Wednesday 4 June 2008

World War Z, Max Brooks

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarSubtitled “An oral history of the zombie war”, World War Z tells the story from the initial outbreaks to the ongoing aftermath. Brooks wastes no time trying to reimagine or justify the existence of zombies. There’s no scientific analysis of why their bite conveys the infection, or how their dead bodies can move. They are the zombies from Night of the Living Dead, plain and simple, with just the one difference. Here, only the infected rise from the dead; the previously dead stay where they are. The book is not about how a real world zombie apocalypse might happen, but instead about how the real world would respond to Romero’s zombies.

Having said that, Brooks does come up with a number of new (to me, at least) twists on the way the zombie plague spreads, none of which I’ll mention here for fear of spoiling someone else’s enjoyment of the book. I’ll just say that the best such story, for me, is told in Brazil.

World War Z has a lot in common with James Herbert’s Rats trilogy, though where Herbert has an onmiscient narrator floating around to take us to the most interesting bits, everything here is reported first hand by the survivors. That might be thought to lessen the suspense, since we know they survive, but that’s far from the truth – there’s a very real sense that surviving this war was much harder than dying in it. Hearing the stories straight from the survivors is what gives the book its power and purpose, dragging us right in amongst the moaning hordes.

I had a few small issues with it. For one thing, it’s a bit irksome to have the old nonsense about “no atheists in foxholes” getting trotted out, even in a first person narrative. The American soldiers in the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, for example, get very angry when people say things like that. It’s also amusing to see how often people from around the world say things along the lines of “As your great American writer once said…”, which often makes it seem as if the quotes were in place first and the character saying them came later.

And I’m not convinced by how safe any safe zones could possibly have been, especially early in the war. I enjoy the odd zombie movie here and there, but I find them very depressing, because there’s no way anyone would survive (unless, as in 28 Days Later, the zombies would eventually run out of steam). Given the horrifying way that things play out in the early sections of this book, I’m not convinced that anyone at all would have made it out alive.

But those are minor quibbles with regard to a powerful book. It’s so full of fascinating and terrifying episodes that everyone reading it will have their own favourite moment – for me it was the fleeting mention of the Queen and her castle. I’m far from being a monarchist, but that was cool. Also, Brooks is to be commended for fitting the whole saga into a mere 340 pages. I’ve no doubt that the resulting insensity has contributed to the book’s success.

I’m definitely looking forward to the movie.

World War Z, Max Brooks, Duckworth, pb, 344pp.

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