Sunday, September 27, 2015

Book Review: Zombie War: An Account of the Zombie Acopalypse that Swept across America

Sometime in the near future, a virus engineered by the former Soviet Union ends up in Iranian hands. The virus, designated F1-st, is deadly within minutes, but causes its victim to reanimate into a snarling, vicious terror only a short while later. When a handful of zealots sneak into Miami and deliberately inject themselves with the virus during a football game, the resulting epidemic entirely envelops Florida and quickly spreads to adjacent states.

Thus begins Zombie War by Nicholas Ryan, an Amazon bestselling horror writer who has found a niche in the popular field of zombie literature. While the prologue is written as a third person narrative, the remainder of the book is told in the first person by journalist John Culver. Culver spends the bulk of the novel visiting dozens of individuals and places to chronicle the 13 month long Zombie War that saw Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina overrun by the undead.

Zombie War vs. World War Z
The plot of Zombie War will inevitably remind many readers of World War Z. In fact, the author invites the comparison by pasting a reviewer's claim that the book is "As good as World War Z" directly on the cover. (It was through my review of Brook's novel that Ryan found this blog and asked if I would like to review Zombie War.)

While the format of the story may be similar to Max Brook's novel, Ryan's zombie apocalypse is different in several ways.

The Zombies
As I mention in my review of World War Z, much of the plot is driven by the characteristics of the classic Romero zombie; a shambling, mindless creature compelled to eat human flesh. While Romero's films aren't too particular on the nature of zombification, Brooks invents the solanum virus to explain his lurching horrors.

Like Brooks' ghouls, Ryan's zombies are reanimated by a virus. However, F1-st's victims are howling, aggressive, and fast; i.e., post-28 Days Later (2002) zombies. In World War Z, Brooks emphasizes the futility of using modern weapons, which are often designed to kill with blast overpressure, on a creature that is no longer dependent on internal organs or even a fully intact brain. In Ryan's book, the fact that the zombies come running at the first sound or sign of movement means that the US military is often as concerned with crippling or slowing the monsters as it is with killing them.

The Crisis
The nature of Zombie War's crisis leads to a very different war from that in World War Z. The pandemic that becomes World War Z originates in China and spreads through refugees. Solanum's victims often live long enough to travel long distances via truck or airplane, ensuring that the virus spreads far and wide (in at least one case, the virus makes it to Brazil through an infected organ from a Chinese "donor"). The widely spaced epidemics that result grow together into an undead pandemic. Although the undead are slow, the diffuse nature of the pandemic makes it difficult to counteract. The reaction time of the world's governments is further slowed by Chinese secrecy and a misunderstanding of the virus' effect on its victims.

By contrast, Zombie War's F1-st epidemic starts in one location, Miami's Sun Life Stadium, through a single act of terrorism. The F1-st virus kills and reanimates a victim in minutes, thus creating a full-blown zombie horde in record time, but one that is geographically limited and moves only at footspeed. The threat that the rapidly growing mob of flesh-eaters poses is obvious, meaning that America knows what it's dealing with pretty quickly.

The Living Fight Back
In World War Z, most of the world's governments find themselves gathering as many of their citizens as they can into isolated and defensible locations (e.g., parts of the Rocky Mountains). The collapse of civilization means that fuel, vehicles, and armaments are scarce. On top of that, the living are forced to devise innovative ways to fight an enemy that's already dead. Brooks' post-apocalyptic army has no use for tanks or artillery, having found them to be ineffective during the infamous Battle of Yonkers in the early days of the war. Instead, the US military dresses its soldiers in bite-proof fatigues, arms them with bolt-action rifles, and lures the zombies to well-stocked garrisons where Civil War-era formation firing is employed to whittle down their numbers.

Although a substantial portion of the South has to be conceded to the horde, Zombie War's US military is able to construct the Danvers Defense Line (a network of trenches, razor wire, and fences built along major highways) to stop the spread of the zombies. The line forms the centerpiece of the appropriately named "Operation Containment" (code names don't need to be secret when your enemy has no intelligence to speak of).

Ryan's zombies are fast, which neutralizes tactics like formation firing. Additionally, the military in Zombie War is left mostly intact. Fuel and equipment aren't an issue, so massed tank formations can be mustered. After the advance of the zombies is stopped at the Danvers Defence Line, tanks, infantry carriers, and self-propelled artillery are used to push the creatures towards Florida as part of "Operation Conquest". In the final phase of the Zombie War, "Operation Compression", the zombies are pushed into the Florida peninsula and contained behind a second defense line. (Ryan's zombies may be fast, but apparently they can be contained by water. World War Z's zombies often wandered into the ocean and could pop up weeks to months later on a distant beach.)

My Impressions
There are a lot of good ideas in Zombie War. One of the best of these is the use of waves of artillery fire to slow down and immobilize the zombie hordes. Yes, artillery may simply immobilize a zombie rather than kill it, and yes, an immobilized zombie is still dangerous, but at least it allows troops to deal with them on their own terms. Given that World War Z's military completely abandons artillery as useless, I have to wonder if Ryan's story is intended to be a direct rebuttal to Brooks' novel.

The tactics employed during Operation Conquest are interesting and would look very impressive on film. Imagine dozens of Abrams battle tanks driving side-by-side, mowing down zombies with machine gun fire and running over the rest. Two miles behind the Abrams are armored personnel carriers filled with soldiers to clean up what the tanks leave behind.

While I like a lot of the novel's ideas, there are a couple aspects of Zombie War that fell flat with me. For starters, I just don't find John Culver to be that interesting. He's supposed to be a journalist and the bulk of Zombie War is supposed to be an account of America's response to the zombie virus, but much of the story consists of Culver describing his impressions, feelings, or responses to the interviewees. I don't care for real journalists who think we need to know how they feel about the story they're covering; I feel the same way about fictional journalists, too.

Second, the interviews with multiple high ranking military personnel are very repetitive. With few exceptions, they follow a single pattern: Culver arrives at an interview that has been arranged ahead of time; despite the fact that the interview was prearranged, the officer is gruff and abrupt; Culver asks some softball questions and the officer responds with impatience or even outright hostility; eventually, after recounting the horrors of the Zombie War, the officer lets his guard down and shows that the hardened exterior hides a weary and exhausted man. One or two episodes like this wouldn't stick out, but it seems like the majority of the interviews turns out this way.

I should point out that the author never seems to be denigrating or disrespecting the US military. In fact, the book comes across as unashamedly patriotic (which is odd considering that the author is Australian). Instead, I get the impression that Ryan is trying to portray the kind of no-nonsense and notoriously prickly military officials that were so famous during the '40s, '50s, and '60s; e.g., General Patton, General MacArthur, or Admiral Rickover. But in the face of a much more hostile and ubiquitous media, and without the urgency of a conflict on the scale of World War II or the Cold War encouraging politicians and other senior military officials to overlook difficult personalities, modern high-profile military personnel can't afford to be anything but diplomatic.

By contrast, the interviews with sergeants and various grunts are a lot better: some are good humored, some are gruff, some are matter-of-fact, and some are shell shocked. It would have been nice if their superiors had been handled with the same degree of subtlety.

(Full disclosure: I was provided with a digital copy of this novel in order to review it.)

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