World War Z—An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks

Okay, yes, zombies. But they are almost beside the point. This is an amazing book, one that sank its claws into me on the first page and didn’t let up until I finished the last. As the subtitle indicates, it is a series of interviews with veterans of the war against the zombies. These interviews, which range from one to four pages, are in the person’s own words, with only an occasional question interposed, and prefaced by the location and a sentence or two of background.

Michael Chabon has much to say about the literary community turning up its collective nose at genre fiction. Me, I like science fiction. It gives us an enemy—Martians, Romulans, whatever—about whom we have no preconceived notions or political stances. It can also show us the logical consequences of current cultural trends; I'm thinking of Hal the computer in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey and the social structure in Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Brooks gets in a few good jabs at our current culture, mostly sad rather than satirical, such as the spread of the plague (initially called African Rabies—sound familiar?) by infected organs provided by China on order and how do they just happen to find an organ matching the most obscure set of criteria in just a few weeks? Or that the war against the zombies can only be won if all nations come together in a truly multi-national force.

The book challenges us to reconsider our philosophy. Isn't it always right to remember that your enemy is human too, with reasons and dreams and emotions? In the brilliant and subtle depiction of the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, I'm thinking yes. Zombies? Nah. Is it ever right to sacrifice the few for the many? How about sacrificing the many so that at least a few will survive?

Brooks also gives us a sadly accurate view of the limitations of a military machine still fighting the last war, unprepared for a new form of warfare. One voice is a former Director of the U.S. Department of Strategic Resources, explaining how in World War II the Allies won by having more food, more bullets, more men than the Axis powers, but here the enemy doesn't need rest or food and has no home front to worry about. Therefore, cutting off food supplies or transport lines is meaningless; shock and awe are emotions they are not capable of feeling; and anyone they kill immediately becomes another recruit in their army. I was reminded of the fiasco when British soldiers in their bright red coats and formal ranks first encountered guerilla warfare in the American Revolution.

But what really makes this story work is the writing. What an amazing symphony of voices! Brooks does a good job of making them different from each other, no easy task. And the dramatic momentum never stops. I've been thinking a lot about drama, how to create it, how to sustain it. Here, while there is certainly plenty of action, the drama comes primarily from the intensity of emotion. The stakes are high: the future of humanity. The peril is dire: gruesome death. But no dramatic soundtrack is needed. The various narrators' emotions come out of the conflicts, not just with the zombie horde, but with themselves and with other people. There are conflicts over strategy, over questions of right and wrong, over past politics. There are conflicts even among the survivors; I loved the references to the LMOEs (last man on earth) holed up somewhere resisting the liberating army. Even more curious are the quislings, people who believe they are zombies, imitating them, attacking others. Even in big battle scenes, it is not so much what it feels like to fight with zombies—though there’s some of that—as it is what it feels like to be sent into battle with the wrong kind of ammunition, the wrong kind of armour. Sound familiar?

This book is so much better than you think it will be. Don't be surprised if it turns up on my Best of 2010 list.

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