Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Books: Better dead than red?
When I was a kid the survivalist fantasy of choice was "Commie invasion." Fueled in part by the right-wing wet dream that was Red Dawn, me and my youthful amigos were convinced that, at any moment, we might be required to raid a sporting goods store, flee into the woods, and fend of the advancing tide of the advancing tide of Commie with good old American know-how and shotguns. Ignoring the taint of Reagan-Era paranoia, the scenario had a real Huck Finn quailty to it. It was all about leaving the current, comprosmised world behind, living off you own hidden (but always there) resources, and creating something new that's all the truer for its isolation. This is its appeal. It is an escape fantasy that diguises the morally questionable act of running away with the narrative trick of making the flight required and out of our hands. We want the humdrum work-a-day world stripped away and replaced by a world were every action is essential and each and every day is crucial. The world has meaning again because, at square one, what we must do is perfectly clear and the stakes are always total.
This same heroic survivalist spirit - but with zombies instead of Commies - is at the core of Max Brooks's World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. A fictional work of oral history covering a global-scale zombie infestation, Brooks's work is a flight fantasy played out on an epic scale. In Brooks's novel, the infestation starts with "Patient Zero," a young Chinese boy who gets zombified and infects a handful of other villagers. The Chinese government swiftly destroys Patient Zero (so swiftly, in fact, that the hint is given that PZ is not actually the first zombie) and covers it up. The Chinese government's efforts to suppress the spread of zombie menace are, of course, ineffective and, before you mumble out that you crave brains, zombies are popping up all over the globe. Through the first person narratives of dozens of characters, the novel charts the rise of the zombie hordes, the decline of civilization, the human counter-offensive, and the slow climb back to a living-dominated globe. We see some countries completely collapse under the strain (North Korea) while others develop in predictable (China goes democratic - don't tell Guns 'N' Roses) or unexpected ways (Russia becomes a theocratic czarist nation). We see the developing war from the eyes of housewives and generals, doctors and priests, footsoldiers and lost children. Brooks even takes time to tell us what happened to the astronauts stranded on the International Space Station.
World War Z is an interesting hybrid of a book. The oral history approach is novel and Max Brooks, whose previous book was the underwhelming Zombie Survival Guide, proves that he has the writing chops to develop distinct voices for his many different speakers. Brooks is also adept at creating arresting images and scenes. However, the format also has some crucial drawbacks. First and foremost, some of the suspense of the book is undermined by the fact that you know not only do the individual interviewees survive, but that humanity wins out in the end. Part of the framing device is that Brooks (playing himself, so to speak) gathered these interviews as part of a UN fact-finding mission. Before you've gotten out of the introduction, you know that the zombie menace was pretty much completely wiped out. The second element which somewhat undermines the sustained menace is the fact that the interview-by-interview structure makes the while thing feel like a collection of short stories rather than a novel. This impression is all the strong for the fact that some interviewee's tales are so much more detailed, powerful, and exciting than the stories of other interviewees. Finally, because every interviewee speaks in a realistically average speaking voice, the verbal artistry necessary to create the proper mood and tone of terror is strangely lacking. Like reading the eyewitness reports of any disaster, it is the scope of events and not the retelling that evokes a response. Since none of us has even indirect experience with fighting the living dead, the emotional register of the book is often oddly flat.
Another unusual element of the book is Brooks's interest in all matters military. Brooks's interest is almost exclusively focuses on the military response to the zombie menace. After giving us a few stories from the panicked populace at the beginning of the zombie take-over, the book becomes increasingly about the armed forces and the war. In a way, World War Z more properly belongs to the subgenre of war sci-fi than it does the genre of horror fiction.
These issues aside, however, Brooks has likely set the bar for depicting the "zombie world" scenario. The scope of what Brooks depicts is so massive and so thought out that one suspects this novel will become one of those seminal works that inspires others create work within the world it envisions. You can imagine future works containing zombies that are "Brooksian" or containing soldiers who refer to zombies as "Zack" (the way Germans became Fritz or the North Vietnamese became Charlie). In this, Brooks approaches the world-building fiction of Lovecraft, an author who, though completely dissimilar in style, also built a sort of "creative world" for others to inhabit. In this aspect, for the zombie fan and anybody else not yet zombied-out, Brooks's novel is likely to be essential reading in the same way Romero's Dead Series is essential viewing.