Max Brooks is the Ken Burns of zombie history. In World War Z, a nameless interviewer discusses the experiences of the zombie war with its survivors, and each survivor has a different take on the crisis depending on their occupation, social status, or area of the world they lived. Together, their combined stories create a patchwork showing us the global undead crisis as a whole.
Sounds like a documentary to us. The only difference is that the zombie wars have never happened before and arguably—hopefully!—never will.
Tonally, Brooks shows the same attention to detail of any good documentarian. Just check out Colonel Eliopolis's story and look at all the details Brooks put into Eliopolis's speech to demonstrate her career in the Air Force (6.5). He got all those details by actually going out and interviewing people for the novel. No, there wasn't a secret undead scuffle you weren't told about. Rather, Brooks was doing his research. In his own words:
That was easy for me. The hard part was the research. The irony was that for a book of fake interviews, I had to do just as many real interviews with real people who do those real jobs to get at it. It was almost more a work of journalism than of fiction. (source)
Ever wonder why Michael Choi's description of submersibles seems so real or Todd Wainio's story of being a grunt in a zombie war so realistic? It's probably because there's a real Michael Choi or Todd Wainio out there.
An army of your friends and relatives have risen from their bloody graves and are chomping at your ankles as you run, desperately try to find a safe place to sleep. What emotion do you think this scenario is trying to convey? Romantic love? Um, no. Swashbuckling adventure? It sounds a little more dire than that. Horror? Ding!
Teen love stories have all but been defanged the vampires, werewolves can earn our sympathy, and creatures from the Black Lagoon are no threat if you just read the "Do Not Swim" signs surrounding the Black Lagoon. But zombies are plain scary, even in comedies.
There's no reasoning, no falling in love, and no avoiding zombies. Like an apocalypse on two legs, they'll find you unless you find them first. And even if you survive your personal encounter, the cost of human life might cripple law enforcement, the government, and perhaps society as a whole, leaving you to wander a hell made from the shambles of your former life.
Sounds pretty horrific to us.
Horror and satire? Seriously? Well…yes and no.
World War Z shares several qualities with satire. The laugh-out-loud, comedy quality is missing in action, mostly thanks to a healthy dollop of run-for-your-life terror. But, the part of satire that uses absurdities to criticize aspects of society, now that is definitely present.
The absurd elements are—what else?—the zombies. They are a supernatural element, and as much as we love them, the idea of corpses reanimating simply to go nom on our gizzards is pretty darn silly. By using this silly element, World War Z manages to criticize so much of our modern existence: modern man's lack of survival skills, bureaucratic inadequacies, racism, nationalism, first-world problems, and human rights violations.
While maybe not technically satire, World War Z has a little bit of silly that can be taken with a whole lot of seriousness.
Brooks's novel is based a lot on Stud Terkel's The Good War—a nonfiction book consisting of interviews from World War II survivors (source). As such, World War Z is very much a war drama but with a unique twist—and no, we don't mean just because it plays host to a cavalcade of cannibals.
Terkel's book focuses on World War II, a very real war that took place in our very real reality. But the zombie wars are completely fictional. This allows Brooks to borrow different parts from all sorts of historical wars. In fact, the war historians among us will notice Brooks drawing much imaginative inspiration from World War II (obviously), the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, World War I, and even the Revolutionary War.
With so many different wars present, World War Z becomes less a war drama focusing on the effects and consequences of a single conflict in human history, but on the entire idea of war and its relationship to human society.
But with zombies.
The title World War Z is a rather blatant riff on the name of two rather famous 20th century conflicts, World War I and World War II. Perhaps you've heard of them? Obviously, the title plays off the idea that the entire world is entrenched in this war, just like the previous world wars. Only this time, there are, you know, zombies.
But what about the full title, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War? That subtitle is also an allusion, only a tad less obvious one.
Back in the ancient days of yore—1984 to be specific—a writer named Studs Terkel put out a Pulitzer Prize-winning book titled The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two. In this nonfiction work, Terkel interviewed people around the world to get their firsthand stories of the Second World War, starting form Pearl Harbor and going all the way to end. Sound familiar? Yep, Brooks fashioned his fictionalized account of the zombie war after Terkel's very real account of World War II (Source).
So, we have a title doubling down on its duties. On the one hand, the title tells you exactly what you'll be reading on the pages between its covers—that is, a world war plus zombies. On the other hand, the title alludes to its inspirations, hinting at all the themes and ideas that any literary history brings with it.
Oh, and in case you don't want to take our word for it, here's Max Brooks talking about his title choice in an interview. Always good to have an extra opinion or two.
Watch a movie based on actual events, and nine times out of ten, it'll have a section before the credits telling you what happened to the real life people the movies is based on. You can check out this clip from The Pianist to see what we mean.
The final chapter of World War Z, titled "Good-Byes," works like those brief bios at The Pianist's ending. We get a bunch of really brief sections letting us know what the characters have learned from the zombie war or what they're doing now that things are returning to relative normal. These sections also help tie up the thematic threads Brooks set throughout the novel.
Here are a couple of examples:
• Mrs. Miller continues to be a mother now that the zombie war has come to a close. (Yeah, that's kind of the way it works.) She mentions, "I'm the American system, I'm the machine" (9.5.2).
• Kwang Jingshu's ending informs us that he's still caring and sharing as an awesome doctor.
• We never hear from entrepreneur Breckinridge Scott after his interview, but Arthur Sinclair mentions the government is interested in extraditing him to the US, suggesting a wee-bit of comeuppance for this unscrupulous character.
• Johnny Clegg's good-bye suggests the darker side of warfare as the character can no longer live a life without the thrill of the kill (9.3.3). On the other hand, we learn that "Mackee" MacDonald might just be making peace with his own warfare experiences (9.3.10).
• Michael Choi's final hurrah plays on the natural effects of the zombie wars. Here, Choi mentions how the zombie plague disturbed the natural world just as bad, if not worst, than the human world, especially if you look at it from a whale's perspective.
And so on. Each good-bye gives us some sense of closure, whether it's thematic closure, plot endings, information on a character's future, or some combination of the above.
It's hard to pin down the definitive setting of World War Z. Partly, that's because the setting changes every time the Interviewer chats it up with another character. Partly it results from not one but two fractured timelines to consider. But mostly this difficulty arises from the fact that Brooks can be super helpful with some setting details while being exceptionally tight-lipped with others. As a result, we're going to have to do some sleuthing and see what clues we can dig up to help us out.
To simplify the matter, we're going to focus our setting analysis on the elements of time and place in relation to the whole novel. Yes, there are other aspects of setting you could tackle if you wished to. For example, you could analyze each chapter's unique time and place within the zombie war—what we'd call a microsetting—to discover the purpose that specific setting serves to develop the characters inhabiting it or the novel as a whole.
But for now, we're going to stick to the broader strokes.
Unlike when, Brooks lets you know exactly where these stories are set, and the short answer is all over the place—except, oddly, Australia. We have chapters taking place in Russia, China, South Africa, America, Britain, France, Germany, the Caribbean, the Pacific Ocean, and even outer space. In other words, when Brooks titled his book World War Z, he put extra emphasis on the world part of things.
Why such a broad scope? For us, we like to go back to the idea of the "human factor" the Interviewer brings up at the novel's beginning. The Interviewer mentions the world is plagued by problems such as "[m]alnutrition, pollution, the rise of previously eradicated ailments, [and] not enough resources" (1.1.4).
Like the zombies, these problems are worldwide, affecting everyone currently spinning about on the Earth's surface. So, from the very beginning, Brooks points us toward considering these problems on a global scale rather than focusing only on individual countries or nationalities. The zombies then become a symbol of worldwide issues: no one is safe, because we're all connected.
Brooks gives us very few concrete details about the setting's time. What little we can say comes from the few temporal breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout the novel as well as a dollop of assumption.
For starters, let's be clear that there are two timelines—the timeline of the Zombie War and the timeline of the Interviewer. The story technically takes place in the Interviewer's timeline, but the events of the story proper happen in the past during the Zombie War. So, we'll probably have the best luck solving this time mystery if we tackle the Zombie War first.
The chapter titles give us a very rough timeline of the Zombie Wars themselves. The sections in "Warnings" tell us of the first zombie encounters while "The Great Panic" details the initial, and rather unsuccessful, battles with the human-devouring dead-brains before "Total War" gives us the human's final push toward victory. Since these stories take place all over the world, they overlap one another. So, it's hard to piece together any specific dates in how these things are connected (not that we won't try in the next section).
What we can safely assume is that Zombie Wars take place in an era very close to our present one. The technology of Brooks's zombie-infested world is roughly parallel with our own. The characters don't rely on the horse-and-buggy to get around, and they don't shoot zombies with ray guns. Instead, they fly in airplanes, use computers, and fight with modern day weaponry. And what this means is that it's a pretty safe bet Brooks is using zombies to say something about our very own era.
Just for fun, we're going to give our best guess as to the specific years of World War Z's timeline. Please remember, this timeline supports itself on a lot of supposition and is in no way official. Rather, our bootleg version of the timeline simply exists because we found it fun to create and to give you a starting place for your own conjectures.
A few key details point us in the general direction of some more specific dates:
• Mrs. Mary Miller mentions watching Celebrity Fat Camp. We believe this show to be Brooks's please-don't-sue-me way of renaming Celebrity Fit Club, a TV series that had its first season in 2005 and its last in 2010.
• Jesika Hendricks mentions people bringing Gamecubes with them during the initial stages of the Great Panic. This Nintendo console was discontinued in 2007 after the release of the Wii. We imagine diehard video game fans would probably have wanted to carry their Wiis and Xbox 360s had the Great Panic occurred anytime after that date.
• The Land Warrior system used at the Battle of Yonkers had its military funding cut in 2007 and silently died.
• Also, let's not forget that people who lived through World War II are still alive. The farther we go into the future with this timeline, the less likely that's to be the case.
So, here's what we're proposing. The first zombie warnings took place early in the noughties, and spread throughout 2003 and 2005. (Hey, these zombie invasions don't happen overnight.) The Great Panic probably kicked off sometime after 2005. Our guess is Spring of 2006 because Jesika Hendricks's story starts in August "two weeks after Yonkers" (5.4.3).
So, while this world had to deal with a zombie invasion, at least they only had to put up with two seasons of Celebrity Fat Camp. You win some, you lose some.
The Great Panic lasted one winter at minimum, so the war's tide didn't start turning until at least 2007. But the United States basically surrendered every state east of the Rookies. We're going to assume it took time to lose that much ground and say the chapters "Home Front USA" and "Around the World, and Above" don't start until sometime in 2008.
Terry Knox mentions being stranded on the International Space Station for three years. If we assume the world would have to be winning the war to gather the resources necessary for space flight, then we believe the "Total War" chapter begins in 2010 at the earliest.
Our best guess puts VA-Day or "Victory in America" Day sometime in 2011 or perhaps early 2012. We believe this because the Interviewer mentions China's V-Day to be ten years ago, meaning they've "been at peace about as long as [they] were at war" (1.1.4). If the war was truly a decade long, and our start date of 2003 is accurate, then VC-Day would be sometime in 2013 or 14, and VA-Day was two years before China's. This also means the Interviewer performs these interviews sometime in the early to mid 2020s.
So, how'd we do? Agree? Disagree? Did we miss something? Feel free to take what we've put here and tweak it to come up with your own personalized World War Z timeline.
Max Brooks has a zombie war on his hands, and apparently that was terrifying enough: World War Z is an easy, sea-level jaunt across the war-torn beaches littered with the decomposing, undead masses. His sentences ease you in with a tone reminiscent of an easy-going conversation, and his word choice presents a vibe of everyday chitchat.
Difficulties? Well, Brooks does have a love of acronyms and slang. Partly, this is because a majority of his characters work either in the military or government, and people in those occupations just love their work-time slang. But partly this is simply Brooks's own fondness, since he creates acronyms and slang words for his made-up weapons or organizations.
For example, Brooks employs the acronym NRA several times in the novel. This acronym could describe the very real National Rifle Association or Brooks's own zombie war creation the National Reeducation Act (6.1.8). Both exist in the novel's world and sometimes the context doesn't make things perfectly clear. But, like a seaweed-garbed zombie who has washed ashore, these instances can easily be walked around.
This one won't come as a surprise to anyone who's read the novel—or any of our learning guide: World War Z is written like a compilation of interviews.
As a result, the writing style is very chatty, with lots of slang. Almost like you're having a conversation with another person. Here's an example of what we're talking about:
Everything had kind of a retro feel about it. Our Lobos looked like something out of, I don't know, Lord of the Rings. Standard orders were to use it only when necessary, but, trust me, we made it necessary a lot. (8.2.3)
Todd Wainio's whole attitude is just shooting the breeze: the slang term retro, the offhanded reference to Lord of the Rings, the comical emphasis on a lot. Also notice how the sentences have little interjections within them—the "I don't know" and "Trust me" located between the commas. It all adds up to something more in line with a conversation than a doctoral dissertation.
Brooks's writing style grants us access to the zombie war at its most personal level. Of course, if you like your zombies with a little less extraneous detail, then Max Brooks has you covered with his Zombie Survival Guide.
Since the dawn of the beginning of the start of time itself, zombies have been provided important symbols for our novels, movies, and video games.
All right, maybe we overshot a little bit.
But, we can safely say, without exaggeration, that every good zombie story has the zombies amount to more than flesh-devouring horrors sent from beyond the grave to plague humankind. Those undead buggers provide an important symbolic core to the tale, and World War Z is no exception.
What do the zombies represent in the novel? There's no simple answer, but if we had to sum it up succinctly, then we'd probably say they symbolize disaster at its most extreme.
Take a minute and really check out the language and imagery employed to describe the zombies. You'll notice a lot of different comparisons at work:
The point is that they exhibit all of these qualities together, meaning that they symbolically reference all these things at the same time. The zombies are war, natural disasters, plague, destruction, and—not least—human evil all embodied in an undead body. Or as Max Brooks put it:
The lack of rational thought has always scared me when it came to zombies, the idea that there is no middle ground, no room for negotiation. That has always terrified me. Of course that applies to terrorists, but it can also apply to a hurricane, or flu pandemic, or the potential earthquake that I grew up with living in L.A. Any kind of mindless extremism scares me, and we're living in some [pretty] extreme times. (Source.)
So, the zombies are all these things and also the fear of all these things rolled into one. When the characters of World War Z battle against the groaning ghoulies, they also battle symbolically against these extreme aspects of our existence as well.
While the ghoulies often signify really big disasters in the novel, they can also symbolize smaller disasters or challenges.
We have an example for you. Colonel Christina Eliopolis is a woman pilot in the man -centered society of the U.S military. In one scene she mentions, "My crew, the 'guys,' used to give me a lot of grief, you know, girls always having to go. I know they weren't really putting the hate on, but I still tried to hold it as long as I could" (6.5.25). It's a small thing, but her reaction to the joke shows how seriously she takes the matter personally.
After her plane crashes, she has to survive in the wilderness, against the zombies, alone. Here, the zombies still exist as a symbol of horror, but the horror becomes more personal challenge than global calamity. Eliopolis must overcome her own fears and insecurities as a woman, and the zombies are the obstacles in her path.
So, just to sum things up: zombies represent everything bad that we have to overcome—individually, nationally, and globally. How's that for a symbol?
Images of weapons feature prominently in World War Z. How prominent are they? Take a look:
The next kill zone was direct fire form the heavy arms, the tank's main 120s and Bradleys with their chain guns and FOTT missiles. The Humvees also began to open up, mortars and missiles and the Mark-19s, which are, like, machine guns, but firing grenades. The Comanches came whining in at what felt like inches above our heads with chains and Hellfires and Hydra rocket pods. (4.7.31)
That's one of the many paragraphs, in the Battle of Yonkers alone, describing weaponry. Don't even get Colonel Eliopolis started on aircraft; you'll be there all day. So, why?
Depending on how you read the novel, you'll probably have your own answer to this question. Our favorite has to do with paying attention to how and why the novel's narrators favor certain types of weaponry.
According to Todd Wainio, one of the failures of the Battle of Yonkers was not understanding the weaponry. HE 155s and MLRS rockets sure do go boom well, but when your goal is to "destroy the brain, not the body," they make for a poor offensive option because they're less precise than even a lowly hunting rifle. Instead, Todd Wainio prefers the SIR (standard infantry rifle) or even the hand-to-hand weapon, the Lobo (8.2.3-4).
Notice the difference? These are simple weapons. They don't use million-dollar guidance systems or require an engineering degree to operate. Instead, they can be learned, taken care of, and used by anybody.
The difference goes beyond mere kill ratio. Symbolically, the simple weapons support the novel's promotion of individuality and self-reliance. According to the novel, the government, military, and your society are there to help you along—but not take over. As Arthur Sinclair put it, society provides the collection of the individual's "tools and talent" (6.1.3).
With the more technologically advanced weapons, the protagonists have little control over their operation or targets. The tools are there but the talent is missing. With the more simple weapons, the protagonists can work together or alone to met the threat. In taking up their choice of weapon, they also chose the path to individuality and self-reliance.
You know what's fun? Writing syllogisms (fun being a relative term). Here's one we just came up with:
Major Premise: Novels usually have people or objects symbolizing their important themes.
Minor Premise: Education is an important theme in World War Z.
Conclusion: Education probably has a person or object symbolizing the theme in World War Z.
And it does. In fact, it has two important symbols to consider when figuring out the novel's view on the importance of knowledge and using that knowledge effectively. They are:
The "Warmbrunn-Knight" report is the first report that tries to educate the governments of the world on the zombie threat. Unfortunately, it's mostly ignored—at the cost of millions of human lives, billions of dollars of damage, and a war that set human civilization back a century or two.
Why was the "Warmbrunn-Knight" report ignored? According to Carlson Grover:
Can you imagine what America would have been like if the federal government slammed on the breaks every time some paranoid crackpot cried "wolf" or "global warming" or "living dead"? Please. What we did, what every president since Washington has done, was provide a measured, appropriate response, in direct relation to a realistic threat assessment. (3.4.4)
In short, rather than educating themselves on the new situation, the administration used tried-and-true methods that required them to learn nothing new, gather no new knowledge. And that laziness almost turns us all into zombies (both literally and metaphorically).
The Redeker Plan can be seen as the "Warmbrunn-Knight" report's successor. Like the "Warmbrunn-Knight" report, Paul Redeker's plan is a series of suggestion for weathering an undead swarm. In fact, Warmbrunn says, "if more people had read our report and worked to makes its recommendations a reality, then that plan would have never needed to exist" (2.6.18). So while Redeker's Plan is a necessary successor, that's not necessarily a good thing.
So, we hear some of you saying, what's the big deal? Redeker's Plan was listened to and the "Warmbrunn-Knight" Report wasn't; what's the difference? The answer: just a couple million (or even billion) human lives.
The "Warmbrunn-Knight" report calls for fortifying a nation's position before the zombies arrive, ensuring everyone behind the defensive line was more-or-less protected.
Redeker's plan calls for setting up a safe zone with some of a nation's citizens and then herding the rest into "special isolated zones" where they "were to be 'human bait'" for the living dead (5.1.14). See the difference?
The Redeker Plan picks up where the "Warmbrunn-Knight" report leaves off. Whereas the "Warmbrunn-Knight" report shows the importance of education, the Redeker Plan shows that you can always re-educate yourself to face a new situation.
Of course, the longer you wait to gather your knowledge and develop your plan, the least likely you are to like your answer. True of war, true of politics, and certainly true when facing a swarm of deadheads.
Radio Free Earth finishes the novel's education trinity. An offshoot of the Redeker Plan, Radio Free Earth is a broadcast beginning in South Africa and eventually spreading its message to the whole world. That message is simply education. As Barati Palshigar puts it:
Ignorance was the enemy. Lies and superstition, misinformation, disinformation. Sometimes, no information at all. Ignorance killed billions of people. Ignorance caused the Zombie War. (7.2.2)
Radio Free Earth symbolizes something really important: the potential formation of a true global culture. Just check out its name: not "Radio Free US," or "Radio Free Zimbabwe," but Radio Free Earth: for everyone.
This station dishes out information to the people and for the people. Its goal is to root out superstition, misinformation, and disinformation amongst individual citizens—bringing them together in the process.
World War Z is technically a first-person peripheral narrator but it reads like first-person central narrator, and… we're getting ahead of ourselves, aren't we? Let's back up a bit and start with what it means to be a first-person narrative.
You can tell a story is in the first person when the narrative character is telling you what's happening to them. The easiest way to discern this fact is if the narrator uses the "I" pronoun when speaking. "I" equals first person about 99.6 percent of the time. Rounding down.
A peripheral narrator is a narrator who isn't the central character in the story being told. They stand on the sideline—the periphery —and tell you what they are seeing, like a sports announcer versus someone actually playing in the game. If you've read The Great Gatsby, then you've read a first-person periphery narrator. Nick Caraway sits on the periphery and tells you the main character's, Gatsby's, story.
But wait—aren't all these stories are being told by characters in their own story? Like, a central narrator?
Yes and no. It reads like it's a central narrator because each interviewed characters tells us his or her story. But remember that all these stories are being related to us through the Interviewer. The best way to remember this is to check out the opening of any section:
[I stand on the short with Ajay Shah, looking out at the rusting wrecks of the once-proud ships.] (4.2.1)
This opening paragraph lets us know the Interviewer is on the periphery, relaying to us what the central narrators—the interviewees—have told him. And since the central narrators aren't telling us, the readers, directly, we have to land on first-person peripheral narrator as this novel's narrative technique.