I met Max Brooks at the Philadelphia Comic-Con in 2009, having by that time read both The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. Max is a sweetheart, and we chatted briefly as he signed both of my books and threw in a free, also-signed preview of The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks comic. Yeah, I was fan-girling big time.
World War Z was one of my favorite novels before I met Max, and it continues to be to this day. Zombie fiction truly reached its pinnacle with this book. Perfect? What is? But Brooks does so many interesting things with his novel to make it stand out from the rest that you can’t help but think, after reading it, it would be all downhill from here (and with a few exceptions, it pretty much was).
World War Z takes place years after the zombie war, when society has patched itself back together, and presents a collection of “interviews” with various survivors. At its heart this is not a book about zombies. It is a story about people. It is the story of modern sociopolitical and military structures, Brooks’ deep knowledge of which gives his words such authenticity. It is a book about a real world war, the kind that has no border, where every inch of the planet is a battleground, and how our society would respond to a global disaster which, in this case, happens to be the zombie apocalypse. Not all of the survivors are heroes. Some just got lucky; some are psychologically and physically broken. The horrific memories of watching your loved ones die, of society collapsing, is more than most people can bear. Never mind the zombies; millions will die from bureaucracy and the simple inability of governments to put aside their differences. That Brooks abandoned much of the typical “triumph of the human spirit” bullshit upon which post-apocalyptic fiction often relies was a refreshing change of pace. His characters are flawed, fallible, frequently self-centered–just like real people.
A number of texts this semester have forced us to question our perception of the real monster; I Am Legend did this brilliantly. World War Z touches upon the subject as well, most notably (aside from the actions of a number of governments, which is to be expected) during the interview with Jesika Hendricks in Manitoba, Canada. When desperation drives the survivors to cannibalism, does that not render the war–a war against creatures once human themselves, who feast upon human flesh–ultimately meaningless? We are once again fighting a battle against ourselves, this time facing a very ugly natural truth: when confronted with death, we will do whatever we must in order to survive, even if it means consuming the flesh of other people. When one has reached this level of despair and hopelessness, operating purely on base instinct, what separates us from the “enemy?”
World War Z is still my gold standard for zombie fiction. It is a realistic and chilling reminder of what we as a species may face in the event of any global catastrophe. And rest assured that, human hubris being what it is, one is on its way.