World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

I’ll start with a disclaimer of sorts: I listened to the audiobook version of this book. I don’t know if listening and reading are now interchangeable with the popularity of audiobooks but I tend to use them the same. Reading is listening and listening is reading etc. (Though I would be curious to hear other peoples thoughts on the topic and if they prefer one over the other, if they miss stuff whilst listening or vice versa).

In any case, if I were to recommend a way to consume World War Z by Max Brooks, it would be through the medium of audiobook.

This book is incredible to listen to. The novel itself is mostly a series of interviews after the zombie apocalypse has been survived. The interviewer, Max Brooks, travels around the world and talks to people about their experience during the outbreak and the years following.

I’ll go through the first part of the novel with broad strokes, and I’m sure to everyone reading this it will sound familiar.

An outbreak occurs, it’s not taken seriously, it spreads, it still isn’t taken seriously, it spreads some more and there are a few countries that knuckle down (Israel is the most notable, they build a huge wall and lockdown their country almost immediately) and take the threat for what it is. There is more panic as it spreads but some of the largest countries are overconfident and, in the US especially, as it is an election year, the government does everything it can to avoid panic. There is vaccine denialism and faux remedies rife throughout the world. There are people profiting off the fears of others (one of the big points early on is the creation and distribution of a placebo vaccine called Phalanx).

It feels a bit on the nose at the moment doesn’t it?

The Zombie virus, originally known as African Rabies in the novel (part of the reason it wasn’t taken seriously by wealthy countries is that the outbreaks seemed to be contained within poorer nations), spreads and soon the world is living through what I’m sure everyone who is reading this has seen before, a Zombie fueled apocalypse.

I would argue that this is the best version of that story, however, purely due to the incredible detail and effort Max Brooks puts into his worldbuilding. The rules of the virus are consistent, the zombies are consistent, everything is thought out and the logic of the world is solid. The zombies don’t chase you down, they aren’t an army that’s coordinated or individuals with independent motivations. They are a virus and they move slowly, inexorably, and they wear you down. Exhaustion is the biggest enemy in this novel and it is better for it.

The format of the book perfect for the story it tells. Every story is through a human lens, and through these people from all different backgrounds, you get a full view of the Zombie apocalypse and at the same time a very personal one.

And the voice actors, wow, the voice actors. The entire cast, which is far too lengthy to post here, seems to put everything they have into their performances. There isn’t a single one that I can think of that sounds like they are phoning it in. Each story is brought to life in such a way that I fear reading the book may actually not do it justice like the audio version did. (I would love to hear from people who did read the physical copy though, and your thoughts!)

Max Brooks also uses World War Z as a message board that at times can feel heavy handed. The characters he creates and the story he weaves through their voices are generally critical of, particularly the US but not solely, governments and their complacency and tendency towards overconfidence. Brooks also makes a point of some very topical aspects of the human condition. Such as one character not believing the virus, pandemic, apocalypse, whatever you want to call it, as being real. Instead this character believes it is a hoax created by a hostile government. This type of commentary might be grating for some readers but I personally didn’t mind it as the story stands on its own.

It might feel like a bit much to read at the moment and that’s fair; we are currently living through a pandemic and perhaps being reminded of it in fiction is not what you want.

But if you do want a great, very fun tale written by someone with a deep respect for the mythology of zombies and attention to detail then this is the book for you. As I said at the start of this review, I’ve only listened to World War Z, and since that’s the case I can only recommend the audio version but I honestly can’t recommend it enough.

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