I’m currently 97 pages into the novel World War Z: An oral history of the zombie war by Max Brooks. This isn’t my first time reading it; this is the third time I’ll have read it from start to finish (and I will finish it again) in the last few months. There are a few books I will read over and over again, usually trashy books that don’t require me to engage my brain, or thrillers and adventure books like Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects or the famous Jurassic Park – but these books I’ll dip into, rereading my favourite parts over the years and revisiting them perhaps every six months. I usually wouldn’t pick them up completely new, read them through for the first time, enjoy them, put them down and then pick them up again a week later to read from cover to cover again. World War Z is different. Every time I read this book it’s like I’m reading it afresh and it grips me completely all the way through. Even the sections I don’t enjoy I’ll read again, because each part is integral to the experience.
Those of you who don’t enjoy zombie tales, who have no interest in horror stories or supernatural tales, might have been tempted to switch off by now. I’m here to tell you not to do that. Ignore for the minute your disinterest or revulsion, your penchant for tales of a less fleshy nature. If you’re a student of History, a studier of the development of human kind and its flaws and triumphs, you need to take a look at this book. And if, like me, you have this penchant for historical trends, and perhaps this is combined with a fear in the back of your head that tells you that there’s always a small chance the zombies might rise up and you should probably be prepared, then this book will probably be your gospel.
The book is written as an oral history and it is successfully faithful to its premise. Though tales of gore are scattered throughout the book, these are not the focus. Instead, the author carefully constructs a novel that genuinely feels like a history of a war fought. That the enemies are the undead merely makes it all the more fascinating to read. For those who have ever sat and thought about how they’d escape lumbering zombies (let’s be honest, the zombies of modern times who run don’t fit this thwarted reality. They are dead bodies. Dead bodies dragged around by a malfunctioning brain that has only one thought in it. They’re not going to be fast), I bet few of you worked out that zombies would not drown in the sea. My plan to get onto a boat and stay there, with my family and perhaps a few animals in a modern Noah’s ark, was scuppered by the completely seriously written account of those who attempt this. Despite my late night planning, I hadn’t reckoned on the infected reanimating when attempting to swim out to boats and infesting the oceans, pulling themselves up anchor lines and clinging onto submarines, as well as emerging from the surf in a cruel re-enactment of the D-day landings. This description makes it sound like a typical zombie tale again; let me reassure you that it’s not. And here comes my argument for why, as a history student, you should read this book.
The history of military engagements tells us that each war brings new adaptations. The First World War, which we will be hearing, reading and seeing so much of in this centenary year, is famously remembered for forcing those involved to adapt quickly to changing technologies and battle requirements. The first few years saw charges against machine guns and cavalry drowning in mud churned up by trench warfare. Each war is fought, for the first few engagements, like the last one, and often mass casualties occur because the leaders and recruits are one step behind the new system of war. World War Z deals with this fascinating premise in the most serious way against the most supernatural background. We visit a soldier who fought in the first US battle against the undead in the town of ‘Yonkers’, just outside of New York City. We learn of the uselessness of modern weapons that assume a need for oxygen and a beating heart to kill effectively. A later account of a more successful battle due to their adaptations makes for fascinating reading.
To those for whom military history is a chapter you’d skip, let me reassure you that the general descriptions of each country’s reaction to the pandemic makes for a brilliant read. The democracies struggling to defend and contain the virus due to the individualistic nature of their societies; the wars put aside due to a bigger threat surging over their borders; the wars started due to a panic gripped on old rivalries and an inability to adapt to new ideas – all are documented in realistic detail. This is an exploration of the various societies that make up our world and how each one coped when the enemy came from within and could not be stopped.
I will not attempt to make an allegory of this book – it is not, in my opinion, an exploration of a new type of human enemy that’s alive, one that doesn’t stop, won’t stop, can’t stop. It’s not exploring the concept of the modern generation as an undead being, powered by the lust for technology and the inability to connect in real life. It’s a story about zombies – traditional zombies that rise from the dead and eat brains. But the way it is presented makes it something completely new and completely fascinating for history students who explore societal and historical developments. How would your country deal with a pandemic that meant the population could turn from the victims into the enemy in one fell swoop? How is mass quarantine dealt with, with streams of immigrants and asylum seekers, or the decision to sacrifice sections of the population? Which culture will cope with the situation best – the one where individual choice and freedom of speech is encouraged, or the one where the concept of the collective is entrenched in the mentality of the population? I won’t ruin it for those who will go out and read this, but for those of whom the development and mentality of societies across the world inspires a particular interest, there will be a chapter in this book that will just stick in your head.
This is a wonderfully researched, endlessly fascinating account of a pandemic that falls completely outside of logic and yet is treated so seriously you stop questioning and just keep reading. It takes politics, religion, the military, individual adaptation (or lack of), celebrity culture and moral dilemmas and presents it all in a novel that soon has you accepting that a zombie war did in fact happen and that this account is an interesting depiction of how each country coped. And, in a refreshing change, though the focus does fall largely on the USA, the American author has strived to cover as many countries as possible in an attempt to illustrate that, although everything bad always seems to only happen in North America, this is a global pandemic that requires all the different cultures and societies to adapt. This novel is a societal study and fits snugly into the general study of human nature, settling in and almost convincing you that it is a genuine historical tome. It’s history with a bite.