If you’re like me, by now you are probably pretty sick of vampires and zombies. The early 21st century has been overstuffed with books, movies, and video games about ghoulish monsters and post-apocalyptic hellscapes. Sure, the occasional gem (e.g The Walking Dead) has emerged, but most of the zombie craze has just been drivel. The over-saturation got so bad that Marvel even released a few comic runs under the Marvel Zombies banner. I guess the zombies weren’t the only ones with mush for brains.
Now, I spent most of this craze steering clear. I treated anything zombie-ish like it was, well, the plague. You wouldn’t find me any closer to zombies than Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. But I now see that I made one crucial mistake. Hidden in the middle of that zombie craze, in 2006, Max Brooks (son of the great Mel Brooks) wrote a little bestseller called World War Z. So here I am, 10 years late to the party, realizing that this book is so much more than a zombie novel. In fact, I still really don’t like the title. But its subtitle is really what it’s all about: “An Oral History of the Zombie War.”
It was only after my dad, who’s also not into this zombie stuff, strongly recommended the book that I decided to give it a shot. World War Z was not at all what I expected. The entire story is told through at least 40 different interviews and is set entirely after the war. There is no action in the entire 400+ pages. Even without any active danger, there is still plenty of suspense in the heartfelt retelling of these characters’ traumatic struggle to survive. Brooks achieved a great deal of character development for each of his interviewees in a remarkably short period of time. The authenticity of each character’s voice, expertise, life experiences, and cultural upbringing was somehow clearly demonstrated and never overly expository. Brooks also showed a remarkably intricate knowledge of geopolitical forces, cultural histories across the world, and military vernacular and tactics. It is clear to readers that Brooks did a tremendous amount of research to support his novel. All of these factors, as well as the clarity of voice he brought to each of his numerous interviewees, made World War Z a human story, not a zombie story.
Even though the book was kind of thin on the “how” of the zombie outbreak, it barely mattered. What caused the outbreak, how zombies were able to actually exist was not a focus of the story, it was treated more as a given. Instead, Brooks focused on how people survived. Despite, the grim and catastrophic details of the war, along with the vast amounts of destruction and loss of life, the book managed to come off as cautiously optimistic. After all, humanity did win and did survive. There were plenty of errors and mishaps, but a key message was that, even in its darkest hour, humanity could stand together and stave off extinction.
World War Z is the kind of book that is not really about the plot. It is about ideas and human emotions. The zombies are merely the vessel to tell a string of human stories about loss, fear, hardship, resiliency, and, eventually, triumph. In the end, Brooks spun a very human tale about humanity, and in a clever mockumentary style that kept the story moving and engaging throughout. Though it border on repetitive about 2/3 of the way through, the story format picked back up and resolved itself consistently with its strong opening. I recommend giving the book a try, even if you think you don’t like zombie stories. Rating: 8 of 10.