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.

Review: The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker; plus, a new term I coined and feel good about

I stealth-borrowed The Age of Miracles from my friend the Enthusiast on a day when he wasn’t at work and I forgot my Nook at home. The subway ride with nothing to read was so unbearably boring I wanted to rip all of my hair out of my head just to have something to do. The Enthusiast has one and a half shelves full of readable books at his cubicle, but I didn’t want most of them. I almost borrowed Coetzee’s Disgrace, but luckily Lil Liv Tyler, who sits at the desk across from the Enthusiast, warned me that (spoilers, but the kind you want to know about if you are like me and hate reading about sexual violence) the daughter gets gang-raped! What! I did not know about this. So I borrowed The Age of Miracles instead, although I think the title and cover are boring.

I don’t know, y’all. I know that authors make up their own titles, but I wish someone at Random House had proposed an alternate title, and I wish the cover design team had designed a different cover. The Age of Miracles is sort of chilling, and the title and cover make it look like it’s going to be kind of heartwarming, but then you’re like, No, it’s probably too literary to be heartwarming, so maybe it’s one of those sort of very sad suburban desperation novels.

If that’s what you’ve been thinking, good news: FALSE! It’s much more like the adult version of Susan Beth Pfefffer’s Life as We Knew It. Except not obviously more adult. And not as scary. Look, I don’t even know what the distinctions are. Why is this not young adult and the Pfeffer series is? What is happening in this world?

Here’s what happening in the world of The Age of Miracles: The earth’s rotation has slowed down. Suddenly the days are forty-five minutes longer. Then ninety minutes. After a while, each day lasts for 72 hours. Nobody knows why this is happening or how to make it stop. Birds fall from the sky. Gravity weighs more heavily on everybody, so sports don’t function the same way they used to. Some people — it’s not clear why those people and not others — come down with a mysterious collection of symptoms they call, for lack of a better term, gravity sickness. With no idea of what to do, the government institutes “clock time”, which means that everyone will keep living on the same schedules they’ve always kept, no matter what the sun is doing in the sky. As all of this is happening, thirteen-year-old Julia is growing up, nursing a crush on a boy at her school, going to piano lessons, watching her parents argue.

I loved about The Age of Miracles that the world was perpetually on the verge of unlivable disaster, and it never quite came. The changes to the world are ominous because they seem to portend disaster, and as that degree of catastrophe fails and fails to materialize, the situation becomes more tense, not less. The characters adapt and carry on with their lives, but the reader knows that worse must be coming. Sometimes the characters seem to know this too — the protagonist’s mother stocks up on canned foods and stores them in the back against the day that groceries are no longer available — and sometimes they are too occupied trying to find some semblance of normalcy to pay attention to what’s coming.

I shall now coin the term process dystopia, which I doubt I’ll ever need to use again because it’s such a rare category of dystopian book. Ordinarily — I said this when I was reviewing The Uninvited — the dystopian novel begins long after the Events. You hear about them in narration, or else sometimes in flashback, and that’s your glimpse into how the world shifted from our normal to the protagonist’s. The Age of Miracles gives it to you piece by piece, every step of the process of building the new normal: First they don’t notice, then nobody knows what the hell to do, then it’s clock time, then people who won’t keep clock time are treated with suspicion, then birds are dropping dead on your porch every day. And so forth.

So I like this. I like a process dystopia. I like watching people inspect their circumstances and figure out how to behave in ever-changing circumstances so that they can have some semblance of routine and normalcy. I like this because I am a person to whom routine is stupendously important. In particular, I liked how the world’s testing of its new rules — clock time? let’s give it a try! — paralleled the process you go through in adolescence of testing the rules of adulthood, figuring out where you fit into it, establishing what is normal and right for yourself. Julia is navigating both of these things simultaneously, and it makes for fascinating reading.

Disregard the title and cover of this book! It’s all bad marketing. Embrace the process dystopia! If you are still reluctant, I’ll add that this is a very very quick read. I read the whole thing on two subway rides: home from work after borrowing this from the Enthusiast, and back to work the following morning.