An Oral History of the Zombie War: World War Z

World War Z cover

It’s no secret that in the last ten years or so, Zombies have been done to death (oh, look, a pun!) in every genre and format imaginable: films, TV, books, comics, comedies, dramas, games, lunchboxes… The zombie genre is very much at a point of saturation .They’ve even been retconned into Jane Austen, and there are even holographic weapons sights branded as zombie stoppers to tie in with the current trend. While the impacts, merits, and reasons for the attractiveness of the zombie apocalypse could fill in several internets’ worth of debates, that’s not the point of this article.

So, the undead are everywhere (not literally, I hope.) What makes World War Z stand out? Well, let me tell you. To start, the basics: WWZ is the follow-up novel by Max Brooks to his Zombie Survival Guide, published a few years earlier. The guide is a highly detailed guide to surviving an outbreak of the undead – well, in as much as you can have a detailed guide to surviving a figment of your imagination. The Guide, however, works to create working and effective strategies within certain established rules of zombie fiction: zombies are slow, kill in one bite, die from a blow to the head, etc. and illustrates it’s several chapters of information with a few short stories of outbreaks. World War Z builds up from those rules, and builds a frighteningly realistic picture of how the world of the mid-2000s could have fallen fairly easily to the dead rising from the grave.

By tradition, any work of zombie fiction relies on a few tropes: there’s a group of protagonists, the main chap has just awoken to this new world of horror (yes, I’m looking at you, Walking Dead and 28 Days Later), and usually, someone’s hiding a bite. Well, forget about this notion. World War Z, in a way, could be described as something of a mashup book, combining your run of the mill zombie apocalypse with the style of Studs Terkel’s Good War, which Max Brooks freely admits as a primary influence. There are no protagonists in the traditional sense, so it avoids the usual tropes.

The story is driven by a series of interviews with fictional, but fairly believable characters, as they tell their stories of a war against the undead that has finished in recent human memory, starting from the days before the war, and telling its story, one interview at a time, until the war is won, and what the brave new world is like. The characters’ stories though, are what stand out. Each interview sets up a realistic, and fairly thoroughly researched picture of the world. And let me tell you, folks, it ain’t pretty. The world is so gritty that you can’t help recognise it as our own – and it also manages to predict beyond its publication date, from a worldwide recession to black president of the USA. While most Zombie stories usually stick to within national boundaries, World War Z, is, well, the story of a world war. The flavour is international, although with a distinct backbite from the good ol’e US of A, but more on that in a minute. There are tales from human traffickers, black market organ clinics, shanty towns, drug runners, a potential suicide bomber, each setting up a connected, and fairly plausible story as to how the world as we know it could implode, and how frighteningly easy it would be for it to do so.

The characters throughout are broadly varied in their backgrounds, and while none really stay long enough for the reader to connect or identify with them in a traditional sense, the sheer numbers of them will ensure that you develop some favourites just from their stories (I rather liked the Otaku/Samurai conversion). The stories, though, are the real characters. Each is unique. Some do interweave, and some borrow details from one another, but all are very well written and fairly well thought out and researched. Characters will make off-hand pop-culture references, yet will know a large amount of detail about the background of the story they tell to feel genuine. The stories are engaging, almost to the point of not being able to put the book down (this reviewer in particular read it all in one 2pm-4am sitting).

But, the but. And the biggie here is the American perspective. I mentioned earlier the American backbite – the nagging feeling that the vastly diverse cast of international characters have all spent a few years in the same place – well, like all backbites, it has the potential to ruin any experience. WWZ doesn’t suffer from this as much as the Zombie Survival Guide – the degree of which is even made into a joking reference by one of the characters in WWZ – and it is clear that Max Brooks learned his lesson and toned the American point of view down to a tolerable level, one that will not break the story. Yes, the characters are international; and while the story is international, it is mostly focused on the war in North America, with the rest of the world being an entertaining diversion, like the side story of a sitcom. But, there are more than a few points where some common American stereotypes about the outside world poke out: Englishmen talking about tax dollars and being fanatically devoted to Her Majesty, Russians characters either reflecting Cold War or post-Soviet stereotypes. However, it’s a small, niggling thing, not a story breaker, and it’s mostly covered by everything else.

So, to conclude: in a sea of undead, where there are zombies, zombies everywhere, and not a drop to drink, World War Z (I shall never know whether that should be a British Zed or an American Zee), is your desert island paradise, the type where they drop you in with eight gramophone discs and call it a day, and a clear contender to The Walking Dead (the comics) for champion of the Undead genre. The story is gripping, the world is so plausible it’s frightening, and the cover might just possibly be made of superglue. And it is awesome. Go out there and read it. Go on, I’ll wait.

I’ll give it 4.7 outta 5 – Ludlow isn’t in Wales.

D. Bruce Fraser (has gone to the Winchester, is having a nice cold pint, and is waiting for all this to blow over)

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