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World War Z – Max Brooks’ Boring Zombie Apocalypse


If I had to choose between rereading World War Z and facing a zombie apocalypse, I would go with the zombie apocalypse.

World War Z by Max Brooks isn’t just a bad book. It’s an unreadable book. It’s like a zombie Tom Clancy without any understanding of plot or storytelling. Writing in conversational first person from multiple viewpoints would be a difficult enough trick for a professional writer. Max Brooks isn’t up to it and not just for all the obvious reasons.

Open a page, any page, here’s what you’re going to find.

Gagron rolls a cigarette, looks at the waitress

Then we brought down the T-Hawks in xa-320 time. Buenos Aires was spread open in front of us. The Dawbies (*Dawbies were the nickname given by Argentinian special forces to their purchased Russian A-260s) and Zebras were everywhere. I didn’t know what to do. We stood around for a bit. Then Zebra was on us. That’s where I got this scar.

Senor, I still have nightmares about it today.

World War Z would be defensible if it were an actual collection of stories about an actual war. But it’s a fictional collection of fake narratives about zombies that skips the zombie part more often than you would think for some kind of second rate war trauma narrative for a war that never happened.

Max Brooks spends too much of World War Z establishing global references for every country he hops to, but the actual zombie outbreak falls between the cracks except for an early scene in China and a battle in Yonkers. The references are supposed to lend authenticity to a story that just isn’t interesting because it’s buried in Wikipediaisms, in footnotes and factoids and footnotes in factoids.

World War Z might have made for a decent novel if it had tried to tell a third person story in real time. Instead its first person aftermath interviews are not only a pointless gimmick, like blood on the camera lens, to make a story seem authentic by adding a filter to it, but it bypasses most of the interesting parts of a zombie war.

That is what’s so strange about World War Z, from its fake classics book cover to its trauma case files it wants legitimacy that doesn’t belong to a zombie story. Like a movie about Lincoln killing vampires, a story about a zombie apocalypse is never going to be legit.

Max Brooks’ dubious accomplishment in World War Z is to make a zombie apocalypse seem boring by treating it like the aftermath of the Vietnam War, instead of a story about monsters that eat people.

Good Reviews, Bad Reviews, No Reviews

Some time ago I dashed off a quick take on THE SOLARIS BOOK OF NEW SCIENCE FICTION by way of the first story, a long Neo-Vietnam War rehash with blue skinned Vietnamese people by one Jeffrey Thomas called In His Sights. Basically take the cliched post-Vietnam War story, move it to another dimension where all the Vietnamese people are blue skinned and then focus on two disturbed vets and you’ve got a story that’s even worse than it sounds. But apparently over on his blog, Jeffrey Thomas, by way of some emoticons, cites two blogs, someone else’s and mine, to balance out who liked his story and who didn’t.

I really don’t know why he bothered since it’s the usual thing amateur writers respond with, “I’m not bothered that someone doesn’t like my story” followed by “He’s probably just a failed writer.” Which is basically a way for him to process his emotional response to my post. Admittedly my post wasn’t much of a critique but then there wasn’t much to criticize. Taking some of the biggest cliches around the Vietnam War and pulling an Abbess Phone Home bit with them by moving them to another dimension leaves little to discuss. Bad stories have potential areas of improvement, cliches are just cliches and In His Sights is one long cliche dipped into some extremely implausible SciFi that doesn’t even pretend to be aiming for any kind of scientific plausibility.

I’m not the biggest stickler for Hard SF but if you’re going to write Science Fiction, then at least make the effort. Blue skinned vietnamese people and superpower mutations might have worked in say the 30’s and the 50’s respectively, but they don’t work today. They obviously work for Solaris, but that’s their deficit.

In His Sights by Jeffrey Thomas

So last time I was at the library I made the mistake of picking up a bright and shiny anthology of Science Fiction stories from Solaris. The cover had the usual techy picture of a dinged up spaceship with the usual product of photoshop cloning all over it, but that was okay. The pompous introduction by George Mann, was okay– at least after I read the part about Two Words– Six Billion Ideas and skipped the rest.

Now I’m usually wary of SciFi anthologies, especially these days, when an anthology half the time means you throw together the same bunch of writers everyone else is anthologizing and ignore the broader field. No surprise that Paul DiFillipo will show up here, a poor man’s Philip Dick and the usuals like Ian Watson, fantastically overrated. But this was one anthology where I couldn’t make it past the first story.

This sad specimen was titled In His Sights by one Jeffrey Thomas. I’ve seen far too many SciFi Vietnam War pastiches but this is undoubtedly the very worst. At least when Ursulla LeGuin pieced together her Vietnam War story, The Word for World is Forest, she used aliens. Jeffrey Thomas decided to be more subtle and use Vietnamese people with blue skin from another dimension. No that’s not a typo.

In His Sights is a story about soldiers coming home from Vietnam by way of another dimension where the people look just like us except they’re all Vietnamese and have blue skin– possibly because of their sun. Basically imagine a cliched Vietnam War story about vets coming home with some lame Scifi tacked on to it. The kind of half-assed stuff someone with no clue would come up with– like hey, let’s make one vet a mutant who can duplicate people’s faces, cause he lives on a planet with some radioactive pollution and ain’t that how biology works. On the X-Men.

So mutant Vietnam vet who got back from shooting blue skinned Vietnamese people from another dimension in a war fought so the US Interplanetary Interstellar Interdimensional story could steal the gases created by their people decomposing in crypts (can’t they just pile humans in crypts until they decompose into gases and use those?) tangles with second crazy Vietnam vet– a brilliantly original character who buys a rifle and has sex with asian prostitutes cause he just ain’t recovered from that war with the blue viet cong.

Is the story really this bad? No it’s worse. It’s written without any trace of subtlety. It hits every cliche and does so gracelessly. It’s a ripoff of 50 better stories and yet this is what gets published and republished simply because… because why? Ah that’s the question.

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