February 11, 2013

World War Z

I like zombie stories, but I like them in a specific way. I'm not into monsters in general, and I don't especially care about action sequences in which humans fight the zombie horde. My interest in zombies is all about my fascination with and terror of epidemic diseases.

From my perspective, a good zombie story focuses on the science of how the zombie disease spreads and the sociology of how humanity responds. Mira Grant's NEWSFLESH trilogy pays a lot of attention to these topics, and that's why I was absorbed by the story despite my complaints about the writing. ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead doesn't have much science in it, but it's heavy on the societal response, so I found it a satisfying read.

As soon as I started reading WORLD WAR Z by Max Brooks, I could tell it was going to be exactly what I wanted from a zombie story. I suppose there were plenty of tense action scenes in which people fled from zombies or armies faced down the approaching horde. But this book is almost all epidemiology and sociology. It starts with a physician's account of a local Patient Zero and continues with stories of how different governments around the world react to the growing threat.

The novel, which is subtitled "An Oral History of the Zombie War," is presented as an organized collection of transcribed oral accounts chronicling the epidemic and war. Because of this format, the story doesn't have any main or frequently recurring characters, other than the almost invisible reporter who conducts the interviews. Writing a novel in which each character only appears for five or so pages is a major dramatic challenge, but Brooks pulls it off well. Every speaker has a strong, specific voice that's perfect for their background, and each detailed experience comes at the right time to answer the reader's questions about what happens next.

Brooks clearly did substantial research for this book and spent a lot of time imagining how events might play out. The story is packed with both explicit and subtle examples of what the zombie war does to society. The political ramifications are huge, leading to changes in the world's map and balance of power. Most of these repercussions never would have occurred to me, but it all feels utterly believable.

WORLD WAR Z is a gripping read and a well-considered, plausible look at how a disease spreads and the effect it has on the world. I highly recommend it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ My blog buddy Christopher Gronlund, a regular commenter here, has launched a new podcast with fellow writer Shawn Kupfer. The first episode of Men in Gorilla Suits is great and is all about growing up geeky. (Future episodes may have a writing focus.)

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