It’s been a long while (too long) since I have been truly surprised by a book. As a librarian, I tend to do a lot of research and review-reading before purchasing items for my library…and for myself. Also, as an avid reader, I tend to see a lot of similar things coming out of the publishing houses at times. If it’ll work for one author…it’ll work for 20 more, right? However, with World War Z, Max Brooks completely floored me with utter surprise and delight. Much like a Lobo applied to Zack’s head, Brooks cuts through the dead weight and usual clichés to produce a lively and chillingly plausible look at the near annihilation of humanity at the hands of the zombie menace.
World War Z is presented as a collection of oral histories from some of the survivors of the zombie apocalypse. Some are ordinary “grunts” from the war. Some are former refugees. Some were involved in the initial cover-ups and in the Great Panic that followed while others had a hand in the recovery effort that followed the main war. Each of these histories follow a narrative thread that collectively tells the history of the war without getting bogged down in the usual dates and deaths that comprise traditional history books. It is a large story told in small scale.
The strength of WWZ is what Brooks refers to as “the human factor”. It is about how we often make a bad situation worse. It is about how some of us try to take advantage of a bad situation…in fact, we even feel entitled to do so. It is also about how some of us will rise above the situation…and even rise above our own foibles…to finally adapt and survive.
While there are many individuals introduced and the vignettes are too short to delve into much character detail, the author manages to reveal so much about his characters simply through their reactions to the most adverse of adverse conditions. Some of these stories are obvious satirical jabs at bureaucratic incompetence, political expediency, and corporate greed. Some are harrowing stories of fear, courage, and human perseverance. There are heroes and villains and victims, all with a story to tell. It is a patchwork of character sketches held together by the basic premise, a loose history, and the overall theme of the work…what it means to be human.
Some highlights? The story of a young woman trapped in the emotional mind of her four-year-old self reliving the night zombies overtook her community church and she was separated from her mother. The exploits of a cynical pharmaceutical exec living in a compound in Antarctica who hides from both the undead and the very-much-alive victims of his placebo cure for the zombie virus. The veteran who barely managed to return from the war with his sanity intact, acerbically telling the story of how he and his comrades were nearly wiped out by “Zack” (military-speak for the enemy) and by short-sighted military protocols.
With his very-human stories and a well-developed sense of history, Max Brooks has created a brilliant piece of imaginative fiction.