I devoured this novel in 4 hours on the Beppu-Fukuoka return train, and I thought it was awesome. The book is an Oral History of an international zombie conflict, which starts in China and brings humanity to the edge of extinction. It is written as a series of interviews, which were intended to be incorporated into a UN report on the war against the Zombies but were excised at the last moment. They include interviews with Americans, Brits, Australians, Germans, Iranians, Chinese, Japanese, Indians and South Africans, and really serve to give the sense of a worldwide catastrophe. The book really doesn’t spare the terror either, putting these interviews together in such a way that you really feel like the human race is fighting for survival. The contents are arranged in roughly chronological order, starting from the initial signs of the apocalypse and progressing through the collapse of civil order, the ruin of nations, war against the zombies, and then recovery. It includes lots of post-war analysis, so we have the work of historians to divide the zombie apocalypse into epochs such as “The Great Denial” and “The Panic” and we have the self-serving accounts of the people who ignored the threat, buried it, or looked after themselves at the cost of others. It really is an excellent attempt to map the real failings of modern political and social structures onto a fantastic event, and although it has lots of powerful personal accounts, this social and political critique is where it really stands out. Through the personal accounts of people involved in the disaster, from ordinary housewives right up to an ex chief of staff, it attempts to show how our social and political systems would react to an event of earth-threatening magnitude.
The book avoids becoming a dry and uninteresting description of political events, however, and scatters the accounts liberally with stories from ordinary survivors that have powerful personal appeal. The woman who was taken to the frozen North as a child by her parents, and ended up living on human flesh, and who now spends her days cleaning up the frozen wilderness where she lived during the Panic, is a great example of this. Also the interview with the “feral,” a child who escaped an attack on a church and spent 10 years living by herself from the age of 5, is also a gripping personal tale. The first story, about the Chinese doctor who investigates Patient Zero and then gets a hint from a mate in the ministry of health, and manages to warn his family to leave the country, is a brilliantly understated moment of political suspicion, panic, and medical investigation all in one. These accounts serve to leaven the otherwise quite political text with material that keeps us engaged in the very real personal plight of billions, without making this book another survivalist story.
And something that separates World War Z from other Zombie tales is that it escapes from the survivalist paradigm (mostly), giving us an overview of the global response to a global problem rather than focusing on the tough decisions individuals have to make. In this book we don’t see so much the concerns of a family working out where to go next, as we see the tough decisions of governments who have to choose which city to save and which to damn. The usual survivalist paradigm of zombie tales is turned on its head, with governments deciding to throw some communities to the wolves in order to distract the zombies while they withdraw to safer ground. The decisions of individual survivors are shown to be of limited import compared to the agonizing and terrible decisions that the political leadership have to make in the face of the zombie threat.
The book also draws on some very interesting settings and, I suspect, references some quite obscure real accounts to give interesting and engaging stories. The tale of the man trying to escape India through the ship-breaking yards is a great example of an iconic industrial setting being turned into a nightmare vision of our zombie future. Similarly, the tale of the military dog-handlers, whose dogs are tools in the war against the zombies, is evocative of the little-told story of the dog-handlers in the Vietnam war, depicted in the massively under-rated Australian book Trackers (which I cannot recommend strongly enough).The author (Max Brooks) claims to have done quite a bit of research on real settings and on the culture and science referenced in the book, and it feels authentic at the very least.
The book also creates a really compelling zombie ecology, considering their interaction with the environment in detail and presenting strong evidence for the consequences of zombie infection that it posits. It also shows us some really believable models of government response, from the brutality of the Russians to the pragmatism of South Africa. There are some ideas that aren’t believable and the absence of Africa and the Middle East from the narrative is noticeable, but what we do see in the accounts was surely challenging to fit into the limited text (I read it in 5 hours!) so I’m willing to forgive this. I’m also very impressed by the subtle way of working real political events from the time into the narrative. America is exhausted after a “long brushfire war” that has worn down the American peoples’ support for international intervention, and we get implications that Howard Dean is the vice president, and another black person was passed over for the role because the President is also black. There are implications of a rabid right-wing opposition, possibly Glen Beck-ish, but the actual political parties and even their general political bent is unclear – in fact, if we assume that the Howard Dean figure is democratic then it seems likely that the post-Z-War president who implemented national health care was a Republican. We also see delicate references to important historical figures, including the Queen (choosing to stick it out in Windsor Castle even when her government is fleeing) and Nelson Mandela. And there are some other doozies in this story too, particularly the way in which the nature and origins of the South African plan are revealed to us.
I have two main complaints about this book. First, the narrative voices are quite similar, which undermines the idea that the book is a collection of interviews. Somehow, almost every person seems to have the same tone and voice, even though they come from quite disparate cultures. The only people who truly stand out as having a different narrative voice are the two Japanese interviewees, but these interviewees were my main clues as to another problem the book has – national stereotyping. When I read the Japanese interviews they weren’t talking about the Japan I know, but about a western image of a Japan that doesn’t exist, where the social order and “heirarchies” are perceived from an American perspective as an oppressive class structure, which really isn’t how Japan works. This stereotyping extended to Russia and China, whose response was characterized as unnecessarily brutal and stupid, and suggested the book wasn’t able to stray outside of American stereotypical images of China and Russia deal with social problems – an impression that I think is wrong, at least in the Chinese case, and an impression often encouraged by American politicians and commentators to support the continuing myth that American society is able to solve any problem. These stereotypes of America as international saviour and good guy were also a little bit more pronounced in the story than perhaps was necessary. Apparently America even had more successful survivalists than other countries due to its “culture of individualism.” Please forgive me if I appear a little pro-third world, but I suspect your average kazkhstani Eagle Hunter would crap all over your average American “individualist” in a zombipocalypse.
These minor complaints neither detract from the joy of the book as a whole, nor prevent it from being a significant addition to the general corpus of Zombiepocalypse survival thought. The book certainly supports previous thoughts of mine that pure survival skills are not the key to living through such an event, and that survival depends very much on your social support networks and ability to think fast and adapt. Even the military tactics depicted in the reclamation of America make it clear that individual heroism is irrelevant, and present us with an image of warfare Taylorized to the utmost degree. In war against zombies, the person reloading your clip and the background figure who determines that you need a five minute break are just as important as the person doing the shooting. The dog-handlers are a classic example of how socialization trumps survivalism when the dead rise.
Overall, this is a really thoughtful and though-provoking book, which remains a thoroughly excellent read and a classic piece of science fiction at the same time as giving us a really detailed and exhaustive analysis of the failings of our current governments and society. It is well worth reading if you’re interested in zombies, or politics, and especially if you are interested in both.