The looming zombie apocalypse is upon us. Soon enough, the ravenous dead will take over the streets, their unquenchable hunger for warm flesh terrorizing the remnants of human civilization. Max Brooks' World War Z is an ambitious account of such a zombie apocalypse in accordance with the classical Romero sensibility. Fantastical, yet wholly realistic, the novel draws parallels to the mass hysteria and often grim solutions necessary to cure a deadly disease and the lies and obfuscations that the power brokers need to keep people calm and sedentary.
The book's intro presents the major narrative conceit throughout the novel: the constant use of narration to tell the story. The narrator, an interviewer with the United Nations Postwar Commission, explains that the majority of the world has been taken back from the zombie hordes and the UN has established the Postwar Commission to report on how humanity dealt with the zombie plague. The book is then told through a constant stream of first-person narration from both major players in the zombie war to the common frontline grunt. This diversity of voices in the book present a portrait of a world at war, where every citizen is united in defeating a common foe--the decaying bodies of neighbours, enemies and loved ones.
Brooks' portrayal of both the world and the zombies in it is styled closely after George A. Romero. The zombies are slow-moving, unintelligent brutes that hunger for sustenance. The zombies bring out the worst in people, just like the classic Dawn of the Dead. What's more, the pointed social commentary is wrapped in a blood-soaked, gory cloak--which makes the message all the more palatable to the reader.
Two major players in the story are those who attempt to keep the public ignorant and happy in the face of the outbreak. One is the CEO of a pharmaceutical company and the other, a political advisor closely modelled after Karl Rove. In the early stages of the novel, the zombie plague is called "African rabies," which allows the CEO to push through a vaccine that's only effective against rabies as the new cure-all vaccine against the plague. Needless to say, it doesn't work and causes people to have a false confidence in the face of the ravening hordes, which leads to further spreading of the disease. The next interviewee discusses how the common American didn't need to know about the plague outbreak and when it came out, shows how a small specialty task force is all that's needed to contain the outbreak. If they couldn't, there'd always be the vaccine. He is thankfully safe, but his new job is as a shit shoveller--a nice pointed reference to his former job as a political advisor and "message-massager" to the former president of the United States.
The book doesn't only focus on America, though, but instead spends time traipsing throughout the world, showing the strange and sometimes horrifying actions humanity will do to keep themselves safe. The Ukrainian military gasses refugees in an attempt to find the zombies before they re-animate and spread the disease further. Russia forces its army to kill every tenth solider and then after the plague, turns women into breeding factories to ensure a strong Russian future. Cuba becomes the global superpower, as Fidel Castro allows capitalism to take hold and flourish as millions of refugees flood into Cuba. Americans flood into the northern Canadian wilds, as zombies end up being rendered inert and frozen in the chilly northern winters. Unfortunately, they aren't prepared for the tremendously cold winters and begin to starve en masse until drastic measures are enacted. The world is far different than in the beginning days of the war and the panic over the plague has indelibly changed the world--any reader cannot help but wonder if a mass outbreak of disease, not of the dead-rising kind, can cause such a great panic in our own society and wonder how humanity would deal with the consequences.
World War Z is an entertaining and gripping read and manages to do a rare thing in fiction: both be entertaining while engaging the reader in a social message, without being preachy and pedantic. Fans of zombie lore, especially those of the classical Romero type, will find the book to somehow crawl onto their bookshelf.
World War Z is on sale now at fine bookstores.