I’m suffering a bit of zombie fatigue to be honest. Nowadays, when I hear about a new zombie movie or video game, I just think, “This again?”. That’s what I thought when I heard about the new movie starring Brad Pitt called World War Z. Then I started hearing that the book was far superior to the movie, and that the book was, by all accounts, rather good. In a small Amazon book spending spree, I picked up this book, started reading it, and was thoroughly engrossed.
The book is subtitled an oral history of the zombie war, and that’s exactly what it is. Told from multiple perspectives spanning the entire world, the book is composed of short little vignettes taking the form of eye witness interviews. It starts with the start, the initial stages of infection, the early reaction to the spread of this mysterious disease (“African rabies”) and it spans all through the duration of the war, covering the stories of survivors, both individuals and colonies.
I think the first thing to note about this book is the format. The use of multiple viewpoints and characters is a refreshing change from the usual “here’s a rag-tag group of survivors” type of zombie-story. In fact, I think the downfall of many zombie-genre stories is that the group of characters involved tend to be a bit hit or miss in terms of likeability. Consider The Walking Dead TV show which combines braindead characters with uninspired zombie situations, and you have a recipe for decaying views and just generally declining quality. Whereas The Walking Dead video game has had resounding critical success because its cast is wonderful and we care for the characters (Clem… L). In World War Z, it avoids all these risks by showing you a zombie apocalypse through the eyes of multiple characters, all of whom have their own unique spin and own experiences to tell. If you don’t like a particular character, it’s fine because there’s only half a dozen pages until you move onto the next.
This is sometimes also a double-edged sword. I often found myself wanting to know more about a particular character than was given in the book. I could read a whole book about the blind atomic bomb survivor and how he rebuilt Hokkaido or the Japanese ‘otaku’ who escaped a swarm of zombies attacking his apartment complex. Still, I don’t think that’s a mark against the book; on the contrary, I think it speaks to the amazing detail and writing style for making me want to know more about a character who I only read 4 pages about. So on balance, it’s better this way with short snapshots of people’s experiences. Each of the stories are framed in perfect bite-size chunks of explanation, exposition and experiences, and boy, are those stories rich and interesting.
Now, perhaps the weirdest thing about this book, is that it didn’t have to be about zombies at all. The zombie apocalypse is more just a cover, a storytelling framing device, in order to expose the realities of humanity. Often the book is more an exposé on the ills of society than an actual hard look at zombies. Many stories feature zombies only in a very peripheral way: to some extent, this is due to the fact that it’s an oral history of survivors, and most survivors wouldn’t hold up against a huge amount of zombies. So zombies creep in occasionally, and sometimes terrifyingly, but I think the real interesting parts of the book are ones which deal with how an apocalypse (could be any kind) affects society.
For example, one chapter looks at how the population is restructured after an apocalypse, given how certain jobs and skills become much more useful and others much less so. We hear about the business adviser who can’t deal with her Mexican maid teaching a class on how to grow vegetables. We learn about the number of business executives, managers, advisors, consultants and analysts who just become entirely obsolete. We learn how modern American society with all its excesses and luxuries has to cope with the eradication of life as they knew it. In particular, because this book has a wide scope and looks at stories from all over the world, the excesses of the Western world are put in stark contrast to say, the reaction from the North Koreans. It’s a very sobering look at humanity, one which manages to make me feel more aware of how large the Earth truly is and how many different people inhabit this world.
The book doesn’t hold back any punches, and the selection of interviewees that it picks range from the incredibly heroic to downright scum. For example, one story talks about a man who helped smuggle people past quarantine lines in exchange for large amounts of cash. What’s fascinating about this story though is the complete lack of remorse that the smuggler seems to showcase, even going as far as to blame other types of smugglers (air-smugglers, sea-smugglers etc.) for being worse than him. A flawed character, to be sure, but his story is just as legitimate to tell as any other.
Furthermore, Max Brook manages to lend a great deal of legitimacy to his book and it is clear that a lot of research has gone into it. The scenarios put forward in the book seem entirely realistic. The sequence of events that leads from a small infection to a worldwide pandemic all seem entirely on par with our understanding of world governments today. I think far too many zombie apocalypse stories fail to explain how no one reacted in time, how no one did anything until it was too late. World War Z however, is the story of a series of failures, oversights and neglectful authorities that leads to the widespread disaster. It’s the story of worldwide insecurity and how the political web of power affects the authorities abilities to stop this impending doom. On the face of it, that’s really the appeal of every zombie story – the idea that this could happen to us, real people, living in the 21st century. World War Z makes that possibility far more real, more visceral and more possible than any other take on the genre that I’ve experience.
Overall, the book is not without its flaws. If you’re not convinced by the premise, then a lot of this is going to be a hard sell. And whilst its scope is fairly wide and covers quite a few countries, at the end of the day, it’s very much written for Western audiences and the emphasis is on the USA. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re not-American, it’s hard to really relate to some of the chapters about the American zeitgeist or how Americans feel about certain things. As a Brit, I was a little disappointed by the chapter based in England which just focused on how the Royal family and Windsor castle was used in the war; I mean, I just think it’s a little cliche at that point. I think other readers from non-American countries will find similar complaints about the token chapters set in their countries (if there is one at all).
Despite this American-centrism, I’d still recommend the book. Even if you’re not a fan of the zombie genre, this book is worth reading for its insights into the human condition. It’s a really easy read, with a great mix between information, excitement and moments of touching humanity. Honestly, it’s really helped to reinvigorate my love for the zombie genre. If other zombie stories could be this mature, this well-researched and this interesting, then I really wouldn’t mind if the zombie trope gains even more traction in the next few years. Sadly, I think the plethora of bad, uninspired and unoriginal zombie stories will overshadow something like World War Z which is actually very good.