'World War Z' by Max Brooks (2006)

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War - Max Brooks

Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (London: Duckworth, 2007), second edition, 342pp

 

In World War Z, Max Brooks provides perhaps the most entertaining and fully-realised vision of a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested world I have yet read. I first read this nearly four years ago and, in re-reading it now (in anticipation of the new film adaptation), I have been reminded of just how authentic Brooks' world is. It tracks the 'zombie war' from its outbreak and initial global panic, through the destruction of civilisation, to the eventual fight-back and post-war reconstruction.

Brooks provides realistic scenarios as to how each of the countries respond to the outbreak (e.g. the Chinese government's attempt at a cover-up, the Israeli 'voluntary quarantine') as well as how different people respond in different ways (Brooks shows, for example, how unscrupulous people try to make money from the desperate by marketing fake drugs which claim to cure the zombie virus). By sourcing his zombie narrative from real-life issues, Brooks imbues his vision with a level of authenticity that other writers' post-apocalyptic worlds lack. This also gives it a level of social commentary more sophisticated than other books; Brooks, for example, details how the global outbreak was exacerbated by, among other things, government corruption, shameless profiteering (such as the fake Phalanx drug mentioned above), the proliferation of ghettoes, the illegal organs and human trafficking trade, and the typical hysteria of the mass media which always hyped up new threats, leading to a 'boy who cried wolf' situation ("... there was already so much out there to worry about, every month, it seemed, a new nail-biter... How do you know which one is really real?" (pg. 66)).

This authenticity continues into the zombie war itself (such as the struggle in getting the various countries to stop playing politics and co-ordinate their fight-back), most notably on the military side. This is truly a zombie 'war', with each government re-orienting their militaries to combat the new threat. Out go the tanks and the high-tech technologies; in come 19th-century-esque battle formations and mêlée weapons to augment the standard-issue firearms. Moreover, there is a change in military philosophy; "... you don't have to be Sun freakin Tzu to know that real fighting isn't about killing... Break their spirit, that's what every successful army goes for... But what if the enemy can't be shocked and awed? Not just won't but biologically can't!" (pp103-4). Brooks notes that it is the first true 'total war', when extermination of the enemy, not its surrender, is the only way. It seems at times like Brooks has thought of everything; certainly, you would be hard-pressed to pick holes in his narrative. He addresses every part of the zombie war and from seemingly every angle, including an astronaut marooned on a space station watching as the world below goes to shit. He notes the dangers other than zombies, including the winter (modern city-dwellers are massively unprepared in terms of survival skills), feral animals, bandits and secessionists, and the psychological dangers (there are numerous references to rapidly-climbing suicide rates). He even throws in little details that add depth to the world; from the soldiers' believable slang for their new weaponry ('Lobos', for example) to call-backs from one survivor's story recalled in another's (the chilling incident in Kansas described on page 75 is mentioned in passing in another account on page 325). Brooks' comprehensiveness is even more remarkable when you consider that World War Z still manages to retain its brevity and easy readability - not at any point is this book anything but a delight to read.

Furthermore, it makes Brooks' world seem very real and authentic; consequently, the zombie threat has greater immediacy. Most zombie fiction doesn't scare as much as it is often told from the perspective of individualists - the 'Last Man on Earth' trope - and the reader often puts themselves in the character's shoes with a sense of invulnerability. In contrast, Brooks presents a world of global panic, the desperate masses - it reminds the reader that, were such a post-apocalyptic scenario to occur, they would more than likely be one of the scared, unfortunate people trying desperately to escape than some Hollywood omega man; in all probability, we'd be one of the living dead rather than one of the living. In this respect, making World War Z an 'oral history', a collection of various accounts from 'survivors', is a masterstroke as it shows there can be much more to post-apocalyptic fiction than the whole 'Last Man on Earth' trope. It also gives it a very real human angle; more than any other piece of zombie fiction I have read, World War Z explores honestly the true nature of mankind and the human condition.

 

But this is not a dull 'history' book providing an encyclopaedic overview of a zombie apocalypse; not once does Brooks' commitment to creating a fully-realised world impede his ability to write a good story. As it purports to collect various survivors' accounts, World War Z is almost like a collection of short stories (I particularly liked the downed pilot story beginning on page 168, the Chinese submarine story beginning on page 233 and the creepy North Korea story left tantalisingly unresolved on page 203). But it is not as fragmented as short story collections often are - make no mistake, this is a novel, and a cohesive, fully-realised one at that. I wholeheartedly recommend it (I found it even better reading a second time around) not just for fans of zombie fiction, but for anyone who enjoys a good story told by an exciting writer.