Tuesday, April 03, 2012

9. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

By Max Brooks

If you already have a penchant for this genre, then WWZ hooks you immediately within the first few pages. The book is a collection of interviews compiled by a UN agent who travelled all over the world to meet with dozens of survivors to get a firsthand account of the decade long zombie war, beginning with the initial infection in China, the Great Denial when various world powers downplayed the situation, which segued into the Great Panic when the plague quickly spread throughout the rest of the globe and humanity realized it was seriously fucked, and finally, what each region or country did to survive and combat the hordes of the undead as they began to outnumber the living. Even though the interviews were conducted about ten years after the war had officially ended, many of the interviewees remembered it like it was yesterday. The survivors range from regular folk to doctors, scientists and key figures in the military and government, so it’s a diverse range of voices as they recount their individual experiences.

What surprised me was how well-written the book was. I was really expecting something on the pulpy side of things. There was plenty of action and violence for the zombie or PA afficiando, for sure, but Brooks also took great care in inhabiting the mind of the person relating his or her story. Unfortunately, it wasn't how he emulated their manner of speaking. English was obviously not the first language of many of the survivors, yet practically every interviewee had a very similar way of talking, which was perfect, articulatel American English with plenty of colloquialisms.  But it was more in the way Brooks took into account the context of each character’s distinct cultural history and background. It was evident the author did a lot of research while writing WWZ. You also get the sense that he’s a big history and military buff, as it really shows in the details.

The best thing about WWZ was that it was incredibly realistic and cynical. It’s clear that Brooks spent a lot time  envisioning a true hell on earth if ever a zombie apocalypse really did come about. Before reading WWZ, Olman and I had conversations where we’d discuss what we’d do if The Troubles came, often envisioning an adventurous escape to Mount Seven in the BC Rockies. It’s always like that in the movies - where you have city folk escaping to pristine forests with clean running water and no one else around. Brooks totally burst that bubble. When you think about it, if a zombie plague does hit all the populated major urban centres, everyone and their dog is going to run to the hills, even to places you thought were too remote.

We had this great campsite right on the shore of a lake, not too many people around, but just enough to make us feel “safe,” you know, if any of the dead showed up. Everyone was real friendly, this big, collective vibe of relief. It was kind of like a party at first. There were these big cookouts every night, people all throwing in what they’d hunted or fished, mostly fished. Some guys would throw dynamite in the lake and there’d be this huge bang and all these fish would come floating to the surface. I’ll never forget those sounds, the explosions or the chainsaws as people cut down trees, or the music of car radios and instruments families had brought. We all sang around the campfires at night, these giant bonfires of logs stacked up on one another.

That was when we still had trees, before the second and third waves started showing up, when people were down to burning leaves and stumps, then finally whatever they could get their hands on. The smell of plastic and rubber got really bad, in your mouth, in your hair. By that time the fish were all gone, and anything left for people to hunt. No one seemed to worry. Everyone was counting on winter freezing the dead.

That excerpt was from an interview with an ex-American who fled north with her parents to Canada since they, and everyone else, heard the PSA that the undead would freeze in the winter. But once they ran out of supplies, any concern for environmental conservation went right out the door when it came to surviving. Of course people didn't pack wisely and left a wake of useless junk.  Of course most people wouldn't know any wilderness survival skills. The living are not much better than their undead counterpartsm, they will just consume everything in their path.

What also gave WWZ more substance and impact was its sharp critique of human fallibility and the institutions that are an extension of that. I’ll let you read Olman’s review of his thoughts on the matter, since he's always going on about how soft our society has become.  And he is much more eloquent than I am in this regard.

 It’s great that can I just link to his review too.  Even though Olman had read the book after me, he was way faster at posting his review than I. The best I can do is to backdate mine!


I believe I first heard of World War Z from Mount Benson, and had it on my to-read list ever since. Months ago I had scooped up a copy from the freebie shelf at work and it’s been sitting on my on-desk shelf, waiting. What reminded me to pick this up was hearing about a movie adaptation sometime next year.


Redwing said...

Well, the movie is out and I have been wondering if I should read the book. You know, I'm teaching a Monsters course, and zombies books and movies are the unifying thread - not everyone has seen The Shining, or read Cthulhu, but everyone has seen the Walking Dead - and so I was wondering if I should read this book before I see the movie. Your review with the enticing excerpt, makes me want to go pick it up tomorrow!

meezly said...

Thanks for your comment, RW. Nice to know somebody's still reading my reviews!

Definitely read the book first, though I hear the movie barely resembles the book, so perhaps it doesn't matter which order it happens.

Redwing said...

I have a lot of catching up to do - I'd like to blame the hurricane, but a lot of these reviews are from way before that! I admire that you and Olman are keeping it going! Especially even now with your little peanut distracting you!