A Very Historic History of the Zombie War

As part of my MFA program, I’m taking a class on monsters in the horror genre. I read World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks, as an assignment for that class. The below blog post may contain spoilers.

It may go without saying that this book did very well, and a lot of people like it. I can appreciate how much work Brooks put into this book, and I think I understand why it’s so well liked. But it simply did not work for me. Any tension or excitement I might have felt was smothered by the constant historical and political references.

The premise is interesting. A zombie war has come and gone, and the story is told in the form of a collection of interviews about the war. In theory, this premise works due to the nature of zombies. Other monsters tend to exist on a much smaller scale. For example, vampires usually lurk in darkness. Even giant monsters like Godzilla only terrorize one part of the world at a time.

In contrast to most other monsters, zombies and the zombie virus traditionally threaten the whole world. Zombies threaten the existence of humanity as a whole. Because of this, a story that’s a collection of interviews with people all over the world makes sense. If zombies are a worldwide problem, a worldwide zombie story should be perfect.

But for me, it wasn’t.

For me, this book lacked tension, which was replaced by history and politics. From page one to the last page, the book simply did not hook me. Because of the sheer number of characters, I had no opportunity to become invested in any of them. The use of interviews as a storytelling mode did not help either because, as a result, I felt separated from the subject of each individual tale. I was told the story, instead of being able to experience it with the characters. World War Z was interesting and intriguing, but that was due to a gimmick that couldn’t sustain my interest.

I might have felt tension were it not for the overwhelming amount of historical and political references—some fictional and some real. I spent every year of my time in college avoiding history classes. Yes, history is important. No doubt. But it was never my subject. I’m a math/science person who happens to also be a creative. The social sciences (like politics and history) have always escaped my understanding. All the history and politics in this book made my head hurt. Each reference drew me further out of the events of the story and made me want to run for cover. I felt like I needed to memorize facts instead of just enjoying the story. In short, this book felt like work.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to respect how much effort and research must have gone into this. Brooks is a scholar, and World War Z is a masterpiece, weaving fiction and non-fiction together so deftly that I couldn’t always tell where real history ended and fictional history started. Kudos to Max Brooks, but World War Z was not for me.

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2 Responses to A Very Historic History of the Zombie War

  1. Luke Elliott says:

    I had some of the same reactions that you did, particularly over the lack of character arcs. It took some heavy adjusting for me to get invested, but eventually I came to view this as a tale of the Earth as a whole. Once I accepted the story for what it was and let go of what it wasn’t I found I actually enjoyed it quite a lot. I can see how others might not, though.

  2. I found it succeeded as a history. It’s the kind of historical account that is actually considered compelling. If more historians wrote like that, fewer people would bemoan having to study history.

    That said, it wasn’t a traditional novel. If people picked it up expecting a traditional story, it would doubtless be shocking. But it reads as well as anything be Allison Weir. It was definitely more entertaining than Elaine Pagels, but people don’t read Pagels to be entertained as much as they do to gasp, “Shut up!” at the spine. (And yet everyone who picks it up ultimately finishes “The Gnostic Gospels.”)

    Still, not really what we expect in a novel.

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