Every couple of years or so, I watch Night of the Living Dead. It always goes like this:
1. The credits roll, and I am all "Woo hoo! Zombies!"
2. The first horde of the shambling undead lurches over the horizon, and I am suddenly quiet and still, lest they see me.
3. The first arm gets bitten into, and I begin scoping out the exits of the theater while keeping an eye on the mass of undead extras on the screen, because I am not entirely sure that they are going to stay in there. Zombies, after all, care not for the distinction between cinema and reality. Zombies care only for eating people.
Zombies also seem to enjoy skeeving me out such that I always regret watching a zombie movie before the third reel starts, and freaking me out so completely that I dare not stop watching, in case they come to my house later that night and ask me why I didn't stay for the end.
I tell you all of this so that when I say to you that I devoured (heh) Max Collins' World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War in two sittings, pausing only (and grudgingly) for sleep, you appreciate the extent of my enjoyment of this book.
In WWZ, Brooks apes the format of all of those hastily written world geo-politics books that you see waiting to ensnare your dad in large piles at the front of Barnes & Nobles. It's written, a la Studs Terkel or Douglas Brinkley, as a series of interviews with key players and everyday survivors set a few years after the dead started rising and things went to hell.
(FYI, it started in China. It also turns out that China was not the best place for such a thing to start if we, as a planet, had hoped to contain the zombie plague before it spread to too many people.)
Happily, Brooks never winks at the reader by having a President Romero or any other clumsy references to Barhhrbarhah, and anything that may or may not have come to get her.* He keeps his future history firmly grounded in reality - except for the walking corpses - and as a result the horror stuff takes a backseat to the policies, international jockeying, and containment strategies that eventually brought humanity back from the brink. It is both suprisingly un-gory and extremely inventive, as when a U.S. Military grunt points out the difficulty of making headshots after years of being trained to shoot at the chest.
These little details - like the way the grunts call the undead "Zack" in the tradition of "Charlie" or "Ivan" - are engaging enough, but the plotting is where Brooks shows a surprising facility for the format that he's chosen. The fictionalized responses of international organizations, militaries, and nations are all-too believable, and you probably can guess which side they err on.
In other words, this is a zombie novel for those who never thought they'd have cause to read such a thing. It takes a clever conceit and runs with it; WWZ outstrips its own premise without sacrificing the attractions of the genres that made the conceit clever in the first place.
If you liked Shaun of the Dead, or any of those books that detail the often sluggish responses of policy wonks to an outbreak of Ebola or some natural disaster, this book is for you.
* Take, for example, the blurb on the dust jacket, which proclaims "Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.")