World War Z by Max Brooks

“The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. “World War Z” is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.

Ranging from the now infamous village of New Dachang in the United Federation of China, where the epidemiological trail began with the twelve-year-old Patient Zero, to the unnamed northern forests where untold numbers sought a terrible and temporary refuge in the cold, to the United States of Southern Africa, where the Redeker Plan provided hope for humanity at an unspeakable price, to the west-of-the-Rockies redoubt where the North American tide finally started to turn, this invaluable chronicle reflects the full scope and duration of the Zombie War.

Most of all, the book captures with haunting immediacy the human dimension of this epochal event. Facing the often raw and vivid nature of these personal accounts requires a degree of courage on the part of the reader, but the effort is invaluable because, as Mr. Brooks says in his introduction, “By excluding the human factor, aren’t we risking the kind of personal detachment from history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn’t the human factor the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as ‘the living dead’?”

I’m not sure how I made it this far without reading Brooks’s zombie opus, but somehow I did.  Part of this was fueled by my husband reading it and not liking it.  What I eventually found out, though, is that his dislike stemmed mostly from the fact that the book wasn’t what he expected it to be.  While I’m not sure what his expectations were, I completely understand that preconceived notions can ruin a book.  In my case, I was impressed with the author’s handling of what can be an overused trope—a world plagued by the living dead.

I don’t know whether this is correct or not, but I’ve been referring to the format used in this book as that of the modern epistolary novel.  Rather than a series of letters, you instead get interview transcripts and reports of things happening after the fact.  In this case, Brooks steps into his novel as the collector of untold stories from the time of the zombie apocalypse’s first waves.  The tales span the globe, include accounts from doctors and politicians and “regular” people, and cover events both small and large.

For me, it was this global perspective that was so fascinating.  I think that just about every other novel that I’ve read about zombie uprisings has tended to focus locally.  In other words, its scope is limited to a main character or two and those in their immediate area.  Brooks avoids this in two distinct ways: first, he doesn’t assume that civilization would experience a sudden and complete collapse; and two, his account is written ten years after the official end of the zombie war, when the story collector has had a chance to canvas the world for vignettes.

It’s also clear that the author put thought not only into the effects of zombies on populations, but also on geopolitical views.  The Palestinian wall, the high profile attack at (and defeat at) Yonkers as a lesson in the use of weapons on zombies, the apartheid-esque Redeker plan—it truly makes this story take on the widest possible context.  I wonder if the author pulled out a Risk board and played through various scenarios.

Digging deeper, there’s a lot of commentary on human nature, government’s stagnating bureaucracy, man’s helplessness in the face of panic as well as man’s resistance in rising above it, and the divides among different peoples and countries that prevent us from really moving on together as a species.  I could do some detailed breakdowns of these themes, but I honestly think that it’s better for readers to come to them by themselves.  It seems likely that individual readers will take away slightly different messages and points of interest, so I’d rather not pollute the well, so to speak.

I wish I hadn’t waited so long to read this book, as I’m sure it would have informed my views on other zombie novels.  Don’t be put off by the walking dead—World War Z has a lot to say about humanity that has nothing to do with chowing down on brains.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library Davis branch.

(Description nicked from

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.