World War Z by Max Brooks

The full title is World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. The wikipedia page is here, the Amazon page is here.

A few initial points. It’s zed not zee. Zombies are beyond a cliche now. And I’ve seen the recent film adaptation of this book. I cannot help picturing Brad Pitt as the protagonist.

If you’ve seen the movie, don’t fear, the book has very little to do with the film. Seriously. The film was okay, but nothing more. It was very disjointed, and apparently half of it had to be re-shot as test audiences couldn’t stand the third act. It showed, as the film went from a Hollywood blockbuster to a tense claustrophobic thriller. Sudden change there!

The book, however, is what I’m supposed to be talking about. I mention all of the above, because it’s nigh-on impossible to view and review these works in isolation. This book has a big cult following. The movie had Brad Pitt! Does that change how I write this? Of course!

Max Brooks is an author and screenwriter, son of the famous Mel Brooks, and has a serious love of zombies. (He has also written The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead.)
His Amazon page is here, his Wikipedia page is here.

Plot summary: the narrator is a UN investigator who survived the outbreak, the apocalypse, world war Z; it has many names. (Strider, Aragon, the king in the north…) It is about a decade after the decade-long uprising of the undead. Or reanimated dead. The story unfolds over many interviews with key figures in the history of the outbreak. This technique provides a quite different approach to story-telling. The little vignettes offer glimpses, snapshots only, into this world, and you’re given just enough to see some of the picture, and you’re expected to fill the gaps yourself. It’s a definite change to have an author who recognises that the reader can do some of the work themselves.

It is unclear where and how exactly the virus came to be, but unchecked movement of the infected, and organ-trafficking from China are two of the main causes of the initial spread. A moderate delay between infection and turning also assisted with the spread. Once the virus spread, countries reacted differently. Israel essentially barricaded themselves in. The USA took a military and social engineering approach. South Africa took a cold-blooded stance, and deliberately sacrificed large parts of their population who did not satisfy the cost-benefit argument to be saved. Canadians fled north, the Iranian government and Pakistani government managed to declare war on each other. None if this is directly revealed, of course, it us expected that the dots are joined as they are presented to you.

There is a problem, and that’s the ending. Now, I don’t want to spoil things, of course, but I’m going to make some general points. First, there’s a scene, world leaders, strategists, and the like: they’re coordinating efforts, and the American stands up and makes a rousing speech. The book notes that if this was a film then there would be a slow clap, building to a crescendo, a bald eagle would fly into the room wrapped in the stars and stripes (okay, I made that bit up), and it’d be “gosh, the solution was just good ol’ fashioned American spirit and a never-say-die attitude”. Very cynical, nice acknowledgement of the standard tropes. But then the book turns around and does exactly that! The Americans decide that enough is enough and they’re Americans goshdarnit, and all this is going to take is a bit of effort. It leaves a real sour taste.

The second point relates to the movie: it has a much better ending. The film, for all of its many faults, turns into a tense, well-paced thriller for the third act. The book finishes very weakly, and takes the gloss off what was otherwise an excellent presentation.

Is it worth it? Sure. The story-telling is good, really good. It’s clever, it’s inventive, it’s different, and that makes it worthwhile.

Amazon links (I get a fraction of a fraction of a cent, apparently, if you buy from this link). The Kindle link doesn’t work, but you can select that option from the paperback option, which is here:

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War