Review: World War Z, Max Brooks; plus, ARGH GENDER STUFF

It’s fitting to have this post publishing on April Fool’s Day because it seems like nonsense that I am writing this glowing review of a zombie novel. That’s weird. I hate zombies. I’ve never liked a zombie book a day in my life. Nor a zombie movie. Nor a zombie song probably. I hate zombies. I can’t wait for them to be all the way played out so I can get back to the life I had before we were all so weirdly obsessed with zombies.

World War Z, is is the processest dystopia in the history of process dystopias. Brooks presents it as an oral history of the war against the zombies, with something like forty narrators weighing to tell their stories. It’s awfully good. Max Brooks details the impact of the zombie apocalypse on the entire world (a bit light on South America, but mostly the book is great about discussing what goes on in a lot of different countries), starting from the very first awareness that something horrific is going on and proceeding to the first battles with the zombies, the early defeats, the different challenges each country faces, and the strategies they come up with for facing the threat.

I don’t know how to review this book without getting into very spoilery details! Just, it’s really amazingly cool to see Brooks shade in this war-ridden world. He constructs some absolutely spectacular set pieces, and while I’m not sure what to expect from the move adaptation, I can definitely see some parts of it being really, really cool to see on film. The scene in — I believe — India, where thousands of people are trying to get themselves and their families onto boats, and there aren’t enough boats, and people are getting dragged into the water — SO COOL AND SCARY.

What’s great, I think, and what makes the book so chilling to me, is the combination of denial, lack of preparation, and general incompetence that lets the zombie outbreak spread as far and as fast as it does. The disaster isn’t just zombies. It’s national pride and it’s greed and it’s reliance on tradition in situations where tradition has become meaningless. It’s believing that you are somehow exempt from what’s happening to the rest of the world. It’s short-term thinking and fear and and miscommunication and failing supply chains and major, major psychological damage. These are all aspects of disasters, and I loved that Max Brooks dealt with all of them in scary, interesting, insightful ways.

Again I would like to emphasize how cool the international stuff was. I can’t imagine how much research this book must have required, but it really, really paid off. I can’t remember all the things that came up, but basically it’s made clear that every country has different political, geographical, and cultural strengths and weaknesses in the battle against the zombies. Once specific weapons are developed for fighting them, for example, the US is kind of in clover; whereas countries with no standing army and less capacity for building fancy weapons and body armor face enormous struggles. Zombies freeze in the cold (but thaw when the weather warms up) and eventually rot to pieces in the heat, and each of these outcomes has its benefits and drawbacks. It was just a lot of cool things to think about. Way to go Max Brooks!

However, I did have one fairly major complaint, and I cannot believe nobody in the entire editing process said, “Hey Max Brooks, shape up about this.” There are no damn women. And I just don’t buy it. I just don’t. It’s fine for a bunch of the soldiers to be men, because those are the people who would overwhelmingly have the training and whatnot if a world war started today (which is the book’s premise). I can accept that. But in a book with something like forty narrators (I’m estimating), there are (and here I’m not estimating) five women. Five. One of them is a beautiful feral teenager and that’s all she does. One of them is part of the group of civilians that is deliberately abandoned by the government to distract the zombies.

And, like, fine? That’s fine? I have no special problem with either of those things except insofar as those two passive victims make up forty percent of the women who get to narrate sections of this book. So many of the characters could have been women. The blind Japanese guy could have been a woman. The guy from the canine unit could have been a woman. The Brazilian doctor who did the organ transplants, the guy who came up with the pretend zombie vaccine, the Chinese doctor who we hear from first about the outbreak, the British historian, the disabled neighborhood watch guy, the guy who talks about the lack of skilled tradesmen in America, the space station guy, the guy who tells about the Indian beaches, the dirigible pilot–

Seriously, so many of these characters could have been women. It really started to piss me off that none of them were. Even in the stories where all that’s happening is the person is describing one of the cool set pieces — not a combat thing at all because blah blah more men in the military blah which would only work as an excuse if everyone in the book were soldiers — the narrators are almost all guys.

It made me sad. I really did love this book. I’ve never read a work of dystopian fiction that had such an international focus, and as you can imagine, it made the story just fascinating. I only wish Max Brooks had brought the same creativity and thoughtfulness to gender diversity as he did to national diversity. That is what I wish had happened. Then this would have been a very close to perfect book.

39 thoughts on “Review: World War Z, Max Brooks; plus, ARGH GENDER STUFF

  1. I think you raise a valid point. I enjoyed this book, like you did, though I don’t admire it as much as you do. My problem with it relates to yours though. I found each of the ‘different’ narrative voices to be basically the same. It was like having forty reiterations of the same narrator, rather than having forty different narrators. Making more of them women, probably would have helped. Certainly would have helped.

    • Oh, well, I didn’t mind about the narrative voices being the same. The trick of the book wasn’t the author’s chameleonlike ability to make forty realistic voices; it was his ability to write a whole bunch of facets of a really good story. But yeah, could have used more women in the mix.

  2. I loved this but I didn’t really spot the gender imbalance (my bad) at the time. The thing that stuck with me was the stuff about North Korea, which was disturbingly plausible. I get the sense the film is going to br hugely different though…

    • Oh yeah, the stuff about North Korea was really good. Everything was awfully good, I thought! I’m not sure what to expect from the film — but I agree, it looks like a very big departure from the book.

  3. I read this when it first came out and remember enjoying some satiric aspects, with the way different nations respond. Interesting that you didn’t find any of that dated, five years later.

    • I didn’t, but I am also not that smart, so it’s possible the geopolitical stuff is completely out of date and I just didn’t know because I’m dumb.

  4. You are the first person to make a compelling case for reading this book. And then it was TAKEN all away by saying the women angle sucks.

    Nah, I might still read it. Maybe. But booooo to boy writers being dumb in this respect.

  5. I loved this book, but until you mentioned it, I didn’t even notice the lack of women. That makes me ashamed. I do, however, remember that badass woman who single handedly fought off hoards of zombies while injured by talking to some mysterious other woman on the radio. Still doesn’t make it right. But it helps a little.

    • I didn’t notice while I was reading it, I confess! I was too enthralled by the story. It was only towards the end, when all the narrators were sort of wrapping up, that I realized they were all dudes. That one badass woman was indeed quite cool but yeah, there was only one of her. :/

  6. I just ordered this one from the library after reading your reaction to it. It sounds amazing, but for the lack of women. I do think that there could have been more women in the book, and that would have made sense, as the world is populated heavily with them (!!). I am going to give this one a listen and see what I think, but I am already a little offended that there are no women.

    • It is a really good book, and if you’re having it on audio, I have heard that the audio production is very good indeed. It’s definitely worth the read!

    • Hahahaha, just for you, Kim. :p I hope the library is well-stocked and that people have not all checked it out forever because of the forthcoming film. I placed a hold on it a little while before the movie trailers started showing up, which is why the hold got in so quickly. I fear it might not be that way now…

      • My library is awesome. The had a copy and it was just sitting on the shelf when I stopped by there tonight for a meeting. I am deeply excited. And there’s a movie? How did I not know that too? I’m so out of the loop sometimes.

  7. Damn. Now I want to read this! I don’t do zombie movies or novels at all but your review makes me want to pick this one up. Except for the fact that there’s not enough women narrators, this book sounds pretty amazing.

  8. For the international aspect, I would love to read this even though I’m not particularly bothered about zombie books. The way he’s detailed the cultures and, from what you’ve said, not just rested on the same ideas for everyone, sounds fantastic. The women thing, not so much. When you said few women I thought ok, but when you repeated the 40, yes, that does sound odd. Nevertheless it does sound well researched and with a lot to learn despite the fact it’s not real.

    • What was especially cool — or one thing that was especially cool — was that many different nations adopted the same plan, but each nation had to implement it differently. That said a lot about the mindset of the countries, I think, and the topography and climate and all these different things. It was very cool.

  9. My son and his girlfriend are both very keen on zombies (as it were), so I will definitely look out for this book for them. Cordelia’s thoughts on the gender question should be very interesting and will definitely be pithy!

    • Is her name really Cordelia? That’s such a good name! Nobody’s named Cordelia anymore! Did they see Warm Bodies? Did they like it? (I was thinking of watching it except I really don’t like zombies.)

      • I don’t know! I’ll have to ask them if they have. They both really liked Zombieland (a movie you’d have to pay me a lot of money to watch – I’m with you when it comes to zombies!).

  10. I liked it, but you’re right, there were very few women featured in the stories. I remember one or two but it was almost all men. The international bits were cool and I liked how he brought the different cultural aspects into how each country dealt with the zombies. I thought it got tedious towards the end though — I can only take so many zombie heads exploding!

    • Hahahaha, I know what you mean. I didn’t mind though. By the time the end rolled around I was quite invested in the world saving itself, so the zombie heads exploding felt nicely revengey.

  11. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Loved the various voices explaining their experiences, and the way individuals responded as the infrastructure collapsed.

  12. Thank you for your hatred of zombies. It’s something I don’t dare admit in company–I feel as if everyone might suddenly turn their heads, give me a long look of disgust, walk over, grab me, hold me down, and tattoo “Hoity-toity” on my forehead. Also thank you for continuing to write one of my favorite blogs to lurk.

    • Pfft. You can admit it. Admit it proudly! Zombies and boring and lurchy, and The Walking Dead has awkward racial dynamics. (According to some websites I read sometimes. I haven’t watched it because I hate zombies.)

      Hi! I miss you when you are not around. Thank you for continuing to be one of my favorite lurking commenters.

  13. I didn’t love this as much as you, though I totally appreciate everything you say about’s just not the type of zombie book I love I guess, IDK! BUT maybe it’s just bc of the appalling lack of female voices, tbh.

  14. Late to the game in commenting but I’m glad you enjoyed this book overall. I really thought it was fascinating how Max Brooks took zombies and then wrote really plausible reactions from governments, military and individuals. I like zombies (though I’m not a Walking Dead watcher) but I have told people when I recommend this book that they don’t have to be zombie fans to like this book, and I’m glad to have your review as proof that can be true.

    • Yep, totally agree. You can continue telling everyone that non-zombie-lovers can enjoy this book, with a clear conscience! That’s what I’m telling people too.

  15. Pingback: Reviewletts: ‘You’ and ‘World War Z’

  16. Pingback: Review – World War Z | Just Book Reading

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