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Book Review: World War Z (2006)

This book has the same title as the movie version starring Brad Pitt. Oh, and the main character in the novel, the one who records the oral histories, is a U.N. employee. And that's it for similarities between book and movie.

World War Z is a good example of the differences in storytelling mediums. The written version draws its power from the first-person narratives provided by the interview subjects from all over the world: China, Ukraine, South Africa, Japan, the US, etc. The premise of the book is that the zombie war is over. Twelve years have passed since humanity earned a meaningful victory over the undead hordes. The main character, like a good historian, presents the perspectives of the people who survived the war, or profited from it, or contributed to its resolution. There's a doctor, hibakusha (survivor of the nuclear bomb), mercenary, soldiers, divers, and ordinary citizens. Everyone has a story to tell.

The book is divided into chapters that chronicle the first outbreaks and initial responses; describe humanity fighting back; and show the consequences of the decade-long war. Each chapter contains many short accounts by the in-book interviewees. The passages are deeply personal but also touch on the wider themes of short-sightedness, mass panic, reserves of strength, government limitations, military technology, and isolation. Globalization also plays a key role: the pandemic spreads because of the black market, and because of infected refugees crossing distant borders.

Author Max Brooks focuses on the human element: the narrators ask sensible questions about the zombies -- why do they reanimate after freezing, how can they withstand oceanic pressure, and so on -- but those questions are not answered in the book. They're not the point. The point is how people everywhere reacted without having any of the answers. Brooks gets a lot of cultural elements in as well, like how a Palestinian thinks Israel's quarantine is a Zionist plot, and how the US was overconfident about its ability to suppress any threat.

Fans of this book probably have their favorite anecdotes. For me, it's a coin toss between the old blind warrior in Japan (a Zatoichi shout-out?) and the Air Force pilot who finds her way to an extraction point after her plane crashes. There's also a terrific scene where a suburban housewife finds a zombie trying to eat her daughter, and hulks out and just rips it head off. Hell yeah.

Eventually, the enemy gets driven back, at huge cost. It's a harrowing, moving journey, and well worth the read. Now I know what to do when the zombies come for me: enlist so I can get inside a tank.

Happy Monday, all!

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