By Max Brooks
(Crown, September 2006)
As I think I mentioned previously, my first encounter with a zombie came from watching some cheap horror programme - called Creepshow or something? - where one of the short episodes focused on an old man in a wheelchair who kept demanding his birthday cake. Eventually his irate wife(?) tossed him down the stairs and killed him (as you do).
Sometime later, she's sitting by his grave and enjoying the serenity of the cemetery, when a decaying hand thrusts up through the earth. Naturally, rather than fleeing for her life, she sits there and screams as the zombie drags itself out of the earth, all the while screeching "I want my cake! I WANT MY CAKE!"
I've had a soft spot for zombies ever since. After I saw a few positive reviews for World War Z, I thought I'd give it a go. It was the premise of the book that really attracted me - rather than being a conventional novel, World War Z is presented as an oral history of a zombie outbreak, told from the recollections of various survivors - soldiers, civilians, politicians, and so on. Each tells a different story, often with an emphasis on completely different aspects of mankind's war and the struggle for survival...and eventual victory over 'Zack', the 'Zed heads', or whatever else you want to call the zombies (the survivors use different terms).
There are plenty of harrowing accounts from the survivors: the US helicopter pilot forced to traverse miles of zombie-infested swamp, the civilian trapped at the top of a block of flats teeming with the undead, the soldier that witnessed the military disaster at Yonkers (as a million zombies overran the US army barricade). There are moments of sheer terror and disaster, offset by incidents of individual heroism and humanity. It makes for horrifying, addictive reading.
It's the realism that makes the novel what it is. Brooks has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about how the modern world would really react to a zombie outbreak, and his vision is hellish to say the least - and almost totally believable. Governments lie about the seriousness of the threat and ignore it until it is too late, scammers make a fortune from flogging their miracle 'cure', the Russian military resorts to barbaric measures to maintain discipline in its own ranks, Iran and Pakistan launch nukes at each other, and civilians the world over panic as society collapses into a ticking time-bomb of madness and terror. Brooks proves adept at exploring a variety of political and social themes through the accounts of his survivors.
Brooks also riffs effectively on several aspects of modern life: one survivor recalls how a group of celebrities and journalists barricaded themselves in a mansion and - whilst broadcasting their 'survival' to the rest of the world - sat around discussing fashion as the dead swarmed outside. Perhaps an extreme example of our materialistic, limelight-addicted culture, but this is exactly the kind of idiocy I'd expect from some people if there was a zombie outbreak. This materialistic streak is illustrated again as some of the refugees take to the road with the most ludicrous items (the bloke with the computer monitor takes my vote for the most stupid).
Survivalism is another strong theme, and I particularly liked the idea that suddenly white-collar workers are almost totally useless (they can't contribute much to the war effort) while blue-collar workers find themselves in high demand for their practical skills. The animosity and class prejudice that results is highly convincing (not to mention amusing, as a Hollywood casting director freaks out at having to take survival lessons from her former cleaner).
Brooks clearly realised the US-centric focus of many popular zombie books/films was illogical, and counters this by making the zombie outbreak a global issue. Subsequently we have recollections from people of many nationalities - Americans, Russians, Japanese, Indians, South-Africans and many more. The global focus adds real depth to the book, and allows Brooks to show how different countries responded to the threat...if they responded at all. The explanation for how the infection spread - via human trafficking and the organ trade - is also convincing.
Sometimes Brooks stretches credibility a little too far. The blind Japanese guy that managed to keep swarms of zombies at bay is one example, the other one being the potential sighting of REM's Michael Stipe as a volunteer infantry soldier. I mean, come on...Michael Stipe, grappling with zombies?! Still, it's never confirmed that it was Stipe, so I'll give Brooks the benefit of the doubt. ;)
Some other reviewers have criticised World War Z for getting bogged down in detail about changing political views and infrastructure, but this was not a problem for me. As I said, this is what makes the novel so believable.
All in all, World War Z is a terrifyingly real account of how mankind was forced to its knees by the living dead...and how it managed to recover. Horrific, fascinating and intelligent, it's compulsory reading for anyone that wonders just what would happen if the dead started rising from their graves...