The Zombie Survival Guide, Max Brooks

Three Rivers Press, 2003, 256 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 1-4000-4962-8

Now that’s a curio. The title really tells you everything you need to know: This is a guide, and it’s all about surviving a zombie uprising. Hilariously patterned after a survivalist manual, Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide grabs a concept and runs far, far away with it.

The first part of the book sets the (un)dead-serious tone: Zombies are a real scientific phenomenon, explains Brooks as he details the current state of “scientific knowledge” about the condition. The zombies of this guide are similar to the usual movie canon, with a number of important differences not limited to the demands of a two-hour-long running time. The most important of them is the zombies’ durability: We are made privy to a number of incidents in which zombies successfully traveled underwater, or even thawed after several years spent encased in ice. Brrr!

Product of a “Solanum” viral infection, zombie outbreaks present their set of particular dangers and opportunities. Preparedness is key to survival: Properly-informed citizen can mount an effective resistance, whereas those poor fools caught unprepared might as well settle right now for a fate worse than death.

Brooks never breaks a smile as he goes through scenarios, weapons, tactics and survival strategies. Though billed as “humour”, the the book acquires its own credibility after a while, and people reading through the “living in an undead world” chapter may want to put down the book, look through the window, take a deep breath and repeat to themselves “This is fiction! Humour! Not real! I don’t have to prepare for a zombie invasion!”

The book is soberly presented in a no-nonsense design, often punctuated by simple line drawings. The writing is crisp, to the point and almost too believable at time. Despite the number of contradictions inherent to the concept (for a virus “not yet fully understood”, the fictional Solanum virus seems unusually well-researched), The Zombie Survival Guide creates its own off-kilter reality in which zombie plagues are not exactly unknown.

This impression gets even stranger in the last part of the book, in which Brooks digs through history to present a series of vignettes detailing the evolution of Solanum infections throughout humankind. There are a number of highly effective passages in here, meshing relatively well with known history and even establishing a Cold War secret history of sorts. SF and Fantasy readers will read this section as a confirmation of Brook’s success in creating his own parallel zombie-friendly reality. Beyond a simple humour book, The Zombie Survival Guide often slips into a horror universe of its own.

It also offers a non-movie look at the zombie creatures, which is precious given how Brooks wastes few words in taking the concept of the zombie to its logical extreme. Indestructible creatures can last a long time, travel underwater and survive unlikely traumas before rotting away or (preferably) being shot in the head by a prepared citizen. This type of long-term deep extrapolation would be unworkable in a movie context. Here, Brooks spends a lot of time pondering “What if?” and the chapter on living in world where zombies have effectively taken over (for at least a generation) is a fairly original piece of work.

All told, you may want to buy The Zombie Survival Guide as a gag gift, but you will end up reading it with a deepening sense of deliciously realistic dread. A book of that title might have just been a collection of stupid tricks learnt from zombie movies, but Brooks has spent a lot more time creating his own work of fiction. Not bad at all.

[December 2009: The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks is a graphic novel re-telling many of the historical vignettes collected in the last part of The Zombie Survival Guide.  Ibraim Roberson’s busily detailed artwork is in luscious grayscale, and if the stories tend to repeat themselves as variations on the old bite-bite-fight, there’s enough menace in the various introductions and conclusions to make it all seem unsettling.  At less than 150 pages, it’s not a big book, and is best aimed at those who already liked The Zombie Survival Guide at lot.  But after three zombie books in a row, Brooks could definitely try something else.]

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