World War Z, Max Brooks

Crown, 2006, 342 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-307-34660-9

It’s regrettable that up until recently, the zombie had been a creature of filmed horror rather than written horror. For many, zombies are first associated with the Romero films with little prose equivalent. But given the low-budget limitations of horror film-making, this has stunted the evolution of the zombie as a monster: when it’s impossible to show the magnitude of a zombie plague, films has traditionally resorted to isolated locations and a very limited scope. Exploration of the full repercussions of such an event was usually impossible to fit inside a two-hour-long motion picture. But as the zombie genre gained some renewed attention in the early years of the century, a few books dealing with the subject trickled into bookstores.

A first such attempt to gain mainstream attention was Max Brook’s Zombie Survival Guide, a deadpan parody of paramilitary “survival guides” that never blinked at its reader even as it coolly discussed how to decapitate zombies and discussed the likelihood of a “zombie planet”. Alternately chilling and amusing, The Zombie Survival Guide occasionally attained a pleasant narrative velocity, leaving readers wanting more.

“More” is now here as World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, a follow-up tome describing a world-wide zombie uprising via interviews and narratives from survivors of the event. This scattered way of describing the events works in favour of the story: The structure frees Brooks from following certain characters through the least interesting events of their adventures, while the scattered viewpoints allow him to focus on the dramatic high-points of the story regardless of where they take place on the globe. A few characters make return appearances, but most vignettes are self-contained.

Those who are unfamiliar with The Zombie Survival Guide shouldn’t worry: World War Z is not really linked to its predecessor and may even work better without knowledge of the first book. (Among other things, the “solanum” virus is never mentioned and the “secret history” revealed in the last section of The Zombie Survival Guide doesn’t seem to be a prequel to the events of the second book.) What does carry through is Brooks’ clear imagination for the consequences of a world-wide zombie plague: Not content to describe the apocalypse, Brooks takes the next steps and imagines how humanity could fight back, and what kind of world may be left once the “War” is won.

Working in a more obviously fictional context also allows Brooks to be merciless in how he portrays the war. The vignettes of his oral history are usually strong (with a small number of exceptions) and take us where things are happening, around the world or above it. A scene late in the book describing an Alamo-type military engagement at a town called “Hope, New Mexico” leaves an indelible mental picture: World War Z was reportedly optioned for a movie adaptation, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the scene as the movie trailer’s money shot, right after the title card.

It’s the completeness of Brooks’ vision that gives the book its edge, even despite the fascinating subject matter and the smooth writing: Beyond the usual “fighting zombies” scenes so familiar from countless movies, Brooks goes beyond those clichés and dare to imagine the rest, from how to maintain discipline in a demoralized Russian army to “Quislings” unable to cope with the menace to frozen or seaborne zombies. Delicious!

Readers may be surprised to find fleeting but strong criticism of the current US administration in the early part of the novel, as it’s shown ignoring the problem, then promoting a false sense of security and then falling apart when the cracks start to appear. A friend of the administration makes a bundle of money and runs away when his scam is unveiled. Still, justice seems to prevail by the end of the novel, as the former chief of staff is interviewed in a fairly appropriate job for someone of his moral alignment.

A further fascinating aspect of World War Z is how it tackles the zombie theme with a rigour that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a hard-SF novel: Beyond the obviously fantastical element of zombification, the rest of the novel is wonderfully steeped in reality: While some will prefer the more action-packed segments of the story, I found myself oddly fascinated by the tangents about how the US rebuilds its industrial infrastructure, how the nightmarish “Redecker Plan” is adopted as official war policy, or how monetary policy is re-established after the fighting. Glimpses of the post-war world are at times encouraging (a more community-based world, with a renewed interest in environmentalism) and horrifying (a Russia gone back to theocracy).

It’s a shame that by virtue of being published as a mainstream book, World War Z will fly over the radar of genre readers: it’s, by a significant margin, one of the best and most unique reading experience of 2006: don’t be surprised to read it almost straight through.

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