WORLD WAR Z
by Max Brooks
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In the popular imagination, zombies are the stuff of bad horror movies as the rotting animated dead lurch their way across the screen in hordes to devour the living. Max Brooks takes this image and turns it on its head in his globe-spanning debut novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars. Narrated in a series of brief accounts of a lengthy war between humans and zombies, the work has depth and treats its subject matter with a seriousness which is all the more surprising in light of Brooks’s earlier book, The Zombie Survival Guide.
Brooks briefly deals with the origin of the zombies in his first section, when Doctor Kwang Jing-shu describes the first known outbreak of zombiism in the remote village of New Dachang. However, while Brooks explains that it is a disease and patient zero was a young boy, but how the disease arose is never discussed. Its vector, however, is clearly defined, as well as its symptoms, although there is no mechanism described for how the disease leaves the victim ambulatory without any higher brain function. However, once the reader simply accepts the way the disease affects people, the novel holds together extremely well.
The war, which is a decade in the past at the time the interviews were conducted, spanned the entire globe and pitted humans against those who were infected with the Zombie disease. Those who have suffered the disease, which is incurable, have no intelligence and can only be killed by the destruction of their brain. Otherwise, their body (or pieces of the body) would continue to search for food, although given that lack of food doesn’t appear to diminish them, it isn’t clear why they need to each.
Each of the numerous interviewees gives a different piece of the puzzle, which eventually builds up to a much better view of the war being fought on several fronts, from the tropics to the tundra. A brief aside made early in the book will frequently show up again later when someone else provides much more information about the incident alluded to. This helps build a sense of a coherent and comprehensive world.
While it would have been easy for Brooks to elect to focus on one region for the novel, by jumping around the globe from well known locations like the Forbidden City in Beijing to more obscure places like Rajashan, India, he further gives the feeling for an event that happened to the entire human race, with pieces of the puzzle being resolved in the most unlikely seeming sites.
However, because there are so many different narrators and each has a similar voice to the others, it becomes difficult at times to keep them straight. Through most of the novel, this doesn’t really present an issue, but near the end of the book when Brooks revisits some of his earlier interviews, it is difficult to remember exactly which interviews they gave and what they experienced during the Zombie War.
World War Z is one of those novels that is a much better book than its premise would suggest. Brooks has written a novel which quickly draws the reader in and pleasantly surprises them by not being exactly what they expected.
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