Subtitled An oral history of the zombie war, this book was certainly a gratifying surprise. Never having been particularly interested in zombies or horror, I am not sure why I took a look at this book in the first place. What immediately caught my attention, the reason why I decided to give it a try, was the style in which the story is being told. The framework is a series of transcripts of interviews being conducted around the world by a United Nations representative (presumably somebody named Max Brooks) about a decade after the end of the war. It should immediately remind the reader of Studs Terkel’s “The good war”.
I really enjoyed the book, although talking of enjoyment feels incorrect. It is a stark story, with many depressing passages. It is not a horror novel, and there is not more gore here than what you would expect to find in war fiction. What you have instead is snapshots of how people cope with the events being related. Apparently a virus is responsible for the first few cases; although this is not stated explicitly, it seems clear that it is the product of the Chinese chemical warfare industry. The Chinese government tries to keep the first few incidents quiet by removing victims and witnesses, and as a result many people in early stages of infection try to illegally emigrate. There is some description of the pathology of the virus, of which not much is known, but it kills the victim in the traditional sense, while keeping the brain somehow running. The infected “reanimate” and attack and only by destroying the brain can they be stopped. Of course, nobody pays much attention to the first few cases, and by the time concerned voices go public (and are finally believed) it is too late. The book describes effectively how standard war tactics and artillery are of no use, and how people try to escape in huge herds, producing the largest exodus in history (and casualties in the millions). Rather than what I was fearing when I began to read—namely, countless descriptions of zombies overrunning poor families trapped in dark allies—a big part of the gloom of the story comes from how governments and individuals react, of the many terrible things they do to survive or of how meanness and greed are ever-present.
If I had to classify the book as anything, I would say it is a good example of what now is called mundane science-fiction (or is it mundane-science fiction?). There are many neat examples throughout the book of how the events described affect the world, its climate, ecology, economics, politics, language. We see examples of several genuinely new psychiatric disorders and a few unexplained events (the ultimate fate of North Korea is perhaps the most haunting). It is not a comedy by any means (although a few passages are witty and humorous) but apparently is presented in some libraries in the humor section, something I do not understand at all. Quite well researched, Brooks also uses the formal framework to his advantage, so we do not see many technical descriptions or statistics and a few important events are left out of the picture. Something worth mentioning is how many details are told by omission, how we understand some of the events precisely because they are not described. Some of the passages where this device is used are the most effective of the book. The framework Brooks chooses to tell his story presents serious storytelling difficulties: With many voices to present, there is the risk of different voices becoming indistinguishable, but this actually does not happen. And I kept expecting first-person problems, which is how I describe the series of narrative shortcomings almost always present in first person narratives; the most serious of these is to have people say too much, to compensate for the lack of omniscient descriptions. I was glad to find my fears unfounded.
As surprising as I find typing this, I recommend this book without reservations.