World War Z (Book)
Reviewed by Dean Sasser
Written by Max Brooks
Published by Crown Publishers
Max Brooks is lying to you. Before you even crack the spine of his latest take on the zombie subgenre, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, the title screams "schlock!" (No doubt the author's father, Jewish comedian/director Mel Brooks, would approve -- as might his fellow writers from his stint on "Saturday Night Live". This whole affair could very easily have turned into a bad Will Ferrell skit.) From the faux-filth and sca-a-ary typeset on the cover, one expects a by-the-numbers brain-eater's brawl ... but what we are treated to within totally defies expectations and hits notes heretofore unheard from the chorus of moans we've come to expect from the undead.
World War Z is actually Brooks' second swipe at the world of the life-impaired, and it's written from just as serious a standpoint as its predecessor, 2003's The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From the Living Dead (review here). But whereas that tome came across as an Anarchists Cookbook-esque parody of doomsday-ready militia manuals, preparing its reader for the coming trials of Armageddon, WWZ comes at its audience from the other side of the End of All Things.
The book is actually laid out as a series of transcripts gathered by the author on a UN fact-finding mission, taken from the survivors of a worldwide outbreak. While this would seem on the surface to defuse the book's entire premise -- if we know from the get-go that the human race survives the "war," then where's the horror and tension the cover promised us? -- this unique viewpoint provides Brooks with a means of showing us both the terror of the rampaging dead and the struggles of the living in a way that has rarely, if ever, been accomplished.
Most zombie books are retreads of retreads -- a ragtag group of survivors bands together to fight their way to safety in a monster-infested wasteland. People are eaten, old friends get bitten and "turned," and in the end those few that survive face an uncertain future against the omnipresent hordes of the lifeless, once again putting the "zzz" in "zombie". This book goes beyond all that, thankfully, to present us with more than a story of a few isolated human beings alone against an overwhelming threat. his is the story of the world in the grips of the end of the world.
Moving from impoverished rural China to the danger of the faction-divided Middle East, Brooks' novel shows us not how the individual fights back, but the nations of the Earth themselves -- and how often and easily these nations fail and fall. He deftly takes an old genre almost bereft of new ideas and breathes new life into it by showing us the futility of political isolationism when your enemy knows no boundaries; of industrialized military might when your opponent numbers in the billions; and of the previously unseen advantages of a tightly-controlled socialistic society when compared to the every-man-for-himself democratic world. Brooks also tackles aspects of a global pandemic that have rarely been broached before now: worldwide starvation, pollution of the environment, the unbridled vectors of disease in a "free" world; and every bit of it is done with terrifying clarity and realism.
It's rare that any novel approaches its subject with a scope so broad, much less one that deals with so "frivolous" a subject as walking corpses, but this book is an epic in every sense of the word. Its multinational cast is presented with highly detailed respect to each area's own ethnic voice, and their individual experiences are never interchangeable with one another. You can't just take Kondo Totsumi, a Japanese otaku (read: übernerd) that finds himself alone in the remains of a deserted Tokyo, and plop him into the life of Saladin Kader, a Kuwaiti refugee seeking refuge in Israel, a nation whose people he has been trained by his own society to hate.
The writing style here is documentarian, and it works extremely well in bringing an immediacy to the subject that might otherwise be lost in a more detailed traditional fictional fashion. Events are made real simply because they are less personalized, and there are plenty of "off-camera" references which serve to make the whole world surrounding the characters we meet more legitimate. In fact, the only times Brooks seems to lose his focus are when he's being too descriptive -- in having his characters give too many adjective-laden asides when they should just speak. These moments are rare, however, and one almost gets the feel that they're a result of the editor's insistence that the writer, y'know, have more "zombie" in his "zombie book."
And that's the scariest part of the whole experience and the largest of the lies that the cover tells us-- this book isn't about zombies. It's about human reliance on dead ideas and about revealing that we're not ready for a worldwide crisis on any scale because we as a species are too caught up in keeping our statuses quo'd and our national values pinned to our sleeves. Brooks' greatest accomplishment is in the unstated warning he provides us -- that we may indeed have the means to live through whatever dark times may come, but it will take us tearing one-another apart to unearth them.
Not quite as schlocky as you might've been led to believe, eh? World War Z really is scary, sca-a-ary stuff.
4 1/2 out of 5
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