BOOK REVIEW: “World War Z” by Max Brooks (2006)

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 9/18/09

Good golly, Gertrude, what a great book! Seriously!

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that’s not a huge surprise. The book has been out for more than three years now, and everyone and their maiden aunt has given it a good review, and a zillion comic book shop types have raved and raved and raved over it. Still, I resisted. I mean, most of the people I met who raved about it also raved about Star Trek-Meets-The-X-Men comics (Remember those?), so it’s not like I can take their criticism seriously; and it’s got that cheeze-tastic title; I’ve never been much into horror; and come on - Zombies? Meh. In fact, given my curmudgeonly disposition, I think the best way to *keep* me from reading a book is to hype the hell out of it. If you build it up too much, then I think, “Ah. This is for guys who daydream about Paris Hilton, and stupid chicks who sing along with Shania Twain music, not for me.” It happens, you know? You hit forty, and suddenly mass culture just isn’t aimed at you any more, so you just begin to naturally assume anything anyone is raving about is for nimwads, and not worth your time. It happened to our grandparents, it happened to me, and I assure you, my little friends, it’ll happen to you, too.

Which is a shame because it prevented me from reading a damn fine book.

A lot of reviews are saying things like “Max Brooks has completely redefined the Zombie story.” In fact I don’t believe he has. The fundamental - and only - ‘redefinition’ or ‘subversion’ of the Zombie mythos was done by George Romero in his 1968 classic, “Night of the Living Dead.” In that film, the dead start coming back to life, and the increasingly frantic newscasts inform us this is because of some kind of extraterrestrial virus. After one terrifying night, the cavalry arrives, so to speak, but telling more would spoil things. In the sequel, “Dawn of the Dead,” the same thing is happening. It’s unclear if this is taking place concurrently with the earlier movie, or if we’re looking at a later outbreak of the same disease (My own hunch is that it’s a renewed outbreak), and we see the fall of Philadelphia as well as National Guardsmen hunting and killing the zombies, and a rather organized - if somewhat ineffectual - resistance where the living are fighting back against the dead on a national scale. Saying more would give spoilers, and the first two films in the series are pretty fine. If you haven’t seen ’em yet, I don’t want to ruin it for you.

Suffice to say that Max Brooks doesn’t really ’redefine’ the Zombie concept in any way. Zombies are a disease - check; Zombies more-or-less destroy human civilization - check; Zombies can only be killed with a headshot - check; plucky survivors run away and have a hard time of it - check; the government organizes a military resistance - check. Everything in this book owes an - openly admitted - intellectual debt to Romero’s work from forty years ago. What Brooks *does* do - and it is completely freakin’ brilliant - is that he shifts the focus of the story.

Rather than follow a small, plucky band of survivors as they get bumped off ten-little-Indians style, we follow the resistance efforts themselves! This minor twist completely re-invigorates the concept. Obviously the real conflict here isn’t the jackasses trapped in a barn who can’t stop fighting with each other, but it’s the massive effort to save our species itself. Obviously this has *always* been the real story and what makes it so very clever is that while this resistance fighting has been the backdrop of *every* Zombie movie since 1968, nobody prior to Brooks thought to look at the whole picture and say “You know, the backdrop is more interesting than the play.”

That’s fantastic out-of-the-box thinking, and exactly the kind of thing we like to laud here at Republibot. I mean, dear reader, we suffer every day through endless retreads, remakes, knockoffs, and wannabes. There’ve been seven hundred hours of trek - telling nearly three stories reused hundreds of times each - and how many irritating Trek knockoffs have there been? How many reboots and reimaginings and outright ripoffs have there been, all designed to hide the single truth “We’re not very creative, and we ain’t got a damn original idea in our heads“? I’m not saying every story has to be completely original - if it did, that means the first western ever told would be the last western ever told - but there’s a reason we don’t write books and film movies about trips to the grocery store that go exactly according to plan and without incident: Been there, done that too many times for it to be even remotely interesting. So what Mr. Brooks has done here is *not* to invent, or even re-invent the Zombie format, what he’s done is to identify an aspect of the modern Zombie story that’s been hiding in plain sight for more than a generation, and bring it to the forefront.

I can not praise that enough, I really can’t. I *like* ideas that I, myself, would never have come up with in a million years. I like reading books that I, myself, couldn’t have written. I like being around people who’s insight is different than mine. It’s a rush.

Were it left there, Brooks would still deserve praise simply for bringing a new(ish) idea in to a world of clichés, but he managed to write one hell of a book as well!

The premise is pretty simple: In the not-too-distant future - they never say when, but internal clues place it around 2012 - a Zombie plague begins in China. The Chinese government is more interested in hushing it up than dealing with it, so it quickly gets out of hand, and spreads via refugees to the surrounding countries. No one really notices, the causes are convincingly misdiagnosed, no one listens until a really bad outbreak shows up in South Africa. Mislabeled “African Rabies,” there’s a massive amount of miscommunication and deliberate misinformation between countries, and no one is really willing to believe the dead are coming back to life. Israel is the first country to really understand what’s going on, and they try to warn other nations, but no one listens. They retreat behind their walled-off borders, and are sidelined in the conflict by an internal civil war between ultra-religious Jews and more moderate ones.

As things begin to escalate, we get an increasing frenzy, and of course the situation is completely mishandled by the US Government, culminating in a “Fall of Philadelphia” scene (Though it’s Manhattan this time out), and a total collapse of social order in the eastern half of the US. Most of the rest of the world fares even worse. Eventually, however, a vastly-depopulated humanity is able to regroup, re-organize, and halt the advance of the dead. After several years of a standoff, the living go on the offensive and we have a typically happy Irish ending.

All that doesn’t sound terribly exciting - certainly it didn’t entice me to read the book when my spooky friends detailed it to me - and to be honest, there’s a zillion ways the telling of such a tale could have gone wrong. The most obvious way to do it would be a Michneresque linear narrative with a heapin’ helping’ of soap operatics. That would have been tedious beyond believing, and probably really long too. Instead, Brooks found a much more economical way to tell the story.

The book is a compilation of vignettes, all ostensibly ‘survivor’s tales’ told by people who made it through the war, being interviewed ten years after the fact. On the one hand, this completely eliminates any kind of ‘who will live and who will die?’ tension because we know all these people will survive. But it creates another kind of tension entirely, because now that we’re not worrying about the protagonists, we’re worrying about the zillion other things going on around them. Again, this minor shift of focus that Brooks wrangles here is pretty brilliant.

Most of the vignettes are independent standalones, though a few of them directly connect, and more of them connect less obviously. Characters we meet in flashbacks on the edge of death are met again later on in other people’s flashbacks, explaining how they came to be that way; or the conclusion of one person’s tale sets off events that are in the background of the next person’s tale, and so on. It’s very clever. Though some people go in to great detail about the events going on around them, we never actually get a linear rundown of the war. No one ever says “Here’s what happened, on may 15th…and it finally all ended on January 6th, in the year two thousand -and-whatever.” We get more than enough information to piece it all together, but it is a deliberately fractured narrative, and so ultimately the understanding of these events we’re left with is somewhat interactive. Subjective, if you will.

Just like the survivors themselves, what we focus on, what we’re ignorant of, what’s important to us, and what’s trivial is in the minds of the readers. I was fascinated by the whole story, but since he never actually gives us a play-by-play on the war itself, the author leaves us to figure out the significant bits. This could have gone horribly wrong, but it’s saved by the obvious fact that Brooks himself had a very detailed history of the war already prepared, and he just plugs his characters in to and around these events. Thus, at the end of the read, though we’re not absolutely certain about everything that happened, we’re as certain as we need to be, and - hyperimportantly - it all feels consistent. The occasional fuzziness of details looks and feels like the occasional fuzziness you get from stories told by Vietnam vets, or World War II vets: nobody’s entirely objective, and nobody’s pretending to be, it’s all too open, too emotional, too raw. This makes the whole thing feel more ‘real’ than it probably would otherwise.

Brooks isn’t the first to do this. I was reminded of General Sir John Hackett’s “World War III” books from the 80s (And indeed, Brooks thanks him in the forward), but I do think that Brooks does it better. His spin is much more readable. It also reminded me of the old “Terran Trade Authority” books from the late 70s, when they talked about the “Proxima” war, but in such a fractured way that the picture of the war only gradually developed in the reader’s mind. (Though I’ll be the first to admit the TTA books did this in a fairly lame fashion, it very much affected me as a kid reading them for the first time). There’s also some similarities to “Warday” by Streiber and Kunetka

What’s also interesting is that this isn’t a very scary book. Horrible things happen, and it’s rather gory in some places, there are some startling scenes, but mostly it’s talking about the impact of the outbreak on damn near every aspect of life. This adds a new level of tension, because even when we get our happy(ish) ending(ish) kind of conclusion, we’ve been made very, very aware that life isn’t going to go back to normal for a very long time, and in some aspects, it never will.

There’s some pretty entertaining cameos of actual people in the book, though their real names are seldom used, or simply ignored. I don’t want to spoil them, but suffice to say the most viciously funny Paris Hilton gag ever is in here, Bishop Desmond Tutu has a genuinely moving moment, and Stephen Spielberg has an entire vignette to himself that is unexpectedly moving. When he describes “The Battle of Avalon,” with a woman singing a Roxy Music song acapella to psyche up the fighters, and a home-made “Old glory flapping in the breeze,” I admit it was such a powerful image that my eyes began to water. They’re stinging a bit now, just thinking about it. If you’re reading this, thank you for that, Max. You touched me. You made a stupid Zombie war novel, and somehow you managed to touch me on a very basic, heart-stirring level with it. Thank you, sir.

Since the book was obviously written a while ago, there’s some interesting prognostications. Brooks remains vague on the details, and avoids using names, but he predicted the Democrats would “Squeak back in to power over people’s feelings on the war,” though he always lumps Iraq and Afghanistan together as “The Brush Wars,” and refuses to make specific comments on them, aside from they burned out a lot of the national spirit, and were grievously expensive. Exactly who the president is when the conflict comes is never stated, and some effort is spent in avoiding using gender-based pronouns - they always say “The President,” and not “Him” or “Her” even when it’s easier to do so, which leads me to believe the President when this conflict takes place was supposed to be Hillary Clinton. Whether or not it’s her - whether or not it’s a woman at all - this president quickly goes crazy and is invalidated out of office, at which point the Vice President takes over. Again, we’ve never given any names, but there’s enough clues to suggest the President is Colin Powell. Curious, since it’s clearly a Democratic administration, but Powell is a Republican, even though Powell did support Obama at the end of the last election. (hm.) Powell becomes the FDR character in the book, and it’s strangely emotionally satisfying to see, even though he’s only a background character. There’s a New England senator who’s appointed as Vice President, and apparently becomes President later on himself, though this one’s identity is harder to pin down.

It’s probably a safe assumption that Brooks is left-of-center politically speaking, but none of that comes out in the book. He’s wildly critical of most of the politicos in the book, he’s very quick to point out that their entrenched and didactic thinking is what makes the whole situation much, much worse and allows it to get out of hand, and he goes in to some detail showing us how these people are unwilling to give the reins of power to more competent people that rise through the conflict, not just in the US but elsewhere. He also gives us strange moments of unexpected nobility - as when Queen Elizabeth refuses to leave Windsor Castle, and rides out the war there, taking care of her people, or the Raj-Singh character, or the offhand mention that President (Presumably) Powell refused to divert any war resources to find out if his relatives in Jamaica had survived. There’s a strange Frank Capra quality to the book - the bad guys aren’t the zombies, who are, after all, just a force of nature; rather the bad guys are people who let their humanity slip away, who insist on absolute rule even of a sinking ship, of the fools who can’t understand that the old rules don’t apply anymore. The lamb is presented as being more than a match for the lion, but it takes so long for the lions to die that the situation is immeasurably worse when the lambs finally come in to office. It’s strangely positive and life-affirming.

The book is also full of trenchant insights about the American psyche. He goes in to some detail about how everyone thinks we “lost” Iraq and Afghanistan, then explains that we didn’t, we totally succeeded, but we never delivered the massive WWF beat down that the American public demands of our victories, and that weird desire makes us treat success as failure. He’s solidly on the side of the soldier, and say some scathing (but probably on-target) things about the Military-Industrial complex.

It is just a great damn book, the best horror(ish) novel I’ve ever read, the best book I’ve read in months, and a total breath of fresh air. I’m grateful to Max Brooks for writing it (And I eagerly look forward to his next novel), and I’m indebted to Ginrummy for actually putting a copy in my hands, sitting me down and forcing me to read the thing. I can not recommend it strenuously enough. Put down whatever you're doing right now, go buy a copy, and read it immediately.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

I think most will. Extremely religious conservatives will doubtless take issue with the basic concept of Zombies (Though the book makes it clear that it’s a plague, not any supernatural hoo-hah), and several of the characters are driven to atheism by their experiences, which some may take exception with. Also, there’s some very grueling scenes here and there, and some gore and disturbing content on occasion, but to be honest, I came away from this feeling like it was an unexpectedly conservative book. Our country is very solidly presented as being fundamentally better than the rest because of our principles, because of our decency, because of our relentless and irrational desire to survive regardless of the odds. Entrenched didactic politics is portrayed as basically contrary to American values, and I think a lot of us can agree with that. It is unquestionably soul-stirring to see the nation itself on the ropes, on the edge of extinction, and then suddenly clearing its thoughts, focusing, regrouping, casting off all the crap we’ve allowed ourselves to be saddled with, and then taking the fight to the enemy on our own terms.

This is a book that is basically beyond politics, this is a book that considers politics to be of tertiary (At best) importance to the real issue, which is the exceptionally of the American soul, and how we’re the kind of people who will damn well not go gently in to the night, and who will risk themselves to drag the rest of the world back as well.

And what could be more conservative than that?

BOOKS I’M CURRENTLY READING:

Your Trip in to Space by Poole
The Toynbee Convector by Bradbury
The Star Diaries by Lem
Something Wicked this way Comes by Bradbury
The Killer Angels by Shaara
Science Fiction Stories of Jack London by London
High Rise by Ballard

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