There’s a particular subset of fiction that I really like; what happens after the world ends. It’s not quite post-apocalyptic fiction, no Mad Max desert punks or armies of gleaming metal robots trained to kill anything with a pulse. Instead, these are stories about normal people trying to do what they can in the wake of wave after wave of total change. The Brian Wood-scripted comic The Massive, following a group of environmentalists searching for the other ship in their fleet following apocalyptic oceanic upheaval, is a great example of the trope. The book’s equal parts mystery, on-going discussion about whether any of the old world should be allowed to return and sprawling environmental science fiction. It’s great and I can’t recommend it, or Wood’s earlier work, DMZ, enough.
World War Z, the movie version of which opens today, is the first time I really saw this sub-genre gain traction. I’ve not seen the movie yet and whilst I remain optimistic about it, I know it’s no longer the history of the end of the world, one of the things that made the book so compelling
Written by Max Brooks, the book is a series of interlinked interviews and testimonies from survivors of the War. The survivors are from all over the world, civilians, scientists, soldiers and politicians but each of them lived through the dead rising and each one’s story gives you a subtly different perspective. Crucially, and this is the first very clever thing Brooks does, the stories run up through the usual zombie narrative and then keep going. The one limiting factor with horror, and believe me I’m a fan of the genre, is the law of diminishing returns. The first time someone’s dismembered, or bitten by a vampire, or attacked by something paranormal, it’s horrifying. The fifth time they are, it’s a funhouse scare. The tenth attack and you’re looking at your watch. Brooks cleverly folds this downshift of fear into the book. As it progresses, the zombies or ‘Zeke’ as the armed forces call them, become if not a known quantity then certainly an enemy that can be fought and killed, albeit with serious psychological consequences. In fact one of the book’s best sequences features a series of interviews with the soldiers who designed and used the ‘Lobo’, a brutally effective close assault weapon used in the three year campaign to take back America.
That campaign embodies the second area where Brooks excels; he never takes the focus off the individual, the format letting him tell intensely personal stories about an impersonal crisis. One of the most poignant sections in the book is an interview with a veteran of the three-year war who watched the moment where his team leader, a woman whose own story is wrapped up in a haunting event from earlier in the book, finally breaks. There’s no hysterics, no emotion, just someone at the absolute end of their tolerances finally being allowed to stand down. It’s a beautifully handled moment, a tiny little flash of humanity in amongst all the horror.
The human touch is where Brooks excels over and over. An embittered veteran of the disastrous Battle of Yonkers is a young man broken and made old by his experiences. A private security professional provides jet black comedy with his memories of guarding a group of left and right wing TV pundits in their final hours. A South African politician remembers, at a distance, the horrific survival plan he championed. Each one is broken by their experiences, defined by the horror and what they did to survive. Personal apocalypses playing out against a global Armageddon.
That by itself would mark World War Z out as something special but Brooks continually finds new wrinkles and perspectives to explore. The aftermath of the war leads to some truly impressive world-building, such as the Pacific Continent, a Nation State formed from the various island nations and ships trapped at sea when the war began. It also leads to some of the most memorable interviews, including one with a member of the crews who euthanize zombies frozen by the Alaskan and Canadian winters before they can thaw out and another with a submarine pilot who tracks the huge zombie hordes still active on the seabed. Nothing in the world is the same, nothing is entirely safe or ever will be, but these people have survived and built a new life on the foundations of the old world. They’re constantly guarded and protected, but they’re alive and that’s enough.
Not all of Brooks’ world building quite lands but there’s so much here, so many ideas thrown at the page that a huge amount is successful. It’s rounded off by a couple of moments of cheeky meta-fictionality, starting with Brooks himself. He’s the interviewer in the book, putting himself in the narrative in a way which still lets him tell the story. It’s a neat touch and it also emphasizes just how good he is at this. Brooks is essentially talking to himself for the entire novel and at no point do any of the interviews run into any of the others. There’s never any sense of characters speaking with the same voice, just a constant stream of survivors telling their story to the author.
Finally, Brooks places his previous book inside the universe of this one. The Zombie Survival Guide is, as its name suggests, a detailed breakdown of how to survive a zombie outbreak. It covers evacuation plans, transportation, weapons and recorded zombie attacks through history, giving you everything you need to know to survive. So, in World War Z, Brooks wrote the book in response to the War and the government printed and distributed copies of it. This is Brooks’ war, in more ways than one, and his role in producing the guidebook subtly explains why so many people are prepared to talk to him. It’s an elegant piece of storytelling and yet another clever twist in what starts off as a very familiar story.
World War Z combines real character and moments of desperate humanity and compassion with relentless intelligence and invention. No other novel in the last ten years has done more to make zombies not only interesting but different to everything that’s gone before. It’s a classic, and whilst the movie has ditched the historical element, if it’s kept a quarter of what’s left, then it should be exceptional. I’ll let you know.
World War Z is published by Duckworth Overlook. and is out now, priced £7.99. The movie version is also on general release.