World War Z

An Oral History of the Zombie War

Max Brooks

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Any reader of books knows that the books you love, the books you proselytize, the books you recommend to people at parties and display proudly on your shelves, say almost as much about you as you might about them.  And, of course, some kinds of books are more rewarding, in terms of what they say about you, than others.

Masterpieces make for lousy social accessories.  These are the Books Everyone Thinks Are Great.  No matter how much you may love a classic, no one will think better of you for it, for the simple reason that they all also believe that they love the classics.  Loving these books is no feat, because it requires no personal judgement at all.  You won’t ever impress anyone by loving ‘Hamlet’.

Some books, it’s fun to love them because everyone knows that they ought to love them, but no one has actually read them.  We can think of these as the Books You Love So That You Can Show You’ve Read Them.  This is how people who actually like Proust get to feel all the time*.

*I’m not one of these people.

And then there are the books which no one expects anyone to enjoy, because they aren’t fun at all.  These are Books Which Show Character.  It’s really fun to love these books, because then people think that you have unexplored depths, that you must know something that they don’t know, or that you possess a tortured, artistic soul.  Imagine how fun it would be to announce that your favorite book was, oh, ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’.

But my own personal favorite category, in terms of social accessorizing via reading list, is Secretly Great Books Everyone Else Thinks Are Trash.  I’m a little contrarian, so it gives me enormous (and, yes, extremely juvenile) pleasure to go to bat for books which everyone else thinks are Beach Reading, to argue that these books are, instead, Great Art.

World War ZSo here I go:  I think that ‘World War Z‘ is Great Art.

I’m not exaggerating for effect – I love this book.  I think it’s magnificent.  I’ve now read it three times, and I like it better every time I read it.  No, I love it better every time I read it, and I refuse to be ashamed of this fact.

World War Z‘ is, as advertised, the oral history of the Zombie War.  It is a collection of the personal reminiscences of the survivors, from all over the world, from the ordinary citizens who witnessed it to the presidents and generals who prosecuted it.  It covers the entire war, from the first few cases, the handling (or mishandling) of the outbreak by various nations, the desperate flight of millions of people from the cities, the overwhelming and near extinction of the human race, and the eventual beating back, the destruction, of the zombie menace.

I love this book.  I love this book because it is so smart.  It’s smart and it’s thorough, thought-out and careful and precise and imagined down to the last detail.

I’m going to land on this point with a little more emphasis, because I am sure that most people unfamiliar with this work (or, heaven forfend, people who saw the movie) would be surprised, perhaps, to hear ‘smart’ as the primary description of a book about, uh, zombies.  Literal zombies.

But that’s the thing about smart – it can work with anything, can make something brilliant out of starting material which is, well, stupid.

ZombieZombies have never been my favorite metaphor.  All the ghouls and goblins have their metaphorical purpose, the existential conundrum they were written to pose to us.  Vampires are about the price of immortality; werewolves are about our inner beasts.  Ghosts are about death (obviously).  Zombies are about humanity, what makes us human, whether it’s our bodies or our minds.  Zombies (usually) ask the essential question: when do our loved ones stop being themselves?  When can we let them go?  When are we willing to destroy them?  Could you shoot your mother in the face, to save yourself?  Your child?  Your spouse?

But that’s not what ‘World War Z‘ asks, not exactly.  ‘World War Z’ is a novel of geopolitics; it is a novel of logistics.  Its nearest analog, to my mind, is Asimov’s ‘Foundation‘ trilogy.  It’s a novel about how societies cope with unimagined and unmanageable threats, threats that come from within.  Arational threats.

I recognize that this is not ‘Walking Dead’-sexy, but it’s a lot smarter.  And it’s more interesting, more fun to read.  There aren’t any hand-to-hand battles with zombies here, no slow, wrenching transformations of loved ones.  This isn’t a book about people as individuals; it’s a book about people as nations, people as animals.

And it’s plausible, super plausible.  It’s the kind of the book that makes you feel as though, if a zombie apocalypse happens, it’ll look a lot like this.  Not the way it will look to you (or to a bunch of people way better-looking or tougher than you), but how it will look from above, how it will look on a grand scale.

Max Brooks
Max Brooks

This is so much more interesting than watching a bunch of grubby people scramble around in the woods.  Zombies just aren’t that interesting as an interpersonal problem, but as a logistical problem, they are fascinating.  They are both a disease and an enemy, a contagion and an infiltration.  And ‘World War Z‘ captures this so well, holding the problem up to the light and holding it this way and that, so that you can admire facets of it that you’ve never noticed before.

I’ll give you an example, perhaps my favorite example, of a really great tweak to the old zombie problem.  It comes in the middle of the book, as the tide begins to turn.

(Remember that the book is structured as a series of interviews)

“The biggest problem were quislings.

Quislings?

Yeah, you know, the people that went nutballs and started acting like zombies.

Could you elaborate?

Well, as I understand it, there’s a type of person who just can’t deal with a fight-or-die situation.  They’re always drawn to what they’re afraid of.  Instead of resisting it, they want to please it, join it, try to be like it…But you couldn’t do it in this war.  You couldn’t just throw up your hands and say, ‘Hey, don’t kill me, I’m on your side.’  There was no gray area in this fight, no in between.  I guess some people just couldn’t accept that.  It put them right over the edge.  They started moving like zombies, sounding like them, even attacking, trying to eat other people…Do you know that quislings were the reason some people used to think they were immune?…I think the saddest thing about them is that they gave up so much and in the end lost anyway.

Why is that?

‘Cause even though we can’t tell the difference between them, the real zombies can.  Remember early in the war, when everybody was trying to work on a way to turn the living dead against one another?  There was all this ‘documented proof’ about infighting – eyewitness accounts and even footage of one zombie attacking another.  Stupid.  It was zombies attacking quislings, but you never would have known that to look at it.  Quislings don’t scream.  They just lie there, not even trying to fight, writhing in that slow, robotic way, eaten alive by the very creatures they’re trying to be. (p. 198)

You have to admit, that is brilliant.  It’s better than brilliant: it’s correct.  It is a true observation about humans, but placed in an entirely fictional, terrifying, absurd context.  Or, to be more precise, it is an entirely fictional, terrifying, absurd context which draws your attention to a true observation about humans you had already made, but had never really understood.

That’s what science fiction is for.  That’s what it does: reteaches you things you already knew, or should have known.  This is also, by the way, what Great Art does.  And I will defend as Great Art any book which takes something you thought you knew, no matter how stupid, and then twists and turns it back around on you, so that you discover that you were looking at yourself all along.

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