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January 26th, 2010


10:41 pm - Zack Attack
Zombies are totally in right now, and I believe a large part of that is because of one Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, the two New York Times bestsellers that helped kick off the current zombie craze, as far as I know.

The Zombie Survival Guide, despite being classified under Humor, is not very funny. It is quite serious. Impressively serious. Brooks conjures up a world where zombies have been around for centuries, a product of the Solanum virus (Seanan says the virology is "bog awful," but I don't care). In the first section, he lays out the rules of his conception of zombies and how it differs from the Hollywood depiction and the original voodoo zombie. He spends pages detailing zombie physiology. At times, you can detect the presence of a tongue placed firmly in a cheek, but most of the time, there is no joke: Brooks fully commits to his conceit.

This is a survival guide, though. After describing the adversary, he devotes a chapter to weaponry, pointing out the advantages and disadvantages of various firearms and melee weapons. The most obvious and convenient weapons are not always the best! For instance, a machine gun may make you feel like you're an unstoppable killing machine, but it's an inefficient device against an enemy that requires head shots. And it could be more trouble than it's worth, since you may just create a swarm of limbless, writhing ghouls that are now out of your sight. Weapons, gear, armor—Brooks covers it all. He asks a bit much of his readers, however; his recommended gear is quite extensive and not always easily obtainable. (He also thinks a bit much of his readers, expecting them to seriously consider plate armor as a defense measure.)

After the preparation, Brooks gives meticulous advice for the following four scenarios: On the Defense, On the Run, On the Attack, and Living in an Undead World. He describes how best to react to each situation and then how to adapt. Terrain, vehicles, fortifications, and battle strategies are all covered. As always, extensive preparation is the best defense against a zombie outbreak; Brooks outlines a plan that should go into effect years before it becomes necessary to implement fully. Brooks is extremely thorough in his assessment of zombie outbreaks, and I love that he always factors in the human element. Certain actions should be avoided not because of any danger from zombies but because of danger from your fellow humans who have not read the Guide and are acting erratically. Also, there will be brigands.

Finally, Brooks details a series of Recorded Attacks, the earliest of which occurred in 60,000 B.C. This section is the most intriguing and interesting, of course, especially because it's sort of a taste of what you're expecting from World War Z. Some of his alternate-history takes are rather creepy and clever (you better believe Roanoke is included). I enjoyed the historical account of the progression of human-zombie relations and knowledge, the focus on identifying the first zombie hunter and the milestones involved in determining the nature of the Solanum virus.

The Zombie Survival Guide is a very good, very well thought-out book, and it provides a good background for an even better, even more thought-out book.

The first ten pages of World War Z are better than anything in The Zombie Survival Guide. This book is told as a series of first-person accounts collected by the author. We hear from the Chinese doctor who discovers Patient Zero. An Israeli spy who helps first identify the worldwide outbreaks and attempts to curb the epidemic. A Russian soldier who is horrified at the lengths the military will go to to ensure humanity's survival. A Japanese otaku who manages to survive in a Kyoto high-rise all by himself. A Hollywood filmmaker who creates propaganda films to lift people's spirits. A Cuban banker who reflects on his island country's ability to withstand the zombie hordes in comparison to the rest of the world.

World War Z lives up to its title. It is a book about the world and its different cultures and peoples, how we all have different responses to conflicts. It is a book about war and how all the rules go out the window when you're fighting the undead, how desperate times call for desperate measures. It is a book about zombies and how they are a terrifying foe because they don't think, they don't see reason, they don't have strategies, they don't plan, they just keep coming and coming and coming. There is not a trace of the sly wink-wink sometimes present in The Zombie Survival Guide; this is a straight-up horror/war novel about the Zombie War. Some stories are truly chilling.

Many of the accounts could function as stand-alone short stories, like that of the aforementioned otaku or the tale of a downed Air Force pilot trying to survive in the wilderness with the help of a woman on the other end of her radio. Some accounts are not so much about the narratives but about the worldbuilding, like the various testimonies from soldiers in special units. Since it is a war book, the majority of the people interviewed are in the military, so we see the war mostly through their eyes, but we get a healthy dose of perspective from civilians as well.

The book starts to lose some steam three-quarters of the way through, as it becomes a little repetitive and redundant and repetitive and redundant, but it does pick up a little. It does suffer from not having a clear narrative throughline with a definite climax, so you spend the last fifty or so pages wondering if you're in the falling action or the denouement, and if the latter, man, this is a really long denouement. That's the nature of the structure, though, and I kind of have to respect Brooks for not attempting to fit his story into an artificial narrative construct. It feels far more realistic this way.

World War Z is an impressive achievement in many ways. Brooks clearly did extensive research on the countries he writes about, as well as the militaries. It's also very well written; the dozens of characters, while they may not all be distinct and memorable, feel like real people, and when they get a little poetic, it's natural and not overwrought, the words of a survivor, of a person who's seen horrible things and lived to tell about it. The whole book feels eerily real, like maybe it all really did happen and someone just erased it from the timeline. Besides the zombies, it doesn't seem that far-fetched.
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