Saturday, January 10, 2015

Book Challenge 2015: World War Z

The first book I read this year could have fit several categories; I’ve owned it for over a year and hadn’t read it, it came with a recommendation from several friends, it’s been turned into an (execrable) movie, and with a bit of stretching it can be considered to be a collection of short stories. For the sake of simplicity (and because the other books-turned-hollywood-blockbuster-fodder I have access to are Twilight, Harry Potter, Eragon, or other overexposed or downright crappy titles) I elected to fill the Challenge’s #3 slot first.

World War Z, for the uninitiated, is a collection of fictional interviews by the stellar Max Brooks, previously the author of The Zombie Survival Guide. His narrator, a fictitious counterpart of himself, converses with an international collection of survivors of the War Z, from civilians who fled their homes to deep-sea divers dealing with the submerged dead to the soldiers on the tip of the spear taking the fight to “Zack”.

Brooks faces several obstacles as a writer of “Zombie Lit” foremost among them being the “mechanics” of the Zombie Apocalypse: it has been well-documented on a variety of forums, websites, and presentations that a true apocalypse at the hands of the walking dead is all but impossible. We’re too smart, our pop culture has prepared us too well, and the idea of a shambling corpse overcoming a fit adult, even taking into account the risk of infection with the zombie virus, is frankly ludicrous. And yet…

Brooks’ vision of how such an apocalypse might have come to pass is one of the most compelling, fully-realized accounts I’ve ever encountered. He wisely sidesteps the debate over the functionality of a “zombie virus”, putting his words in the mouths of eminently practical individuals, an entire world full of people saying “yeah, I know they shouldn’t be able to walk, or fight, or survive, but they do, and it’s our job to find out how to deal with them anyway.” It’s a world where zombies are killing people, but people are the REAL problem. Bureaucracy, greed, xenophobia, irrationality; these are the weapons Brooks’ pre- and post-war humanity uses against itself. Nearly one third of the interviews are devoted to those who helped to spread the virus or weaken humanity’s defense against it: a quack-cure spouting doctor who fled to Antarctica to avoid trial for selling “vaccines” that did nothing but spread false hope; accounts of military engagements failing horrifically to comprehend the threat they faced, throwing troops into a meat grinder. Horror stories of infected refugees unaware of what they carried until they spread it, wiping out entire camps full of refugees. Mankind isn’t just inhumane to man in this apocalyptic world, it’s ignorant to it.

Even so, it’s a Mankind that can learn from its mistakes. The fact that the book is framed as a collection of “post-war” accounts from those who survived shows that we can not only survive this catastrophe, we can THRIVE. The narrative in the later portions of the books becomes more speculative; while the early portions ponder how the modern world might respond to a global catastrophe, the final sections take these ponderings and extend them into a “future history”. Brooks shows how our diverse cultures survive contact with “Zed”, “Zack”, and “The G”, and then shows how surviving changed those cultures. Perhaps I should worry that Brooks seems to believe it’s going to take an apocalypse to make humans remember their shared humanity, but I’ll take some optimism over no optimism at all.

Bottom line: if you want some stellar writing wrapped up in a zombie thought experiment, read this book. (Just don’t watch the movie; it was crap.)

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