I’ve previously described Max Brooks’ first book, The Zombie Survival Guide, which I found to be a both amusing and chilling fictional field guide written in the wake of a world-wide zombie holocaust. My favorite part of that book was its appendix of ‘historical’ zombie outbreaks, a collection of vignettes about human encounters with the living dead throughout history. The terseness of these little stories made them especially creepy, as the reader feels that he/she is lacking crucial pieces to the puzzle.
Brooks’ 2006 follow-up, World War Z, continues and expands upon this narrative style. It is written as an oral history recorded after the zombie holocaust by a U.N. worker. Tales begin with the Chinese outbreak which starts it all, through the collapse of civilization as we know it, to the turn of the tide of battle and eventually the aftermath of the decidedly Pyrrhic victory. The tales are at times fascinating, humorous, horrifying, and even inspiring, and as a whole I found the book nearly impossible to put down.
World War Z follows in the tradition of the classic zombie films of George Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, etc.), and is as much a social commentary as it is a story to spook the reader. U.S. Government workers describe how the American response to the growing crisis was hamstrung by a recent unnecessary conflict (obviously the Iraq War, though not explicitly said) and the perceived strain a new unconventional war would put on a weary public. A bodyguard describes the ill-advised strategy a number of Hollywood celebrities use to weather the zombie storm. The military suffers a catastrophic defeat by trying to fight the previous war, instead of the current one. Wealthy businessmen find themselves employed as janitors, by necessity, in the new economy.
Disturbing scenes abound: World War Z is probably one of the most effective ‘apocalyptic’ stories to ever be written. The most chilling parts have more to do with the actions of living people than with zombies. Civilians and officials alike, their backs against the wall, are forced to make tough choices, and many of them are surprising.
Brooks also has a talent for highlighting the unusual and unforeseen consequences of societal collapse. One touching chapter describes how numerous children became ‘feral’ after the loss of their parents. Another chapter, less touching, describes the attempts to track and clean up hordes of underwater zombies.
I read the entire book in about two days, and only put it down with reluctance during that time. It is a well-reasoned, disturbing, and fascinating look at the precarious nature of society and the weak links in the chain of civilization.