Too often, genres define a novel. Authors think that a fantasy book has to have fairies/trolls/dwarves/demons/angels/vampires or werewolves, and rather than writing something fresh, produce a carbon copy of what is expected from the fantasy genre.
But once in a while, you come across a book that breaks the borders. World War Z by Max Brooks is one such book. It combines the horror genre with journalistic accounts and gut wrenching emotion to produce something quite remarkable. The whole title is World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. When I first picked it up, I thought great, another post-apocalyptic horror novel. This is gonna be like reading Resident Evil as a book. But then I started it, and after the first chapter, I was hooked.
What makes this book great is that it explores it's world. It reads as a set of interviews; each chapter begins with the narrator meeting with an interviewee who then recounts his story to us. More than anything else, this book is realistic. Good people die, bad people live. The characters range from a proud Chinese admiral, to a Texan bounty hunter to a military dog handler and every type of person in between. Not all of them are pleasant, not all their stories end well.
So the basic setting is this: A mysterious illness breaks out in parts of China and South-East Asia. Even as the Chinese government struggles to maintain control, refugees are fleeing everywhere, carrying the virus with them. It is a strange virus; it puts the infected into a coma, slowly shutting down their vital functions before re-animating them as bloodthirsty zombies who are ravenous for human flesh. Within months the virus has spread around the world, and a year later 2/3rds of the world's population has been infected. The struggling world governments manage to fight back in their darkest hour, and drive out the zombie menace if not totally abolish it. And now, twelve years later, the survivors tell their tales.
The stories range from how an apartheid war criminal saved the world with a cold, calculating, heartless plan, to how a blind man single handedly took on the zombie threat as Japan burned, to how the Captain of the last Chinese Navy Warship destroyed his government to save his civilization. We hear about an unscrupulous businessman flogging false hope, and how a US Army Marine watched his government fail, yet followed them into certain death. We hear about Radio Free Earth, an ocean liner giving people comfort even as they are ripped to shreds by their undead families, and we hear about a French corporals last stand, the living against the dead in the sewers of Paris. We hear as he screams his last words, "On ne passe pas!" The last astronauts of the International Space Station tell us how they survive to maintain the satellite network essential for to the people down on Earth despite no hope of escape.
Max Brooks explores everything from government ineptitude to the psychology of the last man on Earth.
If this book taught me anything it's this:
Always be prepared.