World War Z Introduction

World War Z.

This book was recommended several times as an accurate/scientific take on the subject. I ignored such things because I’d read the opening of the Zombie Survival Guide and hated it. The author spends his time setting up his version of zombies rather than traditional ones and coming off as a smug ass as he does it. He isn’t going with the most common zombie tropes but he still spends time mocking those idiots who dare think they function differently than his own pet version, and despite the fact he obviously thinks it’s the most realistic, the only thing worse than his science is the repetitive way he writes it. And he brings up the issue of zombie sex in a way that’s very transparently trying to look like he doesn’t want to but has to because it’s such a common line of thought, and I really didn’t need that look into how his brain works.

But I kept hearing about it, including claims it was better than the first book. The fact the book takes place as a retrospective is rather unique and I thought lent some credence to the idea it might be realistic, given that one of the various plot holes zombie books tend to have is how unbeatable a bunch of braindead shamblers are.

So I read it. It didn’t live up to its hype, but there were some good ideas in it. There were also some bad ideas and a great deal of terrible execution. So, your standard zombie novel, really, but done more cleverly than usual.

The introduction is about the writer who supposedly collected the stories in the book, since the idea is this is nonfiction. It’s definitely a novel idea, but it’s not done well at all.

There’s a ton of unnecessary exposition, which pulls me out of the idea this is a nonfiction book taking place in a universe where this really happened. The narrator says he collected all this when he was commissioned to write a report but then found the stories were cut out of the final product because they just wanted facts.

The thing is, collecting oral stories is actually a really specialized task. You don’t accidentally do it when you’re trying to do something else. And governments can recognize the importance of recording oral histories and have for some time.

And in zombie fiction, a major point of failure is usually psychological. We can assume that holds true here just on narrative grounds, it’s more interesting if people made bad decisions. Knowing why they did things wrong (and how some groups averted this, if anyone did) is vital to avoiding those problems the next time around.

In short, there’s just no reason for our narrator not to have been commissioned specifically to collect an oral history of the war.

“It was all too intimate,” the chairperson said during one of our many “animated” discussions. “Too many opinions, too many feelings. That’s not what this report is about. We need clear facts and figures, unclouded by the human factor.” Of course, she was right. The official report was a collection of cold, hard data, an objective “after-action report” that would allow future generations to study the events of that apocalyptic decade without being influenced by “the human factor.” But isn’t the human factor what connects us so deeply to our past? Will future generations care as much fo chronologies and casualty statistics as they would for the personal accounts of individuals not so different from themselves? By excluding the human factor, aren’t we risking the kind of persona detachment from a history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn’t the human factor the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as “the living dead”? I presented this argument, perhaps less professionally than was appropriate, to my “boss,” who after my final exclamation of “we can’t let these stories die” responded immediately with, “The don’t. Write a book. You’ve still got all your notes, and the legal freedom to use them. Who’s stopping you from keeping these stories alive in the pages of your own (expletive deleted) book?”

But realism would get in the way of the author using his proxy author to talk about how awesome he is because only he realizes how important this is.

We learn this book is taking place a decade after the end of the war, and he says some people might say that’s too soon and starts defending why it isn’t. This is also unnecessary, because if 9/11 did manage to teach us anything (and god knows it wasn’t restraint, safety protocols, the importance of understanding your enemies, that the outside world can affect us…) it was that America’s only concept of “too soon” refers to jokes about it. And even in the alternate universe where people do think that, no one ever thinks it’s too soon to collect people’s accounts of what happened or put them together, they just think it’s a bad idea to publish right then. So he’s setting up strawmen and then punching in their general direction.

He finishes by telling us he’s going to be trying to keep his own commentary out of the book otherwise. While this is a good decision, the narrator manages to be so opinionated and annoying here I wonder how it was made, or why that sanity wasn’t extended to this opening.

It’s not, exactly, a bad opening. It does what it’s supposed to do, which is get you interested in the rest of the book. For all its many flaws, it didn’t make me close the book and it managed to explain the background (I don’t think the explanation was really needed, but assuming it was, it did.) The main flaw is just that it comes off poorly reasoned and researched, which is not an auspicious opening to something that was recommended for doing a great job at both.

40 Comments

  1. I think I only got through half of this book before I took it back…from irritation or fear, I can’t recall. 
    1. Farla says:
       I found it pretty good for zombie fiction, but I have some very low standards for that.
  2. TheArmada says:
    You are breaking my heart.  Max Brooks is one of my writing saints.  

    Ah well, each to his own.

    1. Farla says:
      Sorry. He does have some good ideas, he’s just laboring under too much smugness.
      1
      1. TheArmada says:
        Though I have to admit that naming the interviewer Max Brooks is a bit smug, I think he came off more as an honest man trying to tell a human story.  Expect some counterarguments to future chapters!
        1. Farla says:
          See, I don’t mind that – it’s more a clever wink at the audience that the in-story “interviewer” is really just the author of the interviews. What bothers me is the whole bit about how only he’s able to realize this matters, when governments and organizations do recognize the value of oral history. He’s trying to build himself up by tearing everyone else down as too dumb to see the book’s value.
          1. TheArmada says:
            What about the part where he was told to write the *expletitive deleted* book?  It seems less that he’s the only one who recognized the value of what he’s doing, and more that he was originally supposed to write a statistical analysis of World War Z, and that was what the government wanted.  The oral history is him doing what he wanted, but not necessarily what the government doesn’t want.
            1. TheArmada says:
              If that makes sense, I’m too tired to make good sentences.
              Reply
            2. Farla says:
              But the government should have known oral histories are important, and also, you don’t accidentally get oral histories while finding statistics. Instead, he’s told it’s a stupid idea and if he cares so much, he can do it himself.

              Also, just – why couldn’t the opening just be that he was commissioned to do this? Why is it so important he’s doing his own thing?

              Reply
            3. Hyatt says:
              (Bitter comment from the future)

              Maybe the government has gone so anti-intellectual that they actually don’t see the value in oral history. Especially if it includes non-white-American voices.

              Reply
            4. CrazyEd says:

              Lots of academics don’t see the value of academics that aren’t their kind of academics, and most academics don’t deal with oral histories (even ones that really should be).

              Reply
  3. Cordialblue says:
    http://www.cracked.com/article_18683_7-scientific-reasons-zombie-outbreak-would-fail-quickly.html  this is all I can think of whenever anyone mentions this book to me, especially after I worked at a book store and developed a jaded outlook on any book that got super hyped (sadly the ability to read those all so easily after I got off my shift turned me a tad into a hipster. Now my immediate reaction when someone loves a book is to hate it on principle, which sets it up for failure…I should really get over that)
    1. Farla says:
      Well, he did sort of address one of the problems, the zombies don’t rot because they’re toxic. To everything.

      I’ve always seen the main problem with the zombie apocalypse the spread. I’m willing to assume magic for any part of how the zombies actually function, but there’s a reason most successful diseases don’t spread by bite. Romero-style everyone-comes-back zombies are the only good kind.

      (I’ve found the same thing with popular books. Back when I went to bookstores a lot, I learned a good sign of something to avoid was anything about it being a bestseller.)

      1. Cordialblue says:
        well. That would certainly take care of the predators.

        And I agree, I’m all for magic fucking everyone over, but when they tell me it’s a disease I just…stop caring. Because I can accept “because magic” more than “because this is totes scientific”

        1. Farla says:
          And their idea of “scientific” is always virus. Because did you know viruses aren’t alive????????????????? So appropriate! Even though all that means is they don’t even function in dead cells!
          1. Cordialblue says:
            It reminds me of 2012, the scientific explanation being NEUTRINOS ARE CREATING FRICTION, or as I liked to think about it “those things that don’t interact with anything in any significant way ARE FUCKING US UP” To be honest the only serious zombie movies I like are the Resident Evil, and I think that has a lot more to do with Mila Kunovitch than it does with the zombies. Okay, that’s a lie, their zombies are a guilty pleasure.
            1. Farla says:
              I love the game version of them. The t-virus works great because it’s mutating living cells and you just end up a freaky zombie-like monster as the end result. Plus, the virus has other vectors than bite transmission.
              1
              Reply
              1. Cordialblue says:
                I never played them. The last system I had was an N64 my mom threw away when I was like 12, and I just got a PS3 like….two months ago, and I only just started playing games on it now that the semester is over. After I finish the Dragon Ages Imma see what ones I can play though, my friend is all but forcing me at gun point to play them and the silent hill series.
              2. Farla says:
                I didn’t either, actually. I’m easily scared. I watched Let’s Plays of most of the games on Youtube instead.
              3. Cordialblue says:
                If you like Let’s Plays of scary games, may I suggest Tobysucksatgaming Amnesia. It’s not really a professional walkthrough so much as a hilarious and mildly frustrating jaunt through the game, but it’s awesome.
              4. Farla says:
                Sounds good. I prefer the nonprofessional ones anyway, it’s not as fun if the other perrson alreadyknows what’s coming.
              5. Rachel says:
                Have you seen Day9’s playthrough. I just love that he’s witty and good at the puzzles while scared s***less.
            2. CrazyEd says:

              The House of the Dead movies, especially the second one, are surprisingly good zombie movies for the era they were made in.

              Think about that for a moment.

              Reply
            3. CrazyEd says:

              The G-Virus can actually reanimate dead tissue, though.

              Reply
  4. I haven’t read World War Z, but a lot of people did recommend it due to its realism and was apparently very well researched. Though you’ve just showed that to be untrue. I’m now wondering if the author is using regular zombies for this book or the ones he created? 

    1. Farla says:
      and was apparently very well researched

      I think this comes down to people trusting those claims. Sound authoritative, throw in some facts, and people will assume you know what you’re talking about.

      And he’s using his zombie survival guide zombies, of course. Maybe I should do a post laying them out, they’re pretty ridiculous.

      1. Veracs says:
         Yes please! It’ll definitely help anyone who hasn’t read the survival guide in the first place.
  5. purplekitte says:
    I skim over anything talking about zombie science. It’s magic. The author can tell me how the magic works in this particular universe (slow/fast zombies) and I will ignore all the technobabble padding it.

    I remember the book being mostly about the reactions of people individually and as large organizations or governments, which was interesting. Were some of the specific scenarios kind of dumb? Sure, but many of them sounded like things I could imagine people doing, both the screwing up and the successes, so I enjoyed WWZ overall. I would never recommend it “because of good science”, that’s crazy it’s about zombies, but I would say it has an interesting story and handles its viewpoint system fairly well.

    1. Farla says:
      I’m very picky about technobabble. If you say “it’s magic!” okay, I have no clue how magic works, maybe it could do that. If you say “Hell is full!” well no idea how souls and hell works, maybe it could do that. If you say “weird radiation” …well, if it’s some sort of energy that we can’t make sense of, maybe it could be doing something weird, but you’d damn well better stay vague, because we know what actual types of radiation do. If you say some sort of bacteria or fungus or whatever that alters the brain and eventually takes over metabolic processes, you’re really, really stretching things but it’s true those things at least can do things under their own power and might use a human body as host. If you say the cause is the one thing that does absolutely nothing but hijack living cells to make more of itself…no.

      But yeah, the idea of looking at people’s reactions to it, particularly the large scale parts, and the whole interview format was a great idea. I think what the book does best is the variety in outlook.

      1. southrim says:
        Within the two books by Brooks it’s commented several times in universe that there are aspects of the zombies no one understands, the biggest of which is their shambling past basic thermodynamics. My read was that Brooks, like a lot of zombie media, created his own version of zombies that he felt was as realistic as possible while still being recognizably traditional (well the current tradition, not zoodoo), pointed out the several ways they can’t work at all in our universe and would have to be ignored for them to exist, and continued on with his story (that is, he had characters point it out as the story went on, not infodumped it at the beginning). Obviously, everyone has their own perspective on what can be realistic or ignored or handwaved with something like magic. I personally like stories that explain as much as they can and are up front about what they can’t or won’t. I seem to be one of the few that got it, though, if other conversations and Farla’s opening paragraph is anything to go by.

        By the way, Farla, both are written from the perspective of people during or after an actual zombie apocalypse; it’s understandable that they’d have contempt for aspects of zombies other than those that fit their own, since expectation of those aspects got people KILLED in their universe. That doesn’t mean it’s Brooks himself speaking and belittling any zombies except his own.

        1. Farla says:
           I seem to be one of the few that got it, though, if other conversations and Farla’s opening paragraph is anything to go by. 
          I know he’s going to throw in a couple “wow, this doesn’t make sense” but that’s just pointing out his own plot holes, it’s not a defense. Half an explanation is worse than none, and it’s particularly bad when the plot holes he’s trying to handwave are ones that, in-universe, should be easy to investigate. There’s even some that could have easily been explained if only he hadn’t brought it up to say it’s inexplicable – the frozen zombie issue, for example.

          By the way, Farla, both are written from the perspective of people during or after an actual zombie apocalypse; it’s understandable that they’d have contempt for aspects of zombies other than those that fit their own, since expectation of those aspects got people KILLED in their universe.

          No, the survival guide is prior to any full apocalypse, and even still, it’s like ranting about how stupid people are for at first believing a disease spreads by touch when actually it spreads by flea bite. It isn’t inherently stupid to think zombies might work one way when you haven’t seen anything to the contrary. Clinging to it after it’s been disproved is dumb, but he acts like testing the hypothesis is just as bad because obviously the imaginary impossible magic corpses can only work the one way he says they do.

          1. CrazyEd says:

            Does anyone else remember the Vampires vs. Zombies episode of Deadliest Warrior? They brought the author of World War Z to consult on the Zombies team, and it was full of that kind of nonsense. He was the cause of 50% of it.

             

            They also had a vampire being infected by the zombie virus.

  6. Lulu says:
    Jim Butcher actually addresses the plot hole of why a bunch of shambling, limbless creatures are threats- by replacing them with more sensible supersoldiers. 

    And he also does it with MAAAAAAAGIC.

    1. Farla says:
      Yeah, from what I’ve seen he’s better at thinking things through. I can’t stand the books, unfortunately.
      1. Lulu says:
        Awww, why not? Is it because Harry’s an old fashioned chauvinist who has a propensity for treating women like china dolls?
        1. Farla says:
          It was that I wasn’t convinced all of it was Harry and not the author, and that the issues with women were broader than the china doll thing. The way he treated the policewoman like one was a personal flaw. The bit about women being better with hate…maybe it was Harry being an unreliable narrator, but it unsettled me. The love potion was apparently objective (unless it turns out spell recipes all about what the person expects to work). And the bit with the vampire woman had some really nasty undertones to me.
          I think I had a much worse reaction to all of it because it was an audiobook so it’s a matter of hearing a guy saying all those things.
          1. Smith says:
            Harry is an unreliable narrator, and one with a screwed up childhood. In other books by Butcher, and other stories in the same universe from other perspectives, there’s not nearly as much chauvinism. Also, Harry is actively aware that he ain’t right, and tries to fight it.

            Not that I’m saying your reactions aren’t valid. Just giving you some context.

            1. Farla says:
              I’ve heard that and it’s good to know things improve, but about 50% of the people mentioning it also say something defending some bit of sexism in the initial book, so I’m leery of actually looking to see how it shakes out.
              Reply
  7. Re 9/11, “too soon,” and oral history — I can tell you now that the government immediately (I mean, like a few days after it happened, I can’t remember the exact date) went around gathering reactions from people to be stored in the Library of Congress. They came to my college class, those of us who wanted to participate signed something, said our piece, had it recorded, and received a certificate in the mail. I still have mine filed away somewhere and whatever I babbled is supposedly stored away, I like to think in giant warehouse full of crates of mysterious things like the end of the first Indiana Jones movie.
    1. Farla says:
      Oh, I’m sure it is. The US government is a total packrat. (Although that may be shifting, since there’s recent stuff where all the data’s been destroyed when people try to do investigations.)

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