World War Z by Max Brooks
Not everyone realises at first that the full title of this book is World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. And so many people are surprised, and even disappointed, that the format of the book is set out exactly so: like an oral history. World War Z is written as a series of interviews with survivors from all over the world: soldiers, housewives, children, mercenaries, from India, America, China, Korea . . . The format really lends itself to the faux-factual tone of the book, and once you’ve accustomed yourself to reading a ‘history’ rather than a novel, you start to realise its brilliance.
Although the book is built from lots of seemingly disparate accounts, it is organised chronologically into rough chapters such as ‘Warnings’, ‘The Great Panic’ and ‘Turning the Tide’, all of which outline major stages of the war. Despite the fragmentary format World War Z ultimately still tells a story, and the various survivors’ accounts are arranged into a narrative with a distinctive beginning, middle and end. The chapters and accounts depict the course of the zombie war, from the initial outbreak and speculation over its cause, to the inevitable spread of the undead infection through the mediums of immigration and organ transplants, to the ‘Great Panic’ and mass evacuations, to the eventual reclaiming of the planet from the zombie infestation.
The oral accounts are told from many different perspectives and ‘voices’, and this paints a picture of how differently certain people and parts of the world were not only affected, but how they chose to deal with the situation, most of which are probably frighteningly accurate predictions. Many of the accounts focus on relaying the political and economic impact of the apocalypse on various nations, and some of these do occasionally become a little dry. However, they serve to add to the overall atmosphere of realism; and they’re often sandwiched between much more exciting accounts, the tone and content of which vary between horrific, hilarious and heart-wrenching. Some of the highlights are the retired handler from the army’s canine unit; the introverted teenager forced out of his cyberspace haven and into the harsh reality of a Japan overrun by undead; the plucky fighter pilot stranded in the heavily-infested Louisiana swamps and guided to safety by a mysteriously anonymous ‘Skywatcher’; and the Chinese crew of a nuclear submarine fighting to stay alive after spending years of the war on the bottom of the ocean. Each of the stories are unique, and Brooks has really excelled himself in imagining just how the apocalypse would affect different classes of people from literally all over the world.
While a lot of the fictional accounts are focused on the ‘facts’ of the war, they nonetheless create vivid images that stick in the mind. Like the few hundred army troops facing a million-strong zombie horde across a deserted plain to the soundtrack of Iron Maiden’s ‘The Trooper’; like the refugees sheltering in safety on beaches and tropical islands only to have shambling corpses emerge without warning from the sea; and like the French forces trapped in the catacombs beneath the city of Paris, with hardly any working torches or weapons, trying to stay ahead of an enemy they can barely even see in the dark, flooded tunnels. World War Z is terrifying, entertaining, and most of all, it will have you believing that the zombie apocalypse actually happened . . . or could happen . . .