What would happen to our society if the horrors of so many movies were to become reality and the rotting corpses of the dead began to roam the Earth, hungry for living flesh? Who knows? Max Brooks does, apparently. But wait, don’t stop reading, this book really isn’t all about zombies, it’s much, much more intelligent than that.
Set decades after the first outbreak of the walking dead, the book is presented in the form of a series of interviews conducted by a UN investigator after the end of “The War”, as humanity rebuilds the world. The narrator is largely silent, allowing the story to develop through the tales told by the characters being interviewed, only interjecting as required to draw out confirmatory points to their testimony. This mechanism for story telling is very cleverly used and the way Brooks personalises the crisis with the experiences and emotions of the interviewees makes it hard to believe that they were written by just one man.
The interviews cover all aspects of the two-decade crisis, starting with the first cases of a undead attacks, and the denial, fear and confusion that such an unfathomable incident would breed, through to ”The Great Panic”, when the world realised the magnitude of the threat facing it and, ultimately, to the post-apocalyptic fight back, or World War Z. The book is essentially a horror book, but not in the sense that you may initially assume of a zombie novel. The author doesn’t try and scare with gore or stomach wrenching descriptions of rotting corpses, although they are there; What Brooks does so well in the book is to horrify the reader by presenting the rapid deterioration of world society in the face of an unpredictable and massive change in the accepted order of things. Suddenly modern warfare is rendered useless in the face of an enemy that cannot be beaten with bombs or incendiary devices. Wild shooting and sheer force of firepower are impotent in the face of an enemy who can only be stopped by the destruction of the brain and whose numbers swell as yours fall.
The interviews span the globe and the social spectrum to give a wide back-story. Although not directly referencing one another, often-small snippets of information produced by one interviewee will add depth to another’s comments in a very subtle and intelligent way. Brooks doesn’t make the mistake of leading his reader by the nose and employs a modicum of restraint allowing his reader to work out some of the plot twists themselves and then not actually explaining them. A new world order is revealed as the story rolls on, with countries like Russia reverting to a Holy Empire and well placed Island nations like Cuba becoming the global economic and industrial powerhouse in the post-war world. What is most astonishing about the unrecognisable world Brooks describes is that, through his narrative, it is completely feasible.
Humanity is forced to use greener methods of transport and power generation, as so much of the population is wiped out the survivors cannot consume oil and other resources at pre-war rates. The fall-out from nuclear weapons used at the start of the war causes long, cold winters and the environment in general has suffered badly by the actions of mankind. What is hinted at throughout the book is that all of this serves as a warning of what may happen to our social order if we continue to consume at the levels we do now, and this is the genius and the true horror of the book: the idea that the world he describes is something our children may inherit, even without the zombies’ help. It is for that reason above all that I say that this book is more than just a zombie novel; it is a very intelligent social commentary that, sadly, may well be overlooked by many due to its genre.