World War Z, by Max Brooks

>> Thursday, October 03, 2013

TITLE: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars
AUTHOR: Max Brooks

PAGES: 342
PUBLISHER: Broadway Books

SETTING: Near future
TYPE: Speculative fiction

Ranging from the now infamous village of New Dachang in the United Federation of China, where the epidemiological trail began with the twelve-year-old Patient Zero, to the unnamed northern forests where untold numbers sought a terrible and temporary refuge in the cold, to the United States of Southern Africa, where the Redeker Plan provided hope for humanity at an unspeakable price, to the west-of-the-Rockies redoubt where the North American tide finally started to turn, this invaluable chronicle reflects the full scope and duration of the Zombie War.

Most of all, the book captures with haunting immediacy the human dimension of this epochal event. Facing the often raw and vivid nature of these personal accounts requires a degree of courage on the part of the reader, but the effort is invaluable because, as Mr. Brooks says in his introduction, “By excluding the human factor, aren’t we risking the kind of personal detachment from history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn’t the human factor the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as ‘the living dead’?”

World War Z is one of the most fascinating, different books I've read lately, and I enjoyed it immensely.

The premise is we're now at a point where the Zombie Wars have been over for about a decade. The author (or rather, archivist, I suppose one might call him) was part of the team researching and writing the big official report on what happened. In the process, he interviewed hundreds of people and gathered their views and memories. The report, being what it was, only had space for the unadorned facts, but the author still felt these personal experiences needed to be heard, that they would enrich the account. So he published them separately, and this is that document, the oral history of the Wars.

This history is not told in a traditional, linear way, but through vignettes which feel almost like short stories. Together they tell a coherent story, and since we're talking of events huge enough that they changed the whole world, they range far and wide, both thematically and geographically.

The vignettes tell the story of what happened, the events: the panics, the evacuations, the battles. But they also explore how societies had to change as a result. What was required to set up an effective safe zone? How did the military have to change? How were criminals dealt with? Brooks really thinks through the what-ifs, in a way that kept making me go "oh, of course!". It was brilliantly done.

I also liked that, though there is a lot about the US and what happened there, Brooks does move around, and you get to see what's going on pretty much all over. All over the world, people are human, heroic and villanous. From a confessedly self-involved perspective, I was disappointed to see there wasn't much about South America. There's a vignette featuring a Brazilian surgeon at the beginning, and there's one where the archivist is talking to someone in Chile, but that one concerns an international conference which took place somewhere else. There were tantalising references to the fall of Buenos Aires a couple of times, and to a transmission of a singer singing some sort of lullaby that broke everyone's hearts, but that's it. Yes, even when zombies attack, we South Americans are completely irrelevant.

Anyway, moving on after that bout of self-pity. I was surprised at how engaged I was in the story, given the lack of a single person or group of persons for us readers to care about. I know that's been an issue for many readers (and it was the main criticism I saw of the movie which came out earlier this year), but it really wasn't a problem for me. It was the story of humanity, and I was fine caring about humanity as a whole. Plus, the variety of views allowed us to get anywhere and see bits and pieces no single person could have seen. I also appreciated that it was a very varied mix of 'types' of people. There were the big personalities, the people whose actions and decisions were crucial in the different stages of the wars, but also random people and their experiences. Someone who lived in a particular camp, a random soldier who was in a particular battle. It worked wonderfully.

At the same time, it makes for a book that probably works best if you dip in and out of it. I'm not sure how I would have felt about it if I'd tried to read it straight through. Listening to it on audio, it turns out, was probably the best approach (although, more on the actual narration later).

I'll leave you with a list of particular vignettes that stick in my mind after closing the book. It won't mean much to those of you who haven't yet read this, but if you have, I'd be interested to hear if you remember them as well:

- The early two centred around Israel: the intelligence guy who saw it earlier than anyone and the Palestinian young man whose father forced him to accept the Israeli offer of refuge.

- The conscienceless guy who got rich off selling a useless vaccine

- The Big Brother-type house, with the celebs, reminiscent of the last days of the Romanovs

- The feral child

- The Battle of Yonkers, where we saw just how useless it was to try to fight the last war against this particular enemy.

- Castles coming back to life in England (I listened to that chapter the day before I spent a day in Windsor, which features in a really interesting way)

- The chapter about the guy who ran the resource management organisation for the US government, with its exploration of how to set up this new society

- The Japanese shut-in teenager

- The adventures of the rebels in a Chinese submarine

- Cuba and the American boat people

- The Battle of Hope, New Mexico, where we saw what had been learnt from Yonkers

- The K9 units.

As you see, all sorts of things. It's a book I'd definitely recommend.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: A friend lent me his audiobook, narrated by Jim Zeiger, but when I started listening, it wasn't very good. Mainly, the narrator makes everyone sound the same. There were so many different people interviewed in the book that he could have had a ball with it, done appropriate voices for each. It couldn't even have been that much of an extraordinary thing to do, given the performances I've listened to from good narrators. They can do different voices even when characters are engaged in ping-pong-type dialogue, which must be fiendishly difficult. This wouldn't have been required here. Mainly, each character speaks for good, long stretches, with occassional questions from the archivist, and sometimes asides to describe what the interviewee is doing or to read out the footnotes. So, a shame he missed the opportunity.

Also, I found it irritating that Zeiger paused and hesitated every time he said a foreign word or name, and then pronounced those words very slowly and gingerly. To be fair to him, he did try to pronounce each correctly, and they were a LOT of foreign words and names, but it felt very unnatural, and kept throwing me out of the story.

So anyway, once I realised it wasn't great, I went to audible to check whether there was another version, and there was: an award-winning multi-reader version, too, narrated by well-known actors. The problem is, that version is abridged (versions, actually, there seem to be two, one more abridged than the other). Some chapters are 'tightened', some are missing altogether, and so are the footnotes. I HATE abridgments. I want the actual book, not just part of it. So the original version it was. At least it was complete.


Darlynne,  3 October 2013 at 22:51  

I enjoyed this book immensely, too. It was so surprising and riveting, not my usual fare, and I thought it was great. I also enjoyed Brooks' other book, the survival guide; now I know not to use a flamethrower because the fiery zombies will just pile up against my house and burn it down to the ground. Such useful information.

Agreed about abridged audiobooks, could use a flamethrower on those.

Rosario 5 October 2013 at 08:27  

Exactly! I don't think I've read anything like it. The survival guide doesn't sound like my sort of thing at all, but I'd better read it, anyway, as it might surprise me in exactly the same way.

I'll join you with the flamethrower on those abridged audiobooks!

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