I’m not much of an audiobook person. I like to be able to flip back and forth, quickly referencing past events or maybe just savoring a particularly choice passage one or two or six more times. So when the Husband Unit (who is all about audiobooks) told me I had to listen to World War Z, I was reluctant at best. But now, having balked, given in, and finally listened, I am here to tell you that regardless of your reading preferences, this book is absolutely, positively, 100% worth LISTENING to. You don’t have to like audiobooks. You don’t even have to like zombies. I promise.
First off, know that the book has practically nothing in common with the 2013 movie starring Brad Pitt. Having seen the bland, generic action movie, I and others familiar with its source material can safely say that the title is the only commonality. The Screen Junkies Honest Trailer gives a great run down of just how bad the movie is, including an arm’s length list of the many things that make the book so much more than just a zombie book.
On that note, World War Z is so much more than just a zombie book (is there an echo in here?). Subtitled “An Oral History of the Zombie War,” it takes the form of a collection of dozens of interviews from people around the world and their experiences in the conflict. Author Max Brooks narrates as the fictional interviewer, compiling accounts on behalf of the United Nations Postwar Commission. From a Chinese doctor baffled by the very first victims, to Russian soldiers fighting on the front lines and feral children succumbing to the world’s newfound insanity, he collects stories from every phase of the outbreak. It evens extends past the initial fight and describes how the world begins to rebuild after the outbreak has been contained, something ignored by most zombie stories.
Part of what makes World War Z so compelling as an audiobook is that it’s narrated with a full cast. Each person sounds like their age and nationality, and just about every generation and quadrant of the world is represented. The interviews are roughly 20 minutes each, making this a really easy audiobook to stop and start as you drive, eat lunch, or just have a spare half hour.
An incredible strength of this book is the distinctive storytelling. The interviewees all have a voice that strongly reflects their age, nationality and life experience. They might speak in slang or with technical terms, with limited or expansive knowledge depending on if they’re an ordinary citizen or something like a contagion expert. Very few characters appear twice, but the story each person recollects is placed into the appropriate spot of the overall timeline, giving it a good flow despite the disjointed accounts.
One complaint I’ve heard is that the story lacks suspense. The subject of each interview has obviously survived the Zombie War, removing the fear that they will die. I happen to disagree with this argument. You can rationally know that they will escape, but that doesn’t stop the danger from sweeping you up in the moment. The interviewee may not die, but that doesn’t mean no one else does. They make difficult choices and face terrible losses, all while trying to survive not only in body but in mind. Government leaders make the impossible decision to abandon overrun cities, dooming what survivors remain. Soldiers have to re-kill their fallen comrades after they are unnaturally raised from the dead. More than a zombie story, it’s a harrowing tale of war and sacrifice that showcases the destructive power of fear and paranoia in a world gone mad, from the moment the first victim is bitten to the bitter end and ultimate reconstruction.
Max Brooks isn’t terribly expressive as the narrator, but he is merely the framer, providing context and leading questions for what is otherwise a supremely talented audio cast, featuring the likes of Mark Hamill (THE Luke Skywalker), Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Star Trek), Nathan Fillion (Castle, Firefly), Alan Alda (M*A*S*H) and Martin Scorsese. This is one reason I so highly recommend the audiobook. I understand wanting to imagine characters in your own way, but the diversity is so convincingly played that I’m willing to bet it will exceed your expectations. That, combined with the interview style of writing, make it well worth listening to. Whether you’re an old hat at audiobooks or just dipping your toe in the water, this one is well worth listening to.