Max Brooks’ previous book was The Zombie Survival Guide. It is written in the format of a volume in the “Worst Case Survival Guide” series, and at first glance it looks like a humorous parody of those works. But it is isn’t: the authorial persona lives in a world where zombies have appeared throughout history, but where their incidence is on the rise. He fears that we are on the brink of a global outbreak, that governments are suppressing reports for fear of mass panic, and The Zombie Survival Guide is a very serious look at how to make it through such a situation alive.
In World War Z, the worst has happened. There was a zombie pandemic, and mankind teetered on the brink of extinction. But we fought back, and slowly, and at great cost, reclaimed the planet.
It would be easy to set a zombie thriller in such a world. But Brooks doesn’t take the easy route. The authorial persona here is a researcher who helped compile the United Nations’ Postware Commission Report, but who was disappointed by the Commission’s decision to strip the report to the bare facts and figures. The book’s subtitle is “An Oral History of the Zombie War”, and that’s what it is: a selection of transcribed interviews with people who survived. Some of them are key figures, political and military. Some of them are just ordinary people, who somehow managed to find their way through the horror.
They are not exciting stories about heroic deeds – they are painful memories of people shattered and scarred by a war they initially didn’t understand, and later thought they could not win. The traditional military apparatus does not work, and conventional strategies leave battalions of soldiers open to an enemy that does not care about–or even always react to–being shot or blown up. The tide is eventually turned by people thinking outside the box, often with cold dispassion bordering on cruelty. But what effects do those decisions have on the people who have to make them, and what kind of a world do they leave in their wake?
As well as overflowing with well-rounded characters, the book is also full of details about places and procedures. It feels gritty and factual, stripped clean of cinematic polish and traditional zombie tropes. All you have are real people, facing doom on the deserted streets of the places they called home. But in the end–we win. It’s harrowing and uplifting. And it’s as much of a milestone in the literary horror genre as Shaun of the Dead was in the cinema. A real masterpiece.