World War Z

After reading about Max Brook’s World War Z on book blog The Mountains of Instead, I knew I had to read it. It’s a story of a world war against zombies, and while I am not much of a zombie/horror fan, I am a huge fan of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction.

The main attractions – and the main characteristics from reading the cover – were quite simple. Firstly, this wasn’t a book that pretended to be fiction; it described itself as a report written ten years after a global war against zombies that destroyed much of humanity before eventually the zombies were defeated. In the rather bland introduction, the author introduces himself as a senior UN official whose major report on the war had its more personal side, its first-hand stories, removed by his superiors so that the report would focus more on the facts and figures; leading him to decide to publish those interviews as a book in their own right.

In that sense, the books reminded me an awful lot of the feel of John Wyndham’s novels, which I blogged about a while ago. Mostly stories about how humankind wrestles with an epoch-making game-changer or end-of-the-world scenario, the stories are led by characters usually taking the form of involved experts, such as scientists or journalists. Our authoritative first person narrator gives credence to the story and ideas within it, and Max Brooks does this similarly well in World War Z.

As I say, there is no mention anywhere that this is fiction – and this cleverly allows the reader to be thrown headlong into the reality it portrays, putting to one side any disbelief. Indeed, it is a follow-up to Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide. And that leads me to the second thing I really liked the book for; its pace. One good way that a novel can deal with the need to explain something unusual or fantastic in a science-fiction/fantasy way is simply to ignore the explanation and get on with the story.

One example of this refusal to acknowledge the obvious questions can be found in one of my favourite films of the last few years, Cloverfield. The film tells the story – through one group’s handheld camera – of a Godzilla-style monster attack on New York. The most common reason for praising the film is the way that you see virtually nothing of the monster until the very end, leaving you with a sense of expectation, of fear, of dread, of total reliance on the actions, words and emotions of the characters to interpret the situation for you. However what is more impressive is the pace at which you are thrown right into the action – there’s no time to stop and think about how ridiculous the concept of a monster attack is, because the main characters have no time either – they’re too busy running to stop for breath and consequently you the viewer barely have the time to blink.

The cover of World War ZAnd so it is with World War Z. While it’s not quite action-packed in the way Cloverfield is, and the interviews are all held around ten years after the end of hostilities, the book very cleverly thrusts us right into the heart of the action, such that we have little time to consider the ludicous pretext for the book. Our first story is from a Chinese doctor called to a remote village in a sparsely-populated region to deal with people with some unusual bites; then we hear from others such as a people-smuggler who helped people flee the increasing rumours of rabid humans (carrying among their refugee number many people already infected) and a global organ smuggler, both of whom describe the processes that contribute to the zombie problem very quickly becoming a global catastrophe.

The book’s subjects are well-created, and whether through the eyes of an Indian soldier or a senior American administrator, we get a truly global perspective on the war, and a sense of how humanity and its institutions cope, or fail to cope. We are introduced to the panic, the carnage, the struggle by civil authorities to organise society in a total war scenario or the battle by the military to adapt its weapons and tactics to an enemy humankind has never seen before.

How the dynamics and chaos thrown up by the zombie war affect real world scenarios is a gripping dimension of the book, too – the impact of the zombies on Israel, for instance, turns conventional Middle East politics upside down, while we read about how survival tactics devised by racist Apartheid-era Afrikaaners are brought back into play or how governments move from counter-terrorism stances to dusting down their Cold War manuals on survival in a total war scenario. Old habits die hard, though, and there is something predictable about the way countries respond: the Americans with a gung-ho military efficiency, and the Russians with a lumbering, wasteful, totalitarianism. Such cliches are not a weakness of the book – but one of many subtle commentaries by the author about the natural weaknesses of human society.

While I have some criticisms about how the book takes a truly cross-planet perspective – there seem to be insufficient African or South American voices, for instance – World War Z does introduce us to a fantastic host of characters and storylines. We meet Canadian refugees fighting a perennial battle against frozen zombies that thaw and rise again each spring, an American dog handler who trains animals to sniff out zombies, and a Japanese computer hacker who is gripped by the outbreak and only realises he has to run and fight when his internet connection is lost, and a French soldier who tells the story of the bloody and claustrophobic battles in the tunnels and sewers beneath Paris.

We even meet the Australian commander of the International Space Station, stranded with his team in orbit for several years before there are resources to rescue them, who watches zombies in “mega swarms over central Asia and the American Great Plains. Those were truly massive, miles across, like the American buffalo must once have been.”

We hear about how the USA’s “Great Panic” leads Cuba, with its strong healthcare sector, to become a haven of stability and eventual world power; we read of the evident disappearance of North Korea’s population to underground networks – either holding fast or all turned to zombies (we never discover); and we read of mistrust, conflict and even nuclear exchanges as people and countries are turned against each other in the chaos of the zombies’ ascendency.

Each character tells a great story, and it’s unsurprising that World War Z is soon to be a film. But with dozens of individual interviews forming the book, and with numerous common themes (personal struggle, environmental degradation, opportunism, warfare and so on) I can’t help thinking that a film will be sorely inadequate at capturing the massive scope and depth of the book. Instead, it would have worked better as a Lost-style epic series, with thirty or so minutes devoted to each – or maybe some or most – characters, the mix of interview and flashback presenting a potentially good documentary feel.

I’m sure I’ll still go see it, and I’d definitely recommend the book as a gripping and thought-provoking book that acts both as a good scifi romp and a chilling reflection on the human and global conditions.

One thought on “World War Z

  1. So glad that you liked this – it is such a good book. I particularly like the allegorical feel of it, the zombie infection could just as easily have been any mishandled illness (SARS/Ebola/whatever). Thanks also for the link!

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