When you think of books about zombies and the undead, the last thing you expect is reportage. If there are zombies and dead men walking, there should be ancient curses, shamans, innocent victims, and swaggering heroes saving the day, right?
The answer would be “yes” in most cases. Which is why Max Brooks’ World War Z is special. The book is credited with reinventing the Zombie book genre and well, we certainly have not read anything like this with the undead at the centre of the plot. World War Z comes with the subtitle “an oral history of the Zombie war” and that is exactly what it is. There is no overall plot, just a whole bunch of narratives of people who were affected in the Zombie War, put together by a member of the “United Nations Postwar Commission” through a series of interviews.
Which, of course, brings us to the matter of the Zombie War itself. The book is based in the not too distant future with Earth facing an entirely new challenge – undead who just keep advancing killing and infecting all those who come in their path. And this outbreak is not confined to some remote corner of some country but is pretty much a global phenomenon. Thousands are slaughtered as governments try to come to terms with just what is happening. It is not as if the zombies cannot be killed – a shot or a chop to the head or does the trick – but the mayhem that ensues the outbreak freezes logical thinking.
And that is actually what World War Z is about. It is not about the arrival of the undead and how they stopped but the way in which people reacted to them. The book is a collection of interviews with different people – victims of the attacks, those who tried to exploit them for commercial purposes (an entrepreneur who makes a drug that he claims stops the zombies, but with lots of small print that indicates that it does not), politicians who did not know how to react, generals who tried to put media glory ahead of common sense, and many more.
It is this “reportage” style of narration that is the book’s greatest strength. For it focuses more on the terror and helplessness of the victims. This is not about the zombies, but what happened to those who came in their path. And for about half of the length of the book, it makes for compelling reading. Some of the stories are even inspiring – a blind man in Japan fights off hordes of undead while his nation’s armies flee, but still has the humanity to find the body of each person he kills and bury them. There is heroism, cowardice and helplessness in equal measures in these pages.
Note that we said the book is compelling reading for about half its length. Well, that is because after that point, it just gets too repetitive. And when things do start themselves out, far too many “ideologically” convenient things happen – the Chinese politburo are proved to be cowards, communism falls in Cuba, North Korea goes totally quiet, and the forces take on the zombies with Iron Maiden playing out loud. The result: while the first two hundred pages of the book kept up riveted, we were actually skipping pages towards the end, simply because things were getting predictable.
But we would STILL insist that World War Z is worth reading, simply for the spell Brooks casts in the initial part of the book. This is undead literature unlike any we have seen and will send chills down your spine not because of its supernatural imagery (there is none) but because it talks of a scenario that seems very believable. Will the film be anywhere near as good? We are keeping our fingers crossed, but would not bet in its favour. For this is as real as Zombies can get in literature.
Read it. To find out what effect the undead can have on the living.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
By Max Brooks
Three Rivers press