World War Z by Brooks, Max, 2006

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OK, so anyone who reads these reviews should be pretty clear by now that my favorite subgenre of SF, by far, is apocalyptic stories. A significant portion of the books that I personally consider the best deal with this genre. I also have a debilitating weakness for zombie stories, especially the movies. But recently I have started getting into zombie literature. I have not read a lot that I think deserves a place on these pages, but last week I finished World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks, and I have to say, if this form of literature is capable of producing works like this, I may invest quite a bit more in my collection. Mr. Brooks, the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bankroft, is slowly carving a niche as the hands down best zombie book author out there (in a field that grows larger each day).

In terms of story, World War Z is easily the best book I have read in months. Its told in the interview format. Max Brooks plays the role of a UN statistician and researcher that has travelled the world so as to complete a report about the devastation caused by a zombie uprising in the early 21st century. In the process of collecting data about ruined pipelines, sunken ships, ecological disasters and the like, he interviewed survivors of the war from all over the globe, and from all walks of life. Brooks set this book about 20 years from now, approximately 12 years after the end of a 10 year war that was so devastating that in some parts of the world (China and India, for instance) less than .01% of the population survived. One of the most interesting things about the book is that the zombies only play a distant 3rd chair to the human side of the war. The book has a TON of action in it, but it never really focuses on what the zombies are doing. Instead, it tells a cogent and essentially sequencial story of how the zombie plague started and got going, how it got out of control, how the zombies swept the globe and handed us our collective asses for a almost a decade, and of the total world-wide war that we started to rid us of the plague. Five plus out of five stars.

The plague started somewhere near the Three Gorges Dam in China. At least, that is where patient zero was known to have lived. However, when a civilian doctor reported the first known case of an odd disease that caused patients to rip their own arms out of the sockets so as to escape bonds, the Chinese govenrment already seemed to know what was going on. Their official response was what would be expected: They put a tight clamp on media, moved military units where needed within their own borders, and started "eliminating" spies and officals who disagreed with the policy of containment. All of this was noticed by the western powers' various spy agencies, but at the time there were escalating tensions between Taiwan and Mainland China, and these actions were taken as precatory to an invasion of the island. The West prepared, but for the wrong battle. Nevertheless, it still was not until months passed, after human traffickers, slavers, shippers and tourists had started exporting the plague across central Asia, and even as far as Western Europe. Western governments were very slow in reacting to the plague, and before any military action started cases started popping up in the New World.

The first government that really reacted was Israel's. They recognized the problem and the potential for cataclysmic damage after the first case was diagnosed in Israel, and immediately started to erect a tall and thick wall between them and and the rest of the world. One of the more interesting aspects of Brook's writing is his understanding of a wide range of politics, policies and conflicts all around the world. In the case of the Israelis he opines that their environmentally created sense of paranoia aided them in realizing the problem early and reacting faster than anyone else on the planet. The Israelis also invited any Jew in the world to join them, along with any native born Palestinian and family. As a result the Israelis suffered the least of the losses, and after the war a united Palestine emerged from what was Israel and the occupied territories.

Not many other nations reacted as quickly as Israel, but one of the ones that did was South Africa. The coalition government in that nation called upon an ex-Apartheid policy maker named Paul Redekker for assistance in creating a plan for survival. During the waning days of the Apartheid government, the risk to the Afrikaners was not that their form of government would be destroyed, but that all the Afrikaners would be caught and murdered by the ANC and Zulu revolutionaries. Redekker came up with a plan for evacuation of the entire Southern African continent by ship, called the Orange Plan, that was as precise as naming who would be saved and who would not. In his view, it was the only way to ensure that the Afrikkaners as a people would survive: Save what and who you can and don't waste effort trying to comfort or help what and who you have written off. The problem facing South Africa with the zombie invasion was as bad or worse as the threat from the Zulus and other blacks during the Apartheid government, so they hauled Redekker out of storage and came up with the Redekker plan, which basically was a reworking of the former plan with one big change. Since the zombies could easily walk out into the surf and transverse the ocean floors (this was another way they managed to spread from continent to continent), Redekker realized that humans had to form a stronghold in an easily defensible area on land. That is essentially what they did, but because they were limited by resources and space, significant portions of the population had to be left behind. The government decided who would be taken in and who would be left, then set up the remaining people in separate enclaves which would serve as bait to keep the zombies away from the main group. Needless to say, not many of those satellite redoubts survived, but the main population did.

The Redekker plan was so adaptable and worked so well, that virtually every nation on the earth adopted it. The United States at first tried to attack, but the advanced weapons that we had in our arsenal, such as concussion grenades and ordinary bullets did almost nothing to zombies who are already dead. How useful would a stinger missile be at wiping out a million zombies, when what you really needed were 1 single round for each zombie brain? At the first real battle in the USA, the Battle of Yonkers, very few humans walked away. The US responded by implementing its own Redekker Plan. We defended the nation west of the Rockies, and advised everyone in the East to head north to Canada where the zombies would freeze solid during the winter. The problems was, so would we. Not only that, but refugees from Mexico, and Central America added their numbers to the Canadians and citizens of the USA who were moving to the Arctic. That many people concentrated in a zone not well known for its food producing capacity made the first winter after the war really started the deadliest in the history of the earth. This period of the war was called The Great Panic, and was followed by Gray Winter, gray for the for the polluted snow in the Arctic region.

After things calmed down a bit the armed forces figured out that explosive rifle cartriges coupled with archaic tactics were pretty much the only thing that was going to win the war. We started pushing back in Arizona, where the army formed a square of men around command bunkers and a few trillion rounds of ammuntion. At this point in the war it was estimated that there were 175 million reanimated Americans and up to 25 million reanimated Mexicans in that part of the country (and that was 7 years into the war that had already killed millions of Americans and billions worldwide. When the zombies attacked from every direction, as expected, the soldiers mowed them down with such efficiency that within 48 hours, when the zombies stopped coming there was a pile of corpses 80' high and hundreds of feet deep surrounding our enclosure. From there the army spread out and systematically inspected every single square inch of the nation all the way to Washington state, Maine and Florida. By the time the various oceans and Canadian border were reached, pretty much all of the 200 million were dead. We then started exporting the tactics (and soldiers) to rid the rest of the world of zombies.

Ive pretty much traced the broad strokes of the war in this review. The real magic of this book (aside from reanimated corpese, of course) is Brooks' attention to the detail of individual stories around the world. He examines in pretty great detail the psychological impacts of fighting in and surviving such a catastrophic war. He tells you how long it took for various resources to run out, and what people did to survive afterwards. His parts on the Chinese civil war that left a democracy in place occurred, and the Russian revolution that left a maniacal orthodox clergy in control of Russia and what had been the Soviet Union were superb. But maybe the most interesting aspect of this book is Brooks' lack of focus on the war. Despite the absolute horror that led to more suicides and mercy killings than I have ever seen in any book before, Brooks tells the story of coming together in the end and defeating the indefeatable. And more than an immaginary war novel, Brooks really is attacking the American post industrial, highly specialized service industry oriented and non-blue collar society. Brooks postis, correctly, that we won WWII because we exploited our natural resources better than anyone, and could out produce everyone when it came to goods and soldiers (especially fresh soldiers). His multi-layered survival plan was a throwback to the days long past. When we decided to implement the Redekker plan on our own soil, the first part of that was taking all the movie producers, lawyers, plastic surgeons and lifestyle counsellors and teaching them how to build or repair something. He released the convicts for the same reason (and actually sunk a few barbs in the prison system in general for completely failing to rehabilitate anyone), and built a massive military support machine out of you and I. Brooks' understanding of international conflict is pretty thorough, and in the context of a war that actually could end all wars, he does a very interesting job playing with the possibilities. One of the earliest chapters in the book deals with the Isralei plan to repatriate all the Palestinians that were displaced by the '67 and '73 wars. The story is told from the perspective of a young Palestinian male who has just joined what looks to be a terrorist group in Kuwait. His father, who works in a hospital and has an idea of what is going on, forces him to travel to Egypt then Israel with him to join the migration back. The boy is convinced that the family is walking to its death, and the realization that he is wrong when he watches Isralei soldiers shoot first Jews who were in open revolt over the repatriation plan then Jewish zombies is absolutely priceless.

So the book is told in the interview format, and on the surface it is about lessons learned during the zombie apocalypse. Itís a conglomeration of individual stories that collectively illustrates the way that everything goes to hell when the unexpected occurs. The subtext is subtle, but it paints a more immediate picture of greater relevance than a global zombie outbreak. The things that really go wrong here go wrong not because zombies cannot be dealt with easily. They go wrong because the idiots who run the news bureaus put a spin on what is going on so that they can scoop the competition and send a branded message to people who then become misinformed. They go wrong because the military chiefs that have to deal with an immense, scary problem make major policy decisions about asset allocation without really knowing what they are up against, and invariably choose poorly. They go wrong because the major corporations that have spent in billions of dollars trying to conquer the problem of erectile dysfunction have failed to plan ways to protect themselves and their employees when the minutest of economic changes occur, and they go wrong because governments fail to plan for a wide variety of contingencies, and instead do stupid things like throwing the coolest explosives that they have at an army of zombies that could care less about "shock and awe." So what this book really is about is how we get or ducks in a row, and do away with all that superfluous crap that stands in the way of individuals solving problems on their own, with wise and careful support rather than inane and blind instruction. The world that is left after the war is, to say the least, fragmented and wrecked. People are just starting to figure out how to clean up the mess that is left, and really have no idea what to do next. They are directionless and scared and some are ready to kill the first person who looks at them sideways. But they are their own people. Nobody left thinks that they are going to get a better wife because they have a cooler car. Guns matter only for the job at hand, and the nations are helping each other where they can. Social "problems" of our day like immigration, arms control, wealth distribution, homelessness and others have gone away, and it honestly does not look like they will be returning any time soon. People and deeply psychologically scarred, but they are their own persons, and they are survivors. I can not say that I do not envy them.

We were in the living room; my father was learning how to load his new rifle while Mom finished nailing up the windows. You couldn't find a channel with anything but zombie news, either live images, or recorded footage from Yonkers. Looking back, I still can't believe how unprofessional the news media was. So much spin, so few hard facts. All those digestible sound bites from an army of "experts" all contradicting one another, all trying to seem more "shocking" and "in depth" than the last one. It was all so confusing, nobody seemed to know what to do. The only thing that any of them could agree on was that all private citizens should "go north." Because the living dead freeze solid, extreme cold is our only hope. That's all we heard. No more instructions on where to head north, what to bring with us, how to survive, just that damn catchphrase you'd hear from every talking head, or just crawling over and over across the bottom of the TV. "Go north. Go north. Go north."

A machine that fed the Great Panic. The Great Panic drove more people into zombies than a wiser course of action. Is it excusable? I suppose so. Doing nothing would have led to the same result, probably. What was needed was wise thinking out of the gate, and very few nations had that kind of thinking in their memories. Israel. South Africa. That is about it.

They say eleven million people died that winter, and that's just in North America. That doesn't count the other places: Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia. I don't want to think about Siberia, all those refugees from southern China, the ones from Japan who'd never been outside of a city, and all those poor people from India. that was the first Gray Winter, when the filth in the sky started changing the weather. They say that a part of that filth, I don't know how much, was ash from human remains.

You are really not going to get much SF content out of this novel, unless like I do you consider some of the horror aspects as cross-overs. I happen to have a weak spot for this kind of thing, but I really think Ive stumbled across a novel that bears sharing. The gross out factor is in this book, for the more squeemish of you, but if you can sit through a Romero movie, this will be a cake walk. My recommendation is that you make a point of getting this book and reading it. In other words, seek it out!

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)


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