World War Z: More than a Zombie Novel

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Source: wikimedia.org

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.

Ready Player One

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Source: Wikimedia.org

I just finished a marathon reading session of Ernest Cline’s debut science fiction novel: Ready Player One. The rate with which I tore through this thing (four days) is evidence enough that it is highly enjoyable and totally engrossing. First published in 2011, I would imagine most of the intended audience (super-nerds and ’80s buffs) have already heard about this book and probably already read it. But there are rumors of a Steven Spielberg-directed movie coming out in 2018, which will prompt a new batch of readers to try this best-selling sensation before then (myself included). Ready Player One is an interesting collection of nostalgia-driven pop culture references and hard science fiction. Cline is clearly a big nerd himself, and the densely-packed pop culture references are clearly an homage to his own interests and obsessions, readers need look no further than the photo on the back of the novel, showing him leaning against a Delorean a la Back to the Future. Nevertheless, Cline also developed a comprehensive and immersive world that artfully draws upon the real world just enough to allow readers to fill in gaps and picture the story fully in their heads. I find that these sorts of reality-adjacent science fiction or fantasy novels find great success by drawing upon the familiar and emphasizing those small differences that drive their plots: think Harry Potter or Ender’s Game.

The basic premise of the novel is that, by 2044, the world has run out of fossil fuels, which combined with global warming and economic stagnation, has led to a prolonged global recession. The world is in rough shape. However, at the same time that the real world started to go down the tubes, a brilliant video game designer, James Halliday, developed a vast, free virtual reality that allowed people to escape from the sad doldrums of a society in decline. Dubbed OASIS, this virtual reality video game quickly grew into the dominant source of information, economy, and leisure for a majority of the world’s population. Then, upon Halliday’s death, the multi-billionaire released a video introducing a contest that would grant the winner full inheritance of his fortune and control over the fate of the OASIS. The ensuing competition drove a pathological obsession with Halliday’s formative decade, the 1980s, and makes for a fun future that’s obsessed with our past. Our hero, the poor and miserable Wade Watts, has dedicated his life to the search and the book chronicles his adventures searching for this fame and fortune.

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Author Ernest Cline and his Delorean. Photo Cred: Rolling Stone

I greatly enjoyed the novel, finding myself fully engrossed and drawn to the wonderfully detailed world of the OASIS that Cline developed. The puzzles and references that shaped Halliday’s Easter Egg Hunt were fun, nostalgic, and definitely cleverly constructed. I also found Wade’s characterization to be pretty fitting: a flawed loner with some serious self-esteem issues, but just enough courage and plucky cleverness to get things starting to go his way. Supporting cast like Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto were also pretty well done, though definitely cast over a bit during the novel’s second act. I didn’t want to put the book down, so I can’t say enough about how much fun it was to read, which is a tribute to Cline’s world-building. I don’t want to elaborate too much on the plot, as it is much more fun to be surprised, but I will say that it is wonderful and most definitely worth reading.

However, there were a couple of nit-picky criticisms to clal out as well. First, Cline makes a point early on that Halliday’s obsessions are with all things nerdy, repeatedly listing “movies, comic books, TV shows, music, and most of all, video games.” But then, there are never any comic book references, so why even say it? There were critical mentions of movies, shows, and songs, but none of the quests and almost none of the references were to comic books. I know this is a pretty minor complaint all told, but to call it out then not deliver is like a false promise. It seems like Cline was pandering to hook people early then forgot to deliver (or didn’t know as much about them himself, but wanted to be inclusive to all of “nerd-dom”). I was definitely disappointed, but I still did enjoy my fair share of Star Wars, Monty Python, and other awesome references throughout the book.

Second, I felt like Cline missed out on an opportunity to focus more on the “real world” of RPO outside of the OASIS. Yes, some important action happens there, and he does keep Wade and others at least relatively aware that their lives inside of OASIS are not their “true selves,” but beyond a few platitudes about starving citizens and decaying urban centers, Cline largely neglects any societal warnings or present day allegories that are so common in classic science fiction. It seems somewhat like a missed opportunity, but even so, a book made mostly for amusement rather than allegory and social commentary is still a good book if it succeeds at amusing readers, which Ready Player One certainly does. I just wish Cline had taken the concept a little deeper with those topics, giving the story a little more edge and philosophical oomph.

Lastly, this is not a criticism as much as a statement: Ready Player One is not for everyone. It was definitely written with an audience in mind – an audience that loves video games and nerd culture or grew up in the 1980s and is nostalgic for their youth. I, myself, was born a little later, but under my dad’s cultural stewardship, I grew up loving an appreciating a lot of these classic cultural phenomena. Sure, some of the references to arcades and TRs-80s were a little before my time, but Cline did a great job filling in the gaps to help paint a great picture of each cultural tidbits’ significance. If you can read this review and say, “hey, that sounds good,” then you’ll love it. If you hated the ’80s or were born in 2001, this may be a little much for you. And that’s ok, Cline, like his character James Halliday, just wants to share his interests with other people who appreciate them. Now go on, give it a try, if you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to put it down. Rating: 9 of 10