Saturday, November 26, 2011

World War Z, by Max Brooks

One of the things I did during my tenure of un-employment was muse on how I could, and would, survive the zombie apocalypse.  I figured I had lots of food in my pantry that, with rationing, would last months; I lived in a high-rise apartment that could be easily defended from zombie-hoards; and I would be able to avoid cabin-fever thanks to all my books and DVDs.  Easy-peasy: I’d be a survivor, and you all would be zombie food.  Boy, am I ever glad I didn’t read World War Z during this hiatus from the work-force.

World War Z is a collection of oral histories from all over the world of the survivors of the zombie apocalypse.  Written as a side project to a UN-commissioned tactical de-brief on the war, this work tells of the human side of the global conflict.  Of course, because we all know of the war so intimately, the author doesn’t tell us when it happened, but I place this blight somewhere around 2004-2005.  No one seems sure where the plague first appeared, but it was in South Africa that it got its first popular nomenclature – African Rabies.  We now know that it is some sort of virus, much like a cancer though, that slowly takes over the cells in the human body until death (followed shortly thereafter by reanimation).  No country was safe, no socio-economic bracket was spared, and not many survived.  Miss-information and self-preservation led to The Great Panic, which infected everyone, as they tried to flee from the threat – but there was no fleeing.  There were reprieves, like camping out north of the snow-line, but come thaw, you were once again faced with the living dead.  Finally, the Americans (of course), decided to fight back and, after clearing most of the continental USA, began helping other nations clear their own lands.  We now live is a world where the occasional zombie sighting is reported (and the creature quickly dispatched to eliminate spread of the virus), but for the most part, we are a peace and working to re-build our population numbers, domestic production, and the global economy.  It’s going to be a tough slog, but we’re going to make it.  Humanity is going to make it.

But, in all seriousness, WWZ is a great read, if a little spooky.  I was about halfway through when I realized that the author, Max Brooks (son of wicked-hilarious film maker Mel Brooks) is a genius.  I realized while reading the book that my zombie survival plan was flawed: rationing food didn’t mean shit if there was no water to drink, and the water purification systems would be one of the first pieces of infrastructure to go; I might be in a high-rise building, but whose to say my neighbors aren’t already infected and turning into zombies as we speak?  Suddenly, the threat doesn’t need to get passed the security door – it’s already in the building; and the quickest way to get a zombie’s attention is with noise and lights: there goes watching DVDs or reading.  I’d be fucked. 

Putting my disillusionment aside, WWZ is a brilliant piece of creativity and research.  Brooks takes pieces of our modern world and cultures, and uses them as explanations for why zombies could so easily take over the world.  Economically, we are so globally interconnected that no domestic economy can function without importing and/or exporting goods.  Culturally, we’ve all got our heads in the sand and do our best to ignore problems until it’s too late.  Technologically, we have developed to the point where we don’t know how to do anything with our hands anymore.  Socially, we live individualize lives and don’t care about the collective as much as ourselves.  What does this mean to a zombie?  Nothing.  They’re fucking zombies – they have no thoughts beyond moaning and eating brains.  What does all this mean in light of a zombie apocalypse?  We’re fucked.  Our economy can’t support itself and, as we loose contact with the nations that supply us with basic goods like tube-socks and pens, we start falling apart at the seams.  Our ability to ignore what’s really happening around us if it makes us uncomfortable means we can rationalize away a problem like a zombie as someone suffering from a particularly vicious strain of rabies.  Our inability to repair basic mechanical items, coupled with the inability to import and buy new items means we’re going to have to go without things like cars and/or radios.  And no, there isn’t an app for that.  Our inability to care about our neighbor is going to be what really screws us over in the end: zombies are mindless drones – as we see in WWZ, humanity only succeeds when it bands together to fight them.

Beyond these thematic insights, Brooks provides us with a handful of direct examples.  Using current geo-politics and history, Brooks creates events within the zombie-context that are completely plausible and you can see as happening if just a little too much pressure came to bear on several nations.  Take Israel: Israel was the first nation to openly acknowledge the zombie threat.  Since WWII, Israel has operated on a ‘never again’ policy, and has been beefing up its military and political capabilities.  Zombies start showing up, and the first thing Israel does is close its doors – literally.  They offered asylum to all the Jews in the world, and displaced Palestinians, then they shut the gates.  France, considered to be cheese-eating surrender monkey by the world since WWII, got it into their heads that they would fight to the bitter end – and boy did they ever.  The Parisian underground system was used as a refuge and battle ground, and not enough international help was sought to clear out the City of Lights: the result were massive casualties of both military personnel and civilians.  But North Korea takes the cake.  North Korea refused to acknowledge to anyone if they were fighting the zombie scourge.  And, one day, they just disappeared.  Wait, what? you ask.  Yeah, everyone just disappeared.  Satellite images show no human movement in North Korea.  Did the zombies get them all?  If so, where are the zombies (because thanks to the mad dictator in charge of NK, you know the boarders were tight)?  Were the rumors true then?  Does North Korea have enough underground developed space to hide a nation?  If so, how are they getting food?  So many questions!  But Brooks taps into the fear of the Israelis, the insecurities of the French, and the madness of the North Koreans to tell his tale, and suddenly the zombie apocalypse is lent credibility.

What makes this books so believable though, is Brooks’ skill.  The style is that of multiple interviews, and Brooks nails every single voice.  From the traumatized woman who survived a zombie attack as a child only to go feral, to the Supreme Commander of Allied forces, Brooks’ subjects all come across as genuine and unique.  Considering the sheer number of ‘voices’ in this work, it’s quite a feat. 

This book is addictive and super-hard to put down.  They are currently filming a movie version (to star Brad Pitt), and I’m interested to see how they transfer the style (multiple interviews) into a flick.  Needless to say, being such a fan of the book now, I’m really looking forward to seeing it.  But, before you all rush out to see it too, read the book – find out how to survive.


  1. I've read this twice and through each reading I had so many zombie nightmares. Cos you realize just how screwed you'd be if anything like this actually happened. I'm wary about how it will translate to film, but I have high hopes.

  2. I read this one a few years ago after picking it up in the "history" section of the airport bookstore. I told myself that, if a book about the zombie war can fool someone into putting into the history section of a bookstore, then it must be worth the read. It was, both times.

    However, if what you're looking for are tips on how to survive a zombie apocalypse, Brooks' "Zombie Survival Guide" is a better bet than WWZ.