and the migration of people and armies is an important aspect that normal, caught-in-the-moment, zombie stories fail to catch.

I wish it had less of a militaristic focus, though. Obviously, the armies of the world played a big role in the battle, and even the civilian survivors tended to be good in a fight. But the most powerful stories generally come from the individuals who were caught up in scenes of horror, not the soldiers explaining tactics. This makes the first half of the book stronger, when people are still running around without plans. Once governments manage to reclaim certain areas, we hear only about how they handled the civilian population there, not what it was like to be one of those civilians. When one soldier mentions liberating communities that survived under siege for a year, I wanted one of those people to tell me how it was possible. And major environmental changes are mentioned repeatedly, but even though those may be a bigger long-term risk to humanity than the zombies were, no one takes much time to talk about them directly.

The writing sometimes breaks the illusion, as well. Too many people have perfectly-structured stories, with ironic twists or big reveals at the end. There are no unreliable narrators: If an interviewee wants to lie or dodge a question, the transcript will either note body language that makes the truth obvious, or the teller comes back to it at the moment that the explanation will have the maximum impact. You can tell yourself that Brooks only included the interviews with the best stories, and that the consistent style (which reads more like prose than conversation) comes from edits that he added in, but it’s still hard to pretend that this is not really a novel.

Fortunately, though, it is a very good novel. There are dozens of individual stories, most of which we only get pieces of, but they fit together to make something that really does feel like it has worldwide scope. Brooks takes advantage of the fact that we have internalized so many zombie stories that we can fill in the gaps after reading about a portion of someone’s experiences. By jumping around, he includes more scenes of panic and general inhumanity than a typical zombie story could handle, and by laying realistic groundwork in other sections, he makes those scenes matter. This has some powerful moments of zombie horror, and the structure of the book makes them pop up at unexpected times.

Don’t think that humanity’s (costly) victory makes this less of a zombie story, either. In the typical Romero tradition, mankind’s selfishness is what truly dooms us after the dead rise. Here, though, our capacity for cruel calculation saves us, and that’s more disturbing than the pleasant fiction that we pay for our sins. This story is dark, affecting, and surprisingly difficult to argue with.

World War Z is far from a perfect book, but its unusual format is interesting despite the flaws. Both as a zombie story and a meta-zombie story, it will stick with you.

Grade: B

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