Review of World War Z by Max Brooks

I just finished reading the excellent The Hatching (out today) yesterday.  I hope to have a review up soon.  But really, don’t wait.  The Hatching is phenomenal and you should buy it today.  It reminds me of, but is superior to, both The Stand by Stephen King and World War Z by Max Brooks.  I reviewed The Stand two weeks ago.  My review of World War Z is below.

World War Z is a different kind of zombie novel. Instead of telling a story in a traditional narrative, Brooks has structured the book as a faux oral history (of the zombie apocalypse, also known as World War Z, amongst other names) in the vein of the works of journalist Studs Terkel. That is, each chapter of the book is ostensibly the edited transcript of an interview, with the narrator occasionally piping in to ask a question.

The rather narrow sub-genre of zombie apocalypse novels tends to suffer from a lack of originality, so World War Z is a breath of fresh air. The chosen conceit works, and it allows the author to explore questions seldom addressed in traditional zombie novels, for example, how a communist regime would react to a zombie infestation (if a communist regime is better suited than a democratic one for anything, it is the disposal of dead bodies) or how a retooled military would win back an “occupied” America.

World War Z cover

The book is structured chronologically, while the interviews jump between locations and interviewees. The interviews cover the zombie war from early on in the outbreaks that eventually spread worldwide to efforts to root out remaining pockets of zombies after the war has been won. A few of the countries covered include the U.S., China, Brazil, and Israel. Soldiers, politicians, and regular citizens are all interviewed.

Brooks is generally quite effective at maintaining the requisite subtlety for effective satire. The sole exception is organized religion; it is shown in a uniformly negative light that rings untrue. The social and political commentary is otherwise incisive (your mileage may vary, but good satire still works even if you do not agree with the point being made). Part of the fun is trying to parse out the “real” story from the biases and misconceptions of the various interviewees and the interviewer, none of whom can be regarded as reliable.

There is a high payoff for educated and current readers. For example, 1984 is alluded to and two politicians are never named but have uncanny similarities to Howard Dean and Colin Powell, respectively. A lot of the humor springs from the actions of these unnamed characters viewed in light of who they are actually intended to represent.

Unfortunately, the format saps the book of the action and tension a book like this really needs. And it suffers from the basic problem of sketching out an apocalypse by slow zombies that only create more zombies directly by biting, etc.: how could that ever possibly become a worldwide apocalypse (Brooks rather incredibly asserts the zombies are somehow not susceptible to modern ordinance)? But overall, World War Z is a welcome addition to the speculative fiction tradition of examining the outer bounds of human nature.

4/5 Stars.

About H.P.

Blogs on books at Every Day Should Be Tuesday (speculative fiction) and Hillbilly Highways (country noir and nonfiction).
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Horror and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Review of World War Z by Max Brooks

  1. MishaBurnett says:

    I had a problem with the politics in this book. The only positive characters are strongly statist. Every individualist and every capitalist is, in some way, a villain. Even those that aren’t actively evil are seen as hampering the government’s efforts. While a lot of the interviews are very well done, I got tired of being preached to long before I finished it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • H.P. says:

      If I had originally written this review for the blog instead of for Amazon I probably would have gone on about that at length. There is a lot of stuff rooted more in Brooks’ politics than in any any sensible projection. Fingering Cuba as being singularly effective in response? Either Brooks has an overly rosy view of Cuba or subscribes to the admittedly common misconception that authoritarian regimes can more effectively respond quickly and firmly.

      He may be a statist, but he takes a dim view of the military. Which is almost backwards. Basically the only thing government can really do well is kill people. And I don’t care how the blood flows, or how misguided our tactics are–a modern military can blow pretty much anything, including zombies, into little bits pretty easily.

      What bugged me was the treatment of religion. Brooks criticisms of the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state and of orthodox Jews in Israel are fair, but EVERY religious figure or institution is unfailingly a villain.

      I’m conservative-libertarian and like fiction exploring those ideas, but I like fiction that goes the other way a lot more than some of my fellow travelers. Particularly when the work is at least in part satirical, like World War Z, or the genre calls for a sharp edge–as in cyberpunk, which I touched on in my review of CTRL-ALT-Revolt! or in noir, which I will touch on when I get a review up of The Dark Side, whose villains are all really ridiculous caricatures of conservatives, but in a way that works for the story and genre.


      • MishaBurnett says:

        I suppose that I am so used to religion bashing in speculative fiction that I hardly notice it any more. But I felt that he felt the need to twist every single narrative to show that only the government could handle the crisis and that people who tried to react on their own made things worse.

        I think that in most historic emergencies the people who take responsibility for saving themselves do a lot more good–both for themselves and their neighbors–than those who wait passively for the authorities to save them. So I found his slant to be hard to believe, which in turn made it difficult to maintain any feeling of real urgency.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah, World War Z is a fun novel, but it really has a kinda weird ‘Norman Rockwell with Machetes’ vibe to it. Because a Napoleonic infantry square with M1 garands is better at killing stuff than tanks and air support.

    Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed reading it, but it’s definitely a ‘fluff’ kind of book that doesn’t hold up much to scrutiny.

    Liked by 1 person

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