Andrew's Reviews > World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

World War Z by Max Brooks
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Jul 20, 08

it was amazing
bookshelves: one-book-per-week-08-09
Read in July, 2008

I haven't seen every zombie movie or read every zombie book in existence, but I have watched enough to know the cliches of the genre. It was so refreshing to read a book that avoided so many of these conventions and covered some new ground. I mean, how many zombie stories span the entire world? How many cover the entire apocalypse, from Patient Zero to the aftermath/rebuilding? Aren't we all a little tired of zombie stories that closely follow a small group of survivors, as they get picked off one by one?

Each chapter is only a few pages long, and consists of an interview of one individual survivor. These survivors range from the powerful elites who made decisions affecting millions, to the most inconsequential peons swept up in the winds of war, to the soldiers on the front line. Each interview is unique in a number of ways; the individual's personality and experiences, their nationality, their role in the events. The nationality of each character in particular is what makes this book so interesting. Whereas most zombie movies I've seen take place in the US (and often end with the heroes fleeing to Canada for some reason), virtually every corner of the world is represented in World War Z. Every nation deals with the crisis in it's own way; the Canadians flee to the arctic, the Americans try to fight the zombies as they would a conventional war, the French use the opportunity to rebuild their national pride, the South Africans rely on a war measures plan developed during Apartheid, the Russians keep control of their military through decimation. Part way through the book, I realized that what I was reading was sociology disguised as science-fiction/horror. Some might argue that the sociology is somewhat sophomoric and predictable, and they would have a point. But remember, this is not written as a history, it's written as an oral history. Each interview is just one man or one woman, and that's what the book is really about. The big picture stuff is interesting and compelling, but this is about individuals surviving, each in their own way. As the author asks in the introduction: “isn't the human factor what connects us so deeply to our past”?

Which brings to mind another interesting aspect of World War Z. In the first pages of the book the journalist conducting the interviews explains the rationale for compiling an oral history, and states his intention to avoid any interpretations or intrusions into people's stories. We hear his questions in many of the interviews, and occasionally an interviewee with react to his body language but otherwise he is virtually silent. It made me wonder about his story. We know that he is American, and that he was commissioned to write a report for the UN. Given what we learn throughout the book, we can probably assume that he spent the war in the “safe zone” in California, but there is no direct evidence. This is not a criticism of the book; on the contrary it's a compliment to the fact that the author does such a good job removing the journalist from the interviews. It left me wanting more.

As a clinical psychologist, it was enjoyable to see the author imagined the psychological trauma that would result from something unimaginable. Of course, there was reference to standard, expected illnesses like PTSD and depression. But we also encounter some creative and reasonably plausible conditions such as the quislings, feral children, and Asymptomatic Demise Syndrome. The human psyche is capable of incredible things in response to trauma and stress, and it says a lot about this book that the author made a point to reach beyond the kinds of reactions that people have in the real world and try to picture what would happen in this reality that he created. At the same time, given the fact that we are reading the stories of survivors, we are almost by definition hearing the tales of the most resilient ones. As you read World War Z, you can't help but wonder what you would do in this situation. How would you react waking up in a world that makes no sense? I think most people would like to imagine that they would be strong, moral, and resilient, and would always be ready and willing to do the right thing. But most people also believe that they wouldn't violate their morality in response to demands of an authority, and research has shown otherwise. If WWII led to the Milgram obedience studies, what kind of psychological research would emerge in the aftermath of World War Z?
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Jessica Amazing review. It's very interesting to hear from a psychologist on this title.


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