41. World War Z by Max Brooks (2006) 342 p.
As I mentioned a little while ago, I have an understandable aversion to zombie fiction of any kind these days, in the same way that a man living in a glorious palace of chocolate might long for a piece of celery. It’s also partly due to the fact that so much zombie fiction is stale and repetitive, featuring plucky survivors holed up in a farmhouse with no idea of what’s going on in the outside world.
World War Z, by renowned zombie expert Max Brooks (author of 2004’s Zombie Survival Guide), takes a completely different stab at things. It’s a comprehensive “oral history” examining the global effects of a mass zombie pandemic, interviewing subjects from all over the world who were involved in different areas of the conflict. There’s everyone from a Brazilian black market surgeon who sees one of the first cases, to an American schoolgirl who flees into the Canadian north with her family, to a greedy pharmaceutical executive who exploits the panic to create a lucrative placebo.
The entire book is comprised of fictional post-war interviews, and the beauty of this approach is that it allows both a global examination, and the single-person survival narrative that the genre is founded on. We see inside the head of everyone from the Vice-President of the United States to a wretched feral child who was forced to grow up in the wild. Many of these form quite fascinating stand-alone stories, notably the US Air Force pilot who survives a plane crash and must make her way to an evacuation point through the Lousiana swamps, aided by a voice on her radio that may jsut be her imagination; and the Chinese submarine commander who deserts with his crew and sets off on a journey through the Waterworld-esque oceans, bartering with refugee ships, examining zombie-infested coastlines and trying to stay ahead of hunter-killer subs from the Chinese navy.
Like the best zombie fiction, this book is a parable. Just as Dawn of the Dead criticises American commercialism and consumption, World War Z attacks bureaucratic incompetence, human greed and the insular, self-absorbed nature of the American people. Brooks strays away from mentioning any specific people or events, in order to keep the book timeless; for example, the Iraq War is referred to as “the last brushfire war.” One of the most interesting things I found here was his prediction that we won’t lose in Iraq, but that it will be perceived as a loss, because it has taken so much time and money and lives – that it wasn’t a knock-out blow like Americans want and expect.
There are a few criticisms, as always. While Brooks paints the characters quite well, they occasionally seem to be the wrong character: for example, the slick, corrupt pharmaceutical executive who escaped to a stronghold in Antarctica after making billions on a false miracle cure spoke like a Brooklyn street punk. Some of the characters (especially non-Americans) are quite often stereotypes, such as the befuddled English fop who loves his queen, the California diver who thinks whales are awesome, or the double whammy for the Japanese: an otaku geek with no social skills and a wise, honourable sensei steeped in tradition and skilled with the blade. Despite being far more globally aware than I’d expect from an American author, the book is still quite US-centric, and I was a little disappointed that Australia didn’t get much of a look-in. There is a single Australian character, for the record, whose narrative is the last one you’d expect: as commander of the International Space Station. He’s as intelligent, articulated and wise as you’d expect such a man to be, though Brooks couldn’t resist throwing in at the end: “Not bad for the son of an Andamooka opal miner.” Sigh.
On the whole, however, this is still a great book. It’s well-crafted enough to appeal to those who wouldn’t normally read fiction of this type, with the benefit of a few allegorical moral messages in there as well. It’s breaths of fresh air like this that the genre desperarely needs.
Pages: 12, 518
World War Z at The Book Depository