Friday, December 27, 2013

Book Review: World War Z

The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z
World War Z is Max Brooks' 2006 follow-up to his Zombie Survival Guide, published in 2003. While the serious nature of World War Z is apparent from the beginning, the Survival Guide has inexplicably been marketed as a humor book. Anyone approaching the Survival Guide expecting a laugh might be disappointed, though. Its tone is entirely serious and fits a lot better in the sci-fi genre than comedy. While the survival aspects of the book could possibly be seen as satirical, the sections about zombie behavior, the nature of solanum (the zombie virus), and historical cases of zombie attacks clearly aren't meant to be funny. In fact, they represent solid sci-fi world building that forms the basis for Brooks' World War Z. Two or three references to "the civilian survival manual" in the latter book reveals the Survival Guide to be an in-universe text.

An Oral History of the Zombie War
While The Zombie Survival Guide acts as a primer for surviving a zombie apocalypse of the kind shown in George Romero's Living Dead films, World War Z purports to a be "an oral history of the Zombie War" compiled ten years after the war's official end. The author, a U.N.-supported historian, traveled around the world and interviewed a number of individuals involved in key events of the war to create the account. The author contributes little in the way of narration or a historical framework since the audience is assumed to already know about the key events of the war. This means that real-world readers have to piece together a broader historical outline based on indirect statements by interviewees. For example, the book never directly tells the reader what the "Great Panic" was, the first interviewee that mentions the Special Forces "Alpha Teams" simply assumes that the audience knows what they were, and the vital "South Africa Plan" is referenced several times before the interview describing its inception finally reveals what the plan was. Brooks leaves behind enough hints and clues to figure out what happened during the Zombie War, but readers will have to correlate each piece of information for themselves.

The first interview documents one of the earliest known outbreaks of the solanum virus in China (although the actions of the Chinese government suggests that previous outbreaks had been contained and kept secret). The virus spreads as infected refugees attempt to flee the country while outbreaks occur in far-flung locations such as Brazil when infected organs from Chinese "donors" (most likely executed political dissidents) are implanted into recipients. At the time, the nature of the virus and the fact that its apparently insane, cannibalistic victims are actually mindless reanimated corpses is unknown to the vast majority of people. Government coverups only make things worse and before long there are hordes of the living dead roaming through almost every country.

Although it isn't necessary to read The Zombie Survival Guide before reading World War Z, it's in this first portion that the information on zombie physiology and behavior found in the Survival Guide is helpful. For example, the doctor who investigates the earliest known Chinese outbreak first examines the bite wounds of several individuals who tried to subdue a teenage victim of the virus. The doctor is amazed to find that the villagers' wounds are entirely free of bacterial infection. This is meant to be an ominous sign, but only if you had read the Survival Guide. In the guide we learn that the solanum virus is lethal to nearly all forms of life (but will only reanimate human bodies) and actually repels any number of species. This is why a zombie can remain a threat for years; insects, bacteria, scavengers, etc. that would normally consume the average corpse are either killed by infected flesh or will avoid it at all costs. The villagers' wounds show no signs of infection because the solanum virus has eliminated any bacteria that might have infected the wound.

Anyway, the first part of World War Z builds up to the "Great Panic" that sees the fall of civilization as we know it and the death (and undeath, in many cases) of more than half the world's population. This is where most of the novel's horror is found and is the point where the average zombie story ends. Where Brooks really shines is in his vision of what happens next.

While the walking dead continue to make appearances, the second section focuses on the living and their efforts to gather survivors, form safe zones, conserve resources, and prepare to go on the offensive. The third part covers the reversal of the course of the war, the changes in military doctrine needed to defeat the living dead, and the eventual victory over the zombie hordes. The author also spends a lot of time showing the geopolitical consequences of a worldwide brush with annihilation. Events such as China's conversion to democracy, Russia's return to a czarist system, and Cuba's wartime renaissance are revealed during the course of the interviews. Without going into too much detail, the novel explains how the interaction between politics, geography, history, culture, religion, and military response to the zombie menace leads to the post-war world.

World War Z as Serious Sci-Fi
Bizarrely, the copyright page of World War Z classifies the novel as "War-Humor". First, World War Z isn't remotely funny. Brooks has attempted to realistically depict the collapse of modern society in the face of an unimaginable horror. Second, the author clearly put a lot of thought into the hard choices and sacrifices that would have to be made as well as the tactics and equipment that would be needed to reverse a zombie apocalypse.

While the zombies are defeated, there's no Hollywood ending to Brooks' story. Characters are traumatized, for every person who rises to the challenge there are many more who give up or give in to their baser instincts, many who are rescued from years of being under siege are resentful, and the victory is so hard won that no one can even find the energy or the heart to celebrate.

Finally, the depth of the author's sci-fi world building and the extent to which he explains why his post-war world takes the form that it does are far beyond what I had expected out of a zombie novel, let alone one designated as "humor". Rather, it reminds me of the post-Formic War Earth that Orson Scott Card developed for his Ender's Game series. Contrary to my original expectations, World War Z turns out to be a serious and well thought out science fiction story.

About World War Z's Zombies
In the acknowledgements, Brooks thanks "the genius and terror of George A. Romero". It's apparent in both The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z that Brooks is a huge fan of the Living Dead films and of the now-classic "Romero Zombie"; i.e., a slow moving, mindless flesh eater that can only be killed by destroying its brain. Brooks' living dead are so similar to Romero's that one could easily think of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its sequels as describing incidents that occurred during World War Z's Great Panic.

As far as I'm aware, Romero never explained in detail the exact nature of the zombie disease. This is where Brooks steps in. As described in the Survival Guide, the solanum virus affects every cell in the body, turning each into a more or less independent entity. Shooting a zombie in the chest does no good, since its body doesn't require the use of any of the organs that could be affected. The only organ that still has any function is the brain itself, which continues to coordinate the zombie's movement and drives it to consume living flesh.

Any attempts to kill a zombie that doesn't involve destroying the brain are bound to fail. This frequently comes into play in World War Z, particularly at the disastrous Battle of Yonkers. The modern weaponry used by the U.S. Army in that early battle was designed to kill living soldiers by shredding them or causing severe blast injuries. Weapons that were expected to be 100% lethal within a certain radius ended up being only partially successful against the living dead. Without enough antipersonnel weaponry to defeat the horde, and with soldiers trained to shoot at an enemy's center of mass rather than the head, the Army is routed and forced to retreat with heavy losses. The living are only able to reverse the tide of the war by adopting radically new tactics.

The Novel versus the Film
Since I haven't seen the movie yet, I can't compare the two with any level of detail, nor can I judge the quality of the film. However, the ads alone show that World War Z (2013) is fundamentally different from the novel it's supposedly based on. The whole point of the novel is to provide a history of the entirety of the war through the experiences of various individuals. The film, on the other hand, appears to focus on the real-time experience of a single character. How can you depict a "world war" when you spend most of your time with a single person?

Another huge change is in the nature of the zombies. Max Brooks' slow-moving zombies are threatening due to their weight of numbers and relentlessness. While it's common for people to laugh at a monster that you can escape by walking away at a brisk pace, imagine that there are millions of flesh-eaters that never sleep, never rest, and never stop hunting. A would-be survivor can easily escape one swarm just to run into another one. The novel's plot is directly shaped by the creatures' behavior.

Instead of the shambling horror, the film's menace consists of the newer "fast zombies". While I'm sure that fast zombies can be pretty darned scary too, it's not really an adaptation of Brooks' best-selling World War Z if the creatures that Brooks has painstakingly developed are fundamentally altered.

In the 1990s, a screenplay entitled Hardwired, which told the story of a robot uprising, was shopped around to various companies. It was eventually picked up by 20th Century Fox and, at the studio's insistence, it was altered to include Isaac Asimov's Laws of Robots. The final product became I, Robot (2004) which, although fairly good, has little to do with Asimov's novel.

The cynic in me suspects that, like I, Robot, the makers of World War Z never had any intention to follow the novel's plot and bought the rights to the name for marketing purposes. The fact that Max Brooks never even read the script seems to confirm this.

A Word on the Language
Just like Dan Simmons' Hyperion, which I also enjoyed, World War Z contains a lot of strong language. Like Simmons, Brooks uses it as a distinguishing trait of several of his interviewees. American combat personnel tend to use it the most, whereas swearing is almost entirely absent in the interviews of foreign civilians. Although I recognize that many people speak this way in reality (and I often work with people who swear just as frequently), it still seemed unnecessary. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to readers of science fiction and fans of zombie stories in particular, although I can only recommend it to mature adults who are not easily offended.

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