Sunday, June 21, 2009

People Who Eat People (Are the Luckiest People in the World)

I just finished reading Max Brooks' World War Z. It's not the kind of book that I would usually read, but I decided to give it a shot on the recommendation of my brother-in-law-in-law. It's an easy read, but it didn't do a lot for me. It's set in the not-too-distant future and chronicles the zombie war though interviews with the people who survived it.

The zombie myth is so pervasive and well-understood in modern culture that this book doesn't really need to spend much time explaining what zombies are and how they work, though I found the way that Brooks delicately examined nearly every tactical aspect of what a war against the undead would look like one of the most compelling parts of the story. I did a little research of my own after reading the book, and I was surprised to learn how modern the zombie myth is. While it's origins are somewhat unclear, it's likely derived from Haitian Vodou and was introduced into popular culture almost single-handedly by the films of George Romero.

In film and literature, zombies are generally used stand-ins for the fears that are gnawing at society at the time. I'm not sure what, if anything, the zombies are supposed to represent in this book. The war on terror is an obvious choice. I think Brooks leaves the story loose enough to allow the reader to provide his own stand-in.

Brooks applies the same precision to the geopolitical aspects of World War Z that he does to the technical aspects of zombie combat, and that's where the book really falls short. I found the politics of the story far too predictable. The nations that fared best in the war were, for the most part, fortress societies. Nations with authoritarian streaks used the war to consolidate their power. Without going into too much detail, the chapters dealing with wartime Japan were so stereotyped that it almost read like a pamphlet written by far-right Japanese nationalists as a cautionary call to arms. Brooks definitely did his homework, but there's a real lack of imagination in the geopolitical parts of the story.

I generally avoid stories built around dialogue because it's really hard to write compelling dialogue. World War Z is far from the worst book I've ever read in this department, but the dialogue isn't great. Since it's written in interview form, there really isn't any time to do much character development.

I hear that the book is being made into a movie. I think it could be pretty good as a film, especially if they can whittle the story down to a few compelling characters.

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