World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is a 2006 book by Max Brooks; a fictional follow-up to Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide.
BookReader reminds me: the book is deliberately patterned after Stud Terkel's The Good War which was a collection of interviews about the outbreak and progression of World War II.
The narrative itself is comprised of personal interviews the unnamed narrator (He isn’t named but it’s assumed to be Max Brooks) conducted with survivors and key public figures around the world a decade after the final “victory” was declared as part of a report he was tasked to do by the reconstituted UN. The official report was mostly made up of statistics of gains and losses from the roughly ten year war, but the narrator was urged to collect the more personal stories, which ultimately became the WWZ book.
Since the book is laid out as a series of interviews, there is no cohesive over arching plot beyond the escalation of how things went from bad to worse, to nightmarish, until humanity finally managed to pull itself up by the bootstraps and learned how to fight back.
The actual start date of the war, and initial outbreaks of zombies, is never specifically stated, just like the omission of names of real world public figures, celebrities, and in some cases countries and institutions. But from context clues in the early portions of the book, the first events were contemporary of real world late 90’s early 00’s. The first incidents happened in rural China where barely trained country doctors had no idea what they were dealing with. Adequate quarantine measures were not put in place quickly enough, and infection vectored out across the world unpredictably, due to people who were merely sick but hadn’t turned yet traveling abroad and through black market slavery and organ trade. This led to people who returned to their home countries infecting the population and stories like the one of a man who received a heart transplant from an infected donor. He immediately turned on the operating table and started attacking the doctors.
This isn’t to say that the plague was China’s fault. Rather it is a matter of the world refusing to believe in the possibility of the dead walking. Infections broke out around the world, and people didn’t believe or thought it would only happen in isolated pockets that could easily be dealt with. The world was not prepared in the least.
This was The Great Panic.
Israel was the first country to take the threat seriously. Their government announced that they were going to implement “voluntary quarantine”. They opened their borders for a short while to anyone who wanted in, as long as they weren’t sick, and then closed them and walled off their cities. Eventually, other countries began to realize how bad things were getting. In desperation, South Africa turned to a plan by a former apartheid official which included setting up safe zones for people to find safety without telling them that some of those areas were meant to be bait for the zombie horde in order to allow others to retreat. Iran and Pakistan wiped each other out in a nuclear war over refugees. Europe and North America lived for a while under the delusion that the placebo “Phalanx” granted immunity until it became too late. The USA put on what was supposed to be a media coup, but turned into the biggest FUBAR in military history, as high tech military gear and strategy became impotent bumbling against the entire infected population of New York during the Battle of Yonkers. You can’t “shock and awe” an enemy that feels no fear or pain. People retreated in droves to the wilderness of Canada because the zombies would freeze in winter, but they were disorganized and unprepared for the harsh realities of nature. They exhausted their resources and began to starve.
After constant losses and failures, radical new approaches had to be made. Other countries implemented their own versions of South Africa’s “Redeker Plan”. The USA fell back to west of the Rockies, dug in, and slowly transformed their consumer me-centric society into the biggest war time production since FDR and then started pushing east in a massive wave to reclaim the country. Before the fall of their government, Russia’s military imposed self inflicted decimation to keep order, wherein squads of ten soldiers had to choose and kill one of their own or they would all be executed. Afterwards, they became an expansionist theocracy breeding strong and hard in their snow covered lands. The people of European countries retreated to the ancestral security of castles where they regrouped. Swords once more became practical and common place. No one was really sure what happened to the people of North Korea. It was thought that they barricaded themselves in a vast network of tunnels underground. Now those tunnels contain either a huge population of repressed people or an army of millions of zombies.
Taken to nearly the edge of extinction, very slowly but surely, the remaining human population took back the world. The zombie threat was still ever present; in cold lands zombies unfroze during the summer months, uncounted masses roamed the sea and ocean floor, but it had become a manageable problem.
I had a very hard time putting this book down. Each interview is a few pages long, and while the continual switching of perspectives may seem like it would become jumbled confusion, the way they are organized, with characters in different parts of the world all having their own unique voice, makes the book constantly feel fresh. There is a large cast of characters, most only appearing in a single interview, but a few characters receive multiple segments. The varied cultural backgrounds all feel real. Military strategy and hardware are well researched; Land Warrior is discussed along with the notion that armies are always fighting their last war. Presented with entirely new situations leaves them flatfooted, but soldiers left to their own devices can improvise new methods like the use of sound systems as lures and a combination shovel/battle axe charmingly referred to as “The Lobotomizer”.
It’s hard to talk about some of these stories without overusing the words “harrowing” or “terrifying”. There are a range of stories here; soldiers talking about how battles were won and lost, government and religious leaders talking about what humanity had gained and lost, and survivors talking about sacrifices that had to be made, as well as, sometimes an enemy worse the the undead are other people or the darker places of your own mind.
The book also has a lot of hope. Apart from the tragic ones, there were many accounts of heroic sacrifices; people putting their own safety on the line to help their fellow man. Many who had become disenfranchised and detached from their communities due to being mind-numbed office drones or having jobs devoted to the promotion of the unending monetization of art and human experience found a new purpose in life by doing something that directly helped their neighbors.
In 2007, Random House developed an abridged audiobook adaptation. Produced as a radio play the star-speckled cast act out the interviews. Sadly, only about half the book is represented. The main plot line is there, but a few of the really interesting side stories aren’t, like one of my favorites which is an interview with an eighteen-year-old girl, one of many who grew up feral, now institutionalized and recounting in disturbing detail, from a child’s perspective, the night she lost her family. Or the story of an Australian astronaut who remained up on the ISS and could only watch as his world was eaten alive.
The audiobook is around six hours long, if you don’t think you’ll have the patience for the complete book. However, I highly recommend you get the whole thing.
Max Brooks: Max Brooks
Alan Alda: Arthur Sinclair
Carl Reiner: Jurgen Warmbrunn
Jurgen Prochnow: Philip Adler
Waleed Zuiater: Saladin Kader
Dean Edwards: Joe Muhammad
Michelle Kholoe: Jesika Hendricks
Maz Jobrani: Ahmed Farahnakian
Mark Hamill: Todd Wainio
Henry Rollins: T. Sean Collins
Eamonn Walker: David Allen Forbes and Paul Redeker/Xolelwa Azania
Ajay Naidu: Ajay Shah
John Turturro: Seryosha Garcia Alvarez
Rob Reiner: “The Whacko”
Jay O. Sanders: Bob Archer
Dennis Boutsikaris: General Travis D’Ambrosia
Becky Ann Baker: Christina Eliopolis
Steve Park: Kwang Jingshu
Frank Kamai: Nury Televadi and Tomonaga Jiro
John Mcelroy: Ernesto Olguin
An unabridged version of the audiobook was released on May 14, 2013 as World War Z: the Complete Edition (Movie Tie-in Edition: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Quite a mouthful isn’t it? But fortunately this version integrates the original audiobook with newly recorded versions of the missing chapters bringing the whole thing up to a whopping twelve hours of terror!...Hey, that’s not a bad title.
Max Brooks: now listed as Kirby Impoinvil
Nathan Fillion: Stanley MacDonald
Paul Sorvino: Fernando Oliveira
Ade M’Cormack: Jacob Nyathi
Simon Pegg: Grover Calson
Denise Crosby: Mary Jo Miller
Bruce Boxleitner: Gavin Blaire
Nicki Clyne: Sharon
Jeri Ryan: Maria Zhuganova
David Ogden Stiers: Bohdan Taras Kondratiuk
Kal Penn: Sardar Khan
Frank Darabort: Roy Elliot
Parminder Nagra: Barati Palshigar
Brian tee: Hyungchoi / Michael Choi
Masi Oka: Kondo Tatsumi
Ric Young: Admiral Xu Zhicai
Alfred Molina: Terry Knox
Common: Darnell Hackworth
F. Murray Abraham: Father Sergei Ryzhkov
Rene Auberjonois: Andre Renard
Martin Scorsese: Breckinridge “Breck” Scott
Children of the Night: The 2012 Halloween Horrorquest