“World War Z” – Was the Book Better?

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I am sick of zombies. They’re everywhere in pop culture, and I’m exhausted by the living dead. There are so many variations and stupid names for them, too: Walkers, clickers, groaners, hungries, zoms, fleshies, and so many more. It’s all asinine semantics to describe the exact same thing- good old-fashioned zombies. A lot of the fatigue can probably be traced back to the TV Series “The Walking Dead”, and video games.

The TV Series, being about a rag-tag group of survivors trying to survive in a world infested with zombies, is just every modern zombie trend fused together. Video games, meanwhile, use zombies as blatantly evil cannon fodder that Players don’t have to feel bad about killing ad nauseam. Heck, you can even find online poker games themed around zombies!

“World War Z” surprised me by being different. While there’s nothing particularly unique about the zombie part of the story, it’s how the story’s executed that makes all the difference. From its tone to its presentation to a surprisingly involved level of geopolitical understanding, and even some clairvoyant parallels to Covid, World War Z sets itself apart by being incredibly methodical with its worldbuilding. So lets’ break down exactly how it does that.

Premise

The first thing that struck me about World War Z is that there’s no central protagonist- like, at all. The story is told retrospectively through a series of transcribed interviews with the survivors from about ten to fifteen years after the Zombie apocalypse. You can’t even call the interviewer the main character, as he remains some nameless government bureaucrat who was tasked with taking a report of the total losses of the apocalypse, and when the government rejected the report as not being factual enough, he himself compiled the interviews into a book to be published.

So right off the bat, this setup makes “World War Z” different from every other novel I’ve ever read. It’s more like a TV documentary than a novel. The question is, does this plot device work, or is it just a gimmick?

To tell the truth, I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it allows Max Brooks to cover a global-scale story that actually feels like it. Jumping to a new character and their story of what they did or how they endured gives the entire story a very gritty, very grounded feeling like watching a Holocaust documentary. I know that comparing a book to the experience of “holocaust “documentary” isn’t usually considered a compliment, but I mean it as such here.

This ties directly into the “horror” of the novel. Most zombie stories build their horror on the cliché stuff- lots of blood, gore, and every other gross and perverted thing the author could imagine. World War Z is surprisingly tame on those fronts and derives its horror from the absolute devastation left in the apocalypse’s wake. At times, I felt like I was a student again, reading Eli Wiesel’s “Night” or Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken”. It’s a kind of horror that didn’t exactly leave me awake at night but is very believable and absorbing as a narrative.

However, the story told as collected interviews method does have one big downside: The lack of a central protagonist. Almost every other story feature the main character or the main cast of characters that the story is told around, and the reader will grow attached to them and be concerned for them. The lack of any such character is an immediate barrier to the kind of emotional connection to the story you would otherwise get, even in a story with a large cast of characters like Game of Thrones. By the very nature of the premise, every character is going to survive until the end.

And you know the most telling thing? I can’t remember the name of any of the characters.

The Zombies

What “World War Z” does special with zombies is… to do nothing special with zombies. Max Brooke sets up a few hard rules for how the zombies operate and extrapolates from there. He’s consistent with those rules too, which is a breath of fresh air in the world of pop-zombies that live by the “rule of cool” more often than not. Specifically:

  • Zombies can ONLY be killed by destroying the brain
  • The infection can ONLY spread from bites or from diseased material entering the bloodstream
  • The zombies DO rot away, but very slowly
  • The zombies freeze completely in the cold but thaw in heat and survive this process
  • Zombies are attracted to noise
  • Zombies are slow

In other words, these are pretty normal as far as Zombies go. The ruleset is just solidified and consistent in a way that most Zombie stories just aren’t. For instance, “Resident Evil” has zombies, but bites don’t guarantee infection (for main characters, at least), and the zombies are dead but can be killed from torso shots, and… let’s just say that Resident Evil isn’t exactly known for its worldbuilding.

And despite the normalcy of these zombies, “World War Z” still makes them scary. He goes to great lengths to show how a force of unthinking, mindless zombies could overwhelm an organized military superpower like the United States. For instance, landmines seem like a great idea until your enemy has lost his legs but continues to crawl towards you anyway.

It’s an aspect of worldbuilding that a lot of zombie stories skip over and instead handwave how the zombies took over the world against the united efforts of every military power. Or they use “fast-Zombies”, “Tough-Zombies”, “Spitters”, or whatever variant the author stole from “Left 4 Dead”.

It’s cool to see zombies used in their iconic aesthetic but given enough additional thought and flavor to still be a serious threat.

Geopolitics

Whenever stories are set on any large scale, geopolitics have to come into play. Even if the setting doesn’t take itself 100% seriously, like Star Wars, there’s still a lot of fun, underlying political interplay involving the Outer-Rim, Alderaan, Courasant, and all the other made-up planets.

Factions, governments, and cultural differences become incredibly important when the scale of the plot is larger than just, say, city-sized (although even then, cities can be further broken down into the differences between boroughs, county jurisdictions, electors, etc.).

This becomes doubly important when writing a story set in the real world that’s supposed to be taken seriously. This is something that Hollywood gets wrong a lot. I’ve listened to soldiers talk about how they avoid certain types of action flicks because of just how poorly Hollywood screws up the little details regarding Military procedure – things like not flagging your buddies (ie: pointing your gun at them by accident), room-checks, and even how the guns are held.

Full disclaimer: I’m not a veteran. I’m taking the word of soldiers I’ve seen online for this. Along those lines, I can’t really give a 100% confident answer as to the representation of the military in “World War Z”. However, Max Brooks IS a Senior Fellow at West Point, so I assume his knowledge is pretty darn accurate.

can, however, validate a lot of the politics surrounding the military and the various geopolitical interplay. One of the big events in the book is a failed attempt by the military to retake New York. The operation is a complete disaster because the generals are too worried about regaining some good PR post-Iraq than actually defeating the Zombies.

The soldiers are put in a very public, terrible position, equipped with the latest and greatest weaponry – weapons that are completely ineffective against a horde that doesn’t need 99% of its body to still try and eat you. They also under-supplied the ammunition for the regular soldiers, who “weren’t supposed” to actually see any combat. It’s completely believable to me that Generals and politicians would throw common sense under the bus for PR.

The other thing that stuck out to me was Brooks’ representation of Israel. One of the first people to piece together that a Zombie apocalypse is about to break out is an Israeli Agent (presumably Mossad), who works with a CIA man to put together a comprehensive report that gets sent to both the US President and the Israeli Cabinet. The President ignores it. The Israelis start preparing.

Israel reasonably decides to retreat to the ’67 borders in order to have a tighter perimeter. Less reasonably, Israel decides to completely evacuate Jerusalem. I can both believe that the Israeli government is competent enough to take action during a crisis while being incompetent enough to make such a stupid mistake. First of all, the natural result is a civil war between the IDF and Israel’s religious right that refuses to give up the Holy City. Second, Jerusalem has to be one of the most fortified cities in the world. It’s situated on top of a hill and largely walled off already.

What’s more, the whole thing is told from the perspective of an Arab teenager whose family fled from Israel pre-1948 when Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia(?) promised the Arab population that they would destroy Israel and allow Arabs to return to the “stolen” land. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and that’s where a majority of the Palestinian refugees come from.

Anyway, so the Israeli government allows this Arab teen’s family is allowed to return because of their roots. They almost don’t because of how steeped in anti-Israel propaganda they are, but the boy’s father puts his foot down, and they go. The Arab teen eventually realizes that he knows nothing about Israelis and survives the apocalypse because his father made the right call to trust the “Zionist dogs”.

Honestly, I just wish there was more attention given to Israel, but that’s probably a personal bias. The civil war doesn’t really get resolved – it’s just kind of implied that everything eventually worked out for Israel in the end. For what it’s worth, though, “World War Z” shows a strong understanding of the Israeli-Arab conflict, which is more than I can say about Hollywood.

Conclusion

It’s kind of hard to recommend “World War Z”. It’s a novel that’s more about the plot than the story if that makes any sense. The documentary-like premise works excellently to cover a lot of events from a lot of different perspectives, but the lack of emotional investment in any single one of them makes it feel more like reading a history book rather than a gripping novel.

If there was a single word to describe this book, it’s “methodical”. It’s clear that Max Brooks put a lot of thought into just about every aspect of the apocalypse – from the ramifications of the standard Zombie abilities to the geopolitical ramifications of half the planet becoming mindless brain-eaters. There’s even a bit of clairvoyant foresight to Covid when the Zombie outbreak begins in China and is initially covered up to save face…

At times though, this level of thoroughness was tiring. Towards the end of the third act, once the Zombie threat was coming under control, there’s a chapter about divers dealing with underwater zombies that seems to just drag rather than being terrifying.

Oh yeah, there’s another big difference between “World War Z” and other Zombie stories: There’s a happy ending! Sort of. There’s no magical cure or MacGuffin resolution. Humanity just barely manages to come together and use what they’ve learned to take back planet Earth.

8 / 10 Perhaps the most Zombie-story of zombie stories that will surprise you by having more thought put into the idea than it probably deserves – and by being good. The lack of a central protagonist is a bit jarring, though.

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