World War Z | Author: Max Brooks | Publisher: Crown Publishing Group | Genre: Horror, Post Apocalyptic Fiction | Year: 2006

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

It’s funny to think that as far back as a decade there were people lamenting the oversaturation of zombies in the mass media. It’s an inescapable fact that’s hard to bemoan because of how excellent zombies can be as source material. They’re instantly recognisable as characters, they’re always a believable threat, and as works like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies helpfully illustrate; zombies rarely stand for any of that copyright malarkey.

What zombies have gained in terms of widespread appeal though, they have undoubtedly lost in terms of horror cred. For every Walking Dead there’s a Plants vs. Zombies, and between all of the ‘runner’ and acid-spitting variants as seen in video games like Left for Dead, the monsters themselves are frequently distanced from their Romero-inspired roots. It’s clear that author Max Brooks wanted to address this foible of pop culture, not just by rediscovering what makes zombies scary, but also what makes them relevant.

World War Z borrows the rules from Night of the Living Dead as much as they extend to what a zombie actually is and what you can do about it. Yes, zombies are undead corpses reanimated from the previously living. Yes, a zombie wants to shamble towards the nearest human and devour their flesh. And yes, zombies can most definitely be destroyed by swinging a massive pickaxe into their skull. But a zombie in World War Z is never a clown, never a joke, and never anything less than something to be feared.

World War Z analyses the concept of a zombie pandemic from every imaginable angle, from genesis right through to conclusion. The preface makes it clear that this conflict wasn’t the end of humanity, but it was damn close! The story unfolds as a series of verbal transcripts between Brooks’ narrator and the various survivors he interviews. Whether they’re regretful, optimistic, or just downright aggressive, every interviewee delivers their anecdotes in a sincere and believable way.

One moment you’re listening to an unscrupulous pharmaceutical rep detail the amusing story of his sudden windfall and the next you’re caught up in a French soldier’s unnerving recollection of battling undead in the catacombs beneath Paris. These dramatic shifts in tone keep the reader invested and amid the ludicrous (and often hilarious) scenarios is a profound seriousness that’s indicative of the writing’s maturity.

The book’s title isn’t just for show either. From its roots in China to its awakening in the United States and far beyond, the undead virus has shattered countries as we know them with barely a single patch of earth or body of water remaining unscathed.

Brooks explores many themes here, chief among them being fear and ignorance and the untold things that happen because of those very human sensations. Indeed, World War Z offers up a cynical view of modern civilization; one where everything from our disaffected children to our job titles are criticised for their effect (or lack thereof) on human society.

The data executives, producers, and project managers who once ruled our corporate landscape are classified “F-6” in the wake of the mass hysteria. Anyone lacking the physical skills to help rebuild humanity is labelled as such before being assigned menial tasks such as digging graves and clearing rubble. Max Brooks’ apocalypse might be familiar in this way, but there’s a compelling honesty in how he chooses to take us all down a peg.

This honesty extends to the characters themselves as people are no longer concerned with saving face. The young computer geek who describes the naked body of his dead neighbour speaks volumes about his confusion and inner despair. A young woman who speaks of forced cannibalism is a similarly tragic figure, as is the forlorn mercenary who opens with the powerful admission:

I’m addicted to murder, and that’s about the nicest way I can put it”.

World War Z is also satirical of government ineptitude with many paragraphs detailing how Earth’s leaders mismanage the crisis. This frustration comes through loud and clear in the voice of every superb and utterly compelling character, but like the satire seen in the Starship Troopers movie, World War Z is more critical of the system than of its soldiers. The nations of the world are held up to intense scrutiny throughout. China initially tries to cover up the zombie outbreak in their territory, America would like nothing more than to coast by in a stupor of denial, whereas Pakistan and Iran outright obliterate each other in a mutual nuclear exchange born of miscommunication.

You can imagine some readers being offended by these less than flattering depictions of their homeland and yet it’s hard to argue with the author’s subtext seeing as it’s a mere extrapolation of leanings from real-life history. It’s ultimately just another part of what makes this novel so frightening, not only because it encourages us to ask tough questions about ourselves, but also because it’s depressingly easy to imagine the end of the world actually going down this way.

Such themes are especially poignant, but they do not limit the novel’s variety or sense of mystery one bit. The tale of a young Japanese survivor is a bit more fanciful than usual and the remarks about events such as the Flight 575 air disaster or the fate of North Korea are wonderfully enigmatic.

World War Z is a flawless work of fiction and like all good zombie media, it presents a magnificent irony; that human beings can be far worse than the undead could ever be. Here is a book that reveals our hidden strengths whilst eliciting a strong distaste for our worst tendencies.

“Imagine what could be accomplished if the human race would only shed its humanity” says the heartless strategist Paul Redekker, and the irony and truth in that statement shouldn’t be lost on anybody.

World War Z is a damning assessment of the human condition then, but it’s not one that has abandoned hope altogether. Humanity survived the zombie apocalypse and it wasn’t because of some miracle cure or divine intervention, it was because of the hard work and tenacity of ordinary men and women (and dogs!) the world over. There is light at the end of Brooks’ zombie-infested tunnel and we need only put aside our greed and self-interest long enough to see it.


Extra: Read CelJaded’s review of Closure, Limited – the sequel novella to World War Z.