Max Brooks Presents His Tale of the Zombie Wars as a Studs Terkel-Influenced Oral History

by Andrew Gilstrap

28 August 2013

Like all good speculative fiction, in World War Z, Brooks takes the news headlines that we're reading now and finds plausible ways that existing behaviors and tensions might hold up in the face of extreme crisis.
cover art

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

Max Brooks

US: May 2013

First, let me admit upfront that I underestimated Max Brooks and, by extension, this book. I knew Brooks’ work from his Zombie Survival Guide franchise. Those were enjoyable, and they showcased someone who knew his zombie lore well, but there was nothing to indicate that he had a more serious examination of the zombie apocalypse in him. I’m always game for a good zombie story, though, so I figured it was time to catch up with World War Z, what with it being turned into a major action movie and all. I’m so glad I did.

For anyone who saw the film (and especially those who might have been disappointed by it), the book called World War Z and the movie called World War Z share a title and that’s pretty much it. Here, Brooks presents his tale of the zombie wars as a Studs Terkel-influenced oral history. An unnamed interviewer has traveled the globe, compiling first-hand accounts from the plague’s beginnings to its current state of cautious human victory. He’s filed his official report, but his superiors have excised much of his material for being too concerned with the emotional side of the conflict. World War Z stands as the manuscript he collected to preserve the survivors’ testimonies.

As such, World War Z doesn’t concern itself with the usual zombie tropes: it’s not draped in intestines, and it certainly isn’t interested in portraying the zombies as any kind of metaphor. In the end, the zombie wars cause no small amount of reflection, but it’s along the lines of what humanity had to do to survive. No one’s concerned with holding up the undead as any kind of mirror to themselves.

Instead, we see how human failures do so much to spread the plague. Starting in China, the outbreak benefits first from the government’s unwillingness to share information about what’s happening—either with its own people or with the outside world. Not long after, the virus spreads because frantic families are smuggling infected members to other countries, following false rumors of cures. From the drug trade to the black market for organs to porous borders, Brooks sees numerous under-the-radar channels for the infection to spread without detection. Brooks doesn’t need the supercharged fast zombies of Marc Forster’s film: slow and shambling as they are, the zombies initially cover the globe because of human weakness, and then through sheer numbers.

From there, Brooks provides a fascinating “what if” around what he imagines many countries’ responses would be. Israel is one of the first to publicly acknowledge the problem (other governments, such as the US, keep much under wraps first because of skepticism and then due to a false sense that they can contain the problem). Offering refuge behind its fortifications to select Palestinians, the Israeli government must first deal with the distrust of the Palestinians it’s trying to rescue, and then with the violent protests of orthodox Jews within its own walls. Russia opts for a brute force method to the problem, which exacts a heavy, lasting toll on its soldiers. Then there are the border tensions between India and Pakistan, which aren’t helped by the flood of refugees (many of them infected) streaming across their border. Brooks’s survivors’ tales are very personal and detailed, but they’re also against the backdrop of governments behaving like governments, often putting their own needs ahead of the greater good.

Of course, in the face of millions—possibly billions—of zombies, survival gets everyone (with the possible exception of North Korea) on essentially the same page. That’s when architects of pragmatic and cold-hearted road maps come to the fore, using the concept of “acceptable losses” in ways that would make Dr. Strangelove‘s General Jack D. Ripper blanch.

World War Z is extremely well-done, with Brooks taking on the voices of survivors from every part of the globe, right down to some of the most realistic use of some cultures’ prejudices and stereotyping that I’ve read since Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. The war’s “end” is hardly a huge global group-hug, either, with some countries using the strife as an excuse to retreat behind their borders to revive old ways. 

Like all good speculative fiction, Brooks takes the news headlines that we’re reading now and finds plausible ways that existing behaviors and tensions might hold up in the face of extreme crisis. Apart from the zombie’s themselves, readers will be hard pressed to find very much in humanity’s response that seems unrealistic.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War


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