Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Z Serves Up Splattery Speculation

Zombies have a pretty immovable place in the genre equation: "The living dead" almost always equals "horror." Sure, one can find exceptions. For several years, Hollywood has cut visceral bloodletting with comedy in films such as Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. But Max Brooks, son of actor Mel Brooks, takes the zombie story in an entirely different direction with his debut novel, World War Z. How? He makes it into speculative fiction.

There was a lot about the report that the United Nations Postwar Commission didn't like. Oh, the charts and graphs and statistics were fine. But the Commission's chairman thought the personal stories from the war's survivors were "not what this report is about. We need facts and figures, unclouded by the human factor." The human factor, though, is exactly what the report's author wants to preserve. He yearns for people to hear the firsthand accounts of encountering Patient Zero in Chongqing, China, and the spectacularly failed military stand against the horde in Yonkers, New York, and how a single civilian hatched a strategy to save mankind in the Drakensberg mountain range of South Africa. Yes, the report's author wants you to grasp the human factor behind World War Z -- the great zombie war.

One of the things that makes Z succeed is how Brooks' structures it. He divvies up each chapter into a series of chronologically and thematically linked interviews with and monologues from survivors in every part of the globe. Notably, he takes pains to keep the narrative from growing disjointed, and much of Z reads like a collection of linked short stories akin to, say, Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. An Iranian teenager committed to jihad must come to terms with the fact that the only nation willing and able to shelter him is Israel. A downed American pilot gets talked through a hazardous trek in a zombie-infested swamp by a mysterious voice coming in over her radio. A disgraced Japanese gardener blinded by the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima becomes an almost mythic figure by felling scores of the infected during years alone in the woods. But Brooks is interested in more than just individuals; he teases out geopolitical implications, asking, "What would happen if the nations faced an exponentially growing threat that couldn't be countered by ordinary means?" His answers are intriguing. China, the origin of the outbreak, sees its population precipitously decline while its government fractures under rebellion. The United States relocates its capital to Hawaii, forming a bipartisan ruling coalition. Pakistan ignites a nuclear exchange, although with an ill-prepared Iran rather than the expected India. However, not all of Brooks' vignettes excel. He portrays a pre-war America as being laughably beholden to corporate interests, and a Russian Orthodox priest's transformation into a pistol-wielding death dealer taps into stale religious stereotypes. For the most part, though, Z engages in some fascinatingly splattery speculation.

(Picture: CC 2009 by Scabeater)

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