Sunday, July 31, 2011

World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks

Basic premise:  The author of this "oral history" interviews survivors of an apocalyptic zombie pandemic.  An international collection of interviewees tell the story from the first signs of trouble through to the aftermath, a decade or more later.  (I can't recall exactly how long after "the war" the interviews take place.  Look, I have a hard enough time recalling dates from real life. (g))  Ok, I looked it up.  The interviews take place twelve years after the US declares victory over the zombies.  (Don't worry; that's not a spoiler.)

It's an interesting idea-- an attempt at telling a global horror story of epic proportions-- but the problem is, I have a limited tolerance for epics.

I enjoy the story presented in The Lord of the Rings, for instance, but a large-scale story can only take you (or me, at least) so far.  The seemingly endless sea of orcs massing before the battle?  That feeling of dread and enormity of obstacle?  ~Shudder~  But I prefer the more personal aspects of the stories.  If we didn't get to know and care about the individual characters, all the impressive scenes in the world wouldn't be enough to salvage the tale.

I feel that World War Z suffers from a lack of the personal touch.  Oh, I think Brooks tries, and sometimes he lets us stay with a character long enough to begin to care what happens to him or her-- but in the end, we know we'll be moving on to someone else's story in just a page or two.  I guess these characters are supposed to be representative of humanity as a whole  It's really the story of the human race.  It's big picture-- grand scale-- "we're all in this together".  It's not my cup of tea.  In this respect, this novel compares unfavorably (in my opinion) to The Day of the Triffids, which focused on the individual's approach to an apocalyptic event.  However, I should note that I haven't read many books of this kind.  Perhaps the individual's story is so often the focus that this "epic" style is a welcome breath of fresh air to genre fans.

Aside from the "epic" vs. "individual" aspect, my chief complaint is that the book too often feels quite political.  Again, Brooks is interested in presenting (his version of) the big picture.  We hear about governments around the world and how they react to a zombie outbreak. (Most often-- poorly, inadequately.)  Religion, when mentioned at all, features (mostly) unfavorably in the book, as far as I can recall.  (That's one of my pet peeves in this type of story.  Yes, there are always people who use false religion to take advantage of the weak and the frightened.  We get it.  You're not being shocking or telling us anything new, at this point.  Can we please have a positive treatment of Christianity every once in a while?   Either that or resist the urge to mention it at all.)  Immigration and "class" also come up, and most of the "issues" are addressed from the left.  (Of course.)  It gets old.  Fast.  (That's not to say that there are no more neutral treatments of "issues".  They just seemed outweighed by a ton.)

Oh, and this is a highly subjective complaint, but I was disappointed that the book didn't go into much detail about what happened in most regions of the US-- the South, for instance.  It's hard to include every region when you're trying to cover the whole world, I guess.  Still, I kept hoping... (I also would've loved to have seen more of a reference to Sweden, but I didn't even really expect that to happen.)  Heck, I would've been happy to get some serious, in-depth detail on what happened anywhere, but this book's not big on "in-depth".  You get an interview's worth of detail.  For the rest, I hope you like filling in the blanks with your imagination.  ;o)

One more little thing:  All that jargon!  I guess it was supposed to lend the characters an air of legitimacy-- "See? This really is a military dude from a post-apocalyptic world.  You can tell by the way he keeps using the military jargon and acronyms of that world!"-- but it was laid on a little too thick.  (Could've done with less cursing, too, in some cases.  Seriously, when every other word's a curse, your character loses some appeal.)

All that said, parts of the story were good enough-- and I still think it was an interesting idea.  I've heard that it's being made into a movie, which isn't surprising.  Honestly, several scenes felt like they were written with film adaptation in mind.  Almost too much so.  They took me out of the story (such as it was), because I couldn't help thinking, "Oh, yeah, they'll lift that right off the page, for sure," and, "Well, we know how they'll film that scene.  It was written for the camera."

One common criticism of World War Z is that everyone-- no matter what sex, nationality, race, or what-have-you-- has the same "voice".  They're all written like the same person.  Personally, I felt there was at least a little variation... but I agree that there could have been more.  At least with the movie adaption, that should be less of an issue.

If you're a true zombie aficionado, it might be worth a read-- for the fresh approach, if nothing else.  Just don't be surprised if you find the pace sluggish-- interesting portions mixed in among the less engaging "interviews", and no way of knowing which type is coming up next.  A page-turner needs to stick with the same handful of characters throughout the story, in my opinion, something this book obviously could not do.  So, if you're not a zombie aficionado... I think you might as well just wait for the movie (if even that).  I had to make myself keep reading (through the boredom), at several points, in hopes that it would get better (and later, out of sheer obstinacy), and I don't plan to read it again.  

I believe this has turned me off from zombies for a while.  I think I'm going for gothic fiction next.