Max Brooks’ World War Z could have been trite and obvious. Its premise is that it’s a collection of interviews and other oral histories of the Zombie War, the one that nearly wiped out human civilization. Zombies are all the rage of late (not least thanks to Brooks, whose Zombie Survival Guide is an unexpectedly humor-free, practical guide to dealing with zombie outbreaks), and it’d be easy for Brooks to write a cash-in that hits all the expected notes and doesn’t go any deeper than that. But he doesn’t.
His book is written as told from the perspectives of dozens (hundreds, possibly) of people, from all over the world, and talking about different stages of the zombie war, from its beginnings to the most awful moments to the end. The result is that incredibly rare thing: a non-genre-SF book that nevertheless thoroughly extrapolates things to their conclusions in SFnal ways.
For contrast here, let’s talk about Douglas Preston’s Tyrannosaur Canyon, a mainstream thriller that I listened to as an audiobook recently. Preston’s book (which I’m about to spoil thoroughly, so if you actually want to be surprised by it, skip to the next paragraph) is about the discovery of a tyrannosaur fossil which reveals crucial new truth about the extinction of the dinosaurs and proves that there are alien intelligences out there. Oh my god, that’s huge, right? No. For Preston, this is just a macguffin, a reason to have our heroes trying to decode DaVinci-esque clues and run around in canyons being chased by black helicopters and having gunfights in caves and so forth. It doesn’t actually matter in any real sense, not even at the end.
(It belatedly occurs to me that an even better example is those apparently execrable Left Behind books, which the Slacktivist is in the middle of destroying, page by page.)
But Brooks’ zombies fucking well matter. When the zombie outbreaks start, when societies collapse, it all seems thoroughly real, and not just horror-themed window dressing on top of the regular world. This is a genuinely Sfnal apocalyptic novel, one that’s thought through the angles, considered the possibilities, and which seems to be telling not just some possible way that things could have gone, but the way that they must have gone. The deeply convincing world is backed up with convincing people, all of them telling their little fragment of the story, together forming a mosaic of the big picture.
World War Z has the trappings of horror, but underneath that, it’s more genuinely science fictional than most books with spaceships on the cover. Highly recommended to any fan of zombies or apocalypses.