I don’t think there’s a way to explain how much Max Brooks’ World War Z changed my life. I can say I was not much of a horror reader until I read this book, but that only makes sense to people who’ve seen my three bookshelves of horror novels. I can say I thought zombies were silly, but I still do, only now I have a bone-deep horror of them that I can’t easily explain. I can say I never thought about the rest of the world until I read World War Z; this book did more to make me aware of other culture, other viewpoints, and other histories than any college class or documentary I ever read.
The basic premise is that ten years after the apocalypse the author is compiling the personal experiences of thousands of people around the world, ala Studs Terkel. As an act of writing this is an incredible feat. Max Brooks set out to create a different voice and a different character for twenty-two (at least) short stories showing the common narrative of world-wide destruction. While some of the characters seem to blend (in particular the high-level military Americans have similar voices), the research into the different cultures, different political views, different language styles is evident in every single story. Not only was I asked to think about Japan during a zombie apocalypse, Brooks invited me to understand the effect that the nuclear bomb had on the country and how that would impact the population during a zombie crisis. Brooks wrote about how apartheid Africa could work for or against refugees, how Israel might be the only intelligence agency with the cultural and political background to take a zombie threat seriously, how Cuba could be ‘infected’ with American survivors.
The geo-political span of this book is amazing and I could go on and on about it and how it started me on a lifelong curiosity about other cultures. But I also want to move away from premise and focus on other elements.
The first is the handling of the apocalypse on this world wide scale. In order to tell this story the traditional way with one main character, Brooks would have had to resort to some back-breaking globe-trotting (much like the movie World War Z which is… well, it ain’t the book). Because of his inventive narrative style, Brooks is able to show us where the outbreak probably started and move us through the spread of the disease across the world. He takes a plague simulation and he puts a human face on it. Here’s the village in China demolished by progress and the first victim of the zombies was scavenging in his drowned hometown. Here’s a human trafficker explaining the heart of a refugee to an American that just does not understand. Here’s a guy who invents a fake cure (similar to one of our founding father, Benjamin Rush during the Yellow Fever Epidemic) so he can make a quick buck while the world is being eaten alive around him. Here’s a suburban Mom and her story. Here’s teenager from the North. Here’s a child from a fundamental family who didn’t quite survive. Here’s what the rich people were doing, here’s what the military was up to, here’s what it was like for an Indian, a Palestinian, a Jew, a mercenary, an army grunt, and high-ranking admiral, a disabled black man in American, a female Russian soldier, an astronaut slowly dying in space so he can keep the satellites running.
Here’s My story. Here’s My voice.
That’s what World War Z is all about. The research, the world building all serves that one essential purpose. Telling My story. The ‘me’s in this book are incredibly diverse so that when all those stories from all those survivors add up, the reader is left with an awe-inspiring view of the entire world during the plague years.
It’s not a traditional novel. It’s not a traditional collection of short stories. But this book shakes me to the core every time I read it. From the political insight, to the isolation felt around the world, to the horrific choices people in power must make to control and stop the spread of the Z-germ.
Zooming in, my favorite specific stories from the novel involve Paul Redeker and the South African plan. The way to take the pressure off the safe zones in this world, is to use other living humans as bait for zombies. In this way, entire cities are abandoned, people are misdirected North or to special zones where they will draw zombies. The needs of many out-weight the needs of few a good strategy on paper, but heart-breaking in the execution. The coldness of this plan, which will save all of humanity, drives the plan’s creator out of his mind, pushes several generals and world leaders to their deaths, drives the raw rage of the people in those zones who did survive and are not asked to take part in a country that left them to die.
Powerful stories told by the people who lives them.
World War Z by Max Brooks. Go read it.
Also there’s an audio-book where you can listen to a full cast read the different interviews. Mark Hamill (aka Luke Skywalker and The Joker) voices an American soldier. So go listen too.