Friday, December 14, 2012

Review: World War Z by Max Brooks (4/5)

By Jonathan Wilhoit

I’m so behind on the times.  I profess to be a zombie-lover, and yet it’s taken me six years to get around to reading World War Z.  I know, for shame.  I’d seen it in shops before, thought about buying it, but in the end I never did.  Don’t know why exactly.  Probably had something to do with my life as an ascetic (i.e., the period when I swore off buying books ‘cos I had too damn many).  But asceticism be damned!  In the case of World War Z, I should have broken my vow.

In many ways, you could say that Max Brooks revitalized a stagnant genre (or sub-genre, really).  I know the purists are probably going to burn me in effigy for saying that, but hear me out.  His 2003 tongue-in-cheek How-To book, The Zombie Survival Guide was published at a time when zombie media was at lull.  I mean, can any of you remember any films featuring zombies that came out during the 90s?  And I’m not talking about B-movie dogshit like Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town or Hot Wax Zombies on Wheels.  I mean movies that real people have actually seen and didn’t go straight to DVD.  I know I can’t think of one.  But since about 2004/2005 onward?  You can’t sling a (un)dead cat without hitting some sort of zombie-related media. 

Of course, there were diehard zombie fans before that point (a fact I take great pains to make clear, as I can already hear the deadheads moaning and shuffling toward me en masse).  But until that point, zombies were mostly the stuff of B-movie legend.  Zombie literature certainly hadn’t made a big splash, and you never heard about zombie walks or even zombie runs (there was a 5K called the Zombie Outrun in my town not too long ago, and I was freaking pissed that I only heard about after the registration period had ended).   So even if you don’t want to say Brooks kickstarted a dead genre, you can’t argue with the fact that the tidal wave of Zombie-everything was built off the ripples made by his subtle little satire.

Similarly, Brooks uses the world-building already laid down in The Zombie Survival Guide (tactics, causation, zombie biology, etc.) as the foundation for the cloud-scraping edifice that is World War Z.  The premise is fairly simply—though, the execution is anything.  Ain’t that always the way of it?  Rather than taking a micro-view (if that’s even a real term) of the rise of the walking dead, as is usually the case in most zombie-related media, Brooks instead takes a macro-view.  That is to say, he looks at the big picture.  How will people across multiple countries and ethnicities react when the undead hordes rise and lay waste to the populace?  When conventional means of making war fail, how will governments adapt to ensure their own survival?  What sacrifices will have to be made?  At the time, it was a totally revolutionary way of approaching the zombie.  To my knowledge, there still hasn’t been another work that has examined the subject on a similarly grand scale.  

And if you happen to know of one that I don’t, well you can just go pound sand.  Freakin' know-it-all.

Max Brooks
World War Z is told from the perspective of a journalist affiliated with the UN who sets out to interview people from various countries and socioeconomic backgrounds to document the shared experiences of the zombie war.  Using this technique of faux interviews (almost an epistolary novel, really), Brooks is able to depict the wide-ranging scope of the war as well as the individual, humanistic side and the personal stories of those touched by the war.  He was able to get the best of both worlds in that regard.  And he really did run the gamut with the personalities interviewed—from Palestinian refugees to front-line grunts to handicapped sculptors to the Vice President of the U S of A.  They provide both a wide range of experiences and depth in character development.  Honestly, the story couldn't have been told as well any other way.  So bravo to Mr. Brooks on that account.

The “interviews” are arranged in chronological order according to the progression of the zombie war.  It starts out in China with “Patient Zero.”  The communist government suppresses information about the outbreak, and it quickly spreads to surrounding countries in Asia, and then globally.  With the prevalence of international air travel and lack of knowledge about the disease, it happens with frightening rapidity.  Most of the book focuses on the U.S.—mostly because Brooks is American, and America is the most important country ever.  Doesn’t everyone know that? 

Brooks put an impressive amount of thought into the book, using geography, culture, history, and even psychology to come up with plausible scenarios of how peoples and nations would react when faced with such a crisis.  Being an American (and, as I mentioned before, seeing how America is the most important country ever.  Freaking ever), I found the strategy devised by the U.S. government to be quite interesting.  The intelligence and utter callousness of their tactics were frighteningly plausible.  I’ll refrain from going into detail about it.  Wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise, right?  Also, anything you’d ever want to know is already available on Wikipedia, thankyouverymuch.  But I will say that you could write an entire paper on this book based solely on the decisions made by governments in nation-threatening crises and the morality, necessity, and equability of such actions.  That is, if you were a recovering rabid English major like someone we know (*coughnotmecough*).

My only complaint?  The reason why I didn’t give it a full five stars in the face of such glowing praise?  I “read” this one as an audio book, and the only version available was abridged. 

F***ing abridged!  Want to know how that makes me feel? 


 Yeah, something like that.  Except with more impotent rage.  And a shattered CD walkman at my feet (until recently, I didn’t even know they still made those).  So yeah, the abridged version cut out more than 50% of the book in favor of a full cast of professional voice actors.  They got the likes of Mark Hamill, Alan Alda, Rob Reiner, John Turturro, and the illustrious Henry Rollins (who will still punch you in the damned mouth if you give him any lip).  Max Brooks even plays himself as the narrating journalist in the story.  All of that is well and good—and truthfully quite impressive, especially considering World War Z is still genre fiction at its core—but I’d rather have the full load of squicky zombie fun dumped on my head sans voice acting than have a bunch of big-name Hollywood stars read to me only half of said squicky zombie fun.  You dig?

Though, it looks like I’m not the only interwebs troll to bitch about this little foible.  And low and behold, all that bellyaching actually made something happen.  According to Max Brooks’ website, Random House has finally agreed to begin production on an unabridged version with a full voice cast with all the characters.  When it comes out (whatever God-forsaken future eon that happens to be), I might have to browbeat my library into buying a copy.

Or, y’know, I could just read the damn book.  There’s that, too.





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About the Reviewer:  He makes a living in the world of corporate IT, but he gets his jollies through the nirvana of armchair literary criticism. Blame it on a liberal arts education and liberal quantities of whiskey. It's a dangerous combination, one that has resulted in a blog called I Read a Book Once, where Jonathan can express his cantankerous inner literary critic to the fullest extent. When not reading, writing, or getting his geek on (i.e. working), he mostly hunkers down in the bunker with his redhot smokin' wife and tries to survive the hurricane that is his half-crazed toddler.

17 comments:

  1. I haven't read it yet either though it has been on my radar. Definitely reading the book though, not going for abridged. pshhh, what kind of english major were you anyway, picking up abridged. That is sacrilege, kryptonite, anathema - utter BS in other words - lovely review though.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Elisa. Yeah, I dishonored my clan. I'll have to die by ritual disembowelment if I commit such a sin again.

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  2. They make walkmans still, no way. I have this book, have yet to read it. Really want to though. Lucky mine is a print copy so no abrided ha ha

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, you need to read it. Right freaking now.

      And don't rub it in. :P

      Delete
  3. I still haven't read this book for some reason. I read the Zombie Survival Guide years ago, but never got around to reading this one. I'm going to have to check this out now! Thanks for the review!

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    1. No problem, Ruben. Glad I could point you in the direction of another good one!

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  4. I'm glad to hear you liked it. I got this as a gift for someone, but I hadn't read it yet so I was nervous. But I trust your reviews. I was seeing a movie and the preview for this film adaption showed. The movie looks pretty good, but I think I'll still read this first because the way it's set up sounds like it would be more interesting in print. And I don't really like books on tape. Were the voices at least good?

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    1. Yeah, isn't Brad Pitt supposed to be in that movie? That's weird to me--Brad Pitt in a zombie movie.

      And yes, the voices were really good. Top notch, really. Whenever you have a full cast like that, it's bound to be better than someone just reading the book to you. There were some real A-list screen actors on there.

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  5. I strongly urge you to read the actually unabridged book. It's really that good.

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    1. That's the vibe I've been picking up on. I'm going to have to break down and do it.

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