Book Review: World War Z

July 14, 2008 at 11:08 pm Leave a comment

I know, I’m a little late to the party.  I’ve finished World War Z a few weeks ago, and I meant to post this when I finished it, but then I got caught up reading another book (which I will post a review of soon).  Anyway, Max Brooks, who’s best known for his Zombie Survival Guide, brings his knowledge of the undead to a more traditional novel in World War Z. Told in a non-traditional narrative using interviews of the survivors, World War Z is a gut-wrenching, exciting, and occaisionally very human look at war against the undead.

The novel is broken into parts, going chronologically from the first reports of an ‘undead outbreak’ to full-fledged war to the brink of extinction, then to the turning of the tide, and finally victory over the undead.  Don’t go reading this expecting something like the novel versions of 28 Days Later or the remake of Dawn of the Dead.  While there are moments of action and sheer terror, this book takes place after the events have already happened, so the interviews are more retrospective than in-the-moment.  For example, one of the interviewees is a former U.S. Army soldier who was on the front lines at the Battle of Yonkers, which was a humiliating defeat for the United States.  His account of the battle, since he’s telling it roughly a decade after the event, has a more all-encompassing view.  He knows now how each little decision he, his fellow soldiers, and the commanders made affected the outcome of the battle.  Max Brooks’ decision to set the ‘story’ after the war ended allows his characters to inject more humanity into their tales.

The interviews themselves are greatly varied, ranging from accounts of battles, to tales of families trying to survive, to stories of world leaders deciding the fate of all humanity.  The U.S. soldier I mentioned earlier appears a few times throughout the novel, each time giving his perspective on a different moment of the war.  The Battle of Yonkers takes place early on in the war, when the world’s governments have no real plan for dealing with the crisis and are still fighting the ‘traditional’ way.  We also get an interview from the man who formulated the plan of survival in a realistic, albeit incompassionate way.  He basically suggests abandoning areas that a nation’s ground forces can’t hold, consolidating what’s left of the military, then secure the areas that aren’t overrun.  Only then should a nation consider retaking lost territory.  This means millions of people could potentially be left behind as the world’s armies retreat to more defensible positions.

There are also plenty of tales with regards to those left behind.  We get a story of a Japanese teenager whose parents leave him in their apartment.  Being a nerdy tech-geek, this kid basically has to find a way out of his apartment (which is already overrun with zombies) then make it to the street and find someplace to go.  He obviously survives (since he’s recounting his story), but finding out how he, and the other interviewees survive make up most of the excitement in the book.

World War Z occasionally gives glimpses into the state of the world as the zombies begin destroying everything.  Pakistan and Iran fire nukes at each other.  China and Israel fight their own civil wars.  Many Americans flee to Cuba, the only nation in the Western Hemisphere that isn’t completely overrun.  There’s also some interesting bit of news regarding North Korea.  I greatly enjoyed these glimpses into worldwide affairs, as most zombie tales, especially the movie ones, only focus on a person or group of people, rarely bothering to show us the state of the entire world.

Many of the survival tips Max Brooks mentions in his popular Zombie Survival Guide get put into play here.  For example, many of the civilians, such as the Japanese kid, rely primarily on blunt or sharp object to battle the undead.  It makes sense; it would probably be easier to find a baseball bat or a large knife as opposed to a gun.  Plus, as Max Brooks says, “blades don’t need reloading.”  In the unlikely event that the undead do rise, many of the actions these survivors do can be repeated in a real-world setting, unless the zombies are the fast running kind like in the remake Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later (if that’s the case, then we’re all screwed).

At the heart of this book are the very human stories.  I couldn’t help but think of the many tales coming from the survivors of the Holocaust; the stories of families in hiding, waiting for the day when the Gestapo discover them and break down their doors.  There were a few stories like this in World War Z, like families sitting at home enjoying a normal evening, when all of a sudden a zombie crashes through the sliding glass door.  There is one story, which to me is possibly the most haunting of them all, that centers around this family hiding in a church.  I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s very emotional, and pretty disturbing.

World War Z is an incredible novel, and a great read.  Not too long ago, Brad Pitt’s production company won the bidding war to bring this book to the big screen, and I hope they do it well.  While I know they won’t be able to tell all the stories in the book, there are a few that could be translated to the silver screen (like the aforementioned retired soldier, and a briefly mentioned story involving besieged college students).  Even if you don’t like zombie books or anything related to the undead (I, myself, am not a huge fan of the genre), World War Z should be on a must-read list.  Vividly written, with a surprisingly emotion punch, Max Brooks’ novel is not one to be missed.


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