World War Z

Recommendation: It’s not the stupidest thing I’ve read this year

Read with: A map and an epidemiology textbook

Where to read: Idk, this is pretty good transit reading

In brief: Silly and viciously satirical by turns, World War Z is, for my money, the best contemporary “zombie” story precisely because it’s not really about zombies at all.

I remember reading The Zombie Survival Guide on band tour in about Year 9 or 10 – I was bored on the bus and borrowed it from a friend as a diversion (I also, to my lasting regret, borrowed the appalling waste of lifetime that is Lord of the Flies). I don’t remember much about it other than it being an absolute hoot of a read. It also has slightly worrying parallels to survivalist literature more generally in the United States. Shows like Doomsday Preppers pick up very similar ideas to those suggested by Brooks, stockpiling weaponry and food and finding fortified positions on high ground, for instance. One of these things is not like the others, of course, but they do feed into, and spring from, the same cultural paranoias.

World War Z picks up the same ideas as The Zombie Survival Guide but takes a far darker tone. Modelled on an oral history of World War II, “Max Brooks the UN agent” traces the zombie war from the initial outbreaks to the verge of total defeat and finally to the eventual pushback. It’s an excellent narrative choice, allowing for a far broader narrative than the one offered in, for instance, the film version. It also facilitates the shifts in focus across the course of the novel – the initial chapters trace the beginnings of the epidemic from the perspective of more doctors than soldiers, the middle brings in the perspectives of civilian refugees and government and the finale mops up the whole mess. The other notable aspect is the tonal variety, from slightly comedic takes to the profoundly bleak account of a comms officer whose colleagues uniformly experienced severe PTSD and all suicided either during or after the war.

The overriding tone, however, is vicious satire and heavy-handed allegory. Brooks is no fan of government bureaucracy and it shows but he’s not kind to the super rich and corporations either. He also picks up on extant geo-political tensions and magnifies them – China triggers a crisis in the South China Sea in order to distract from the beginnings of the plague, India and Pakistan go to war and the conspiracy theory factory in the Middle East goes into overdrive looking for ways to blame Israel (and vice versa). It’s not subtle, but it also makes World War Z very readable. For all its silliness, it does speak to deeper concerns than the usual pulpy read and, as a result, feels a tad more justifiable as a use of brain power and time.

On a slightly more niche note, it does come across as well researched. The plague spreads in roughly the way you’d expect a real epidemic to spread and the way he taps into survivalist mentalities (although that was there from the start of Zombie Survival Guide). He also does good work in the portrayal of mental health and PTSD.

All in all, it’s not going to set your world on fire, but it is a good option if you are after a horror/monster novel and don’t feel like rereading Frankenstein or Dracula.

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