Geek gratification… oh, and braaaaains!

Geek affectation is annoying as hell. It’s as annoying as the person at a party who thinks that quoting Monty Python for hours, doing the voices and accents and all, counts as conversation. It’s as annoying as mistaking nostalgia for actual quality, and going on about how The Goonies deserves a sequel. It’s getting all hot and bothered about something because it’s got pirates or ninjas in it.

Or zombies. The shuffling undead are one of the hallmarks of geek affectation, as if there was something inherently fantastic about something just because it featured some walking corpses moaning forlornly for brains.

And yet, the latest book I’m reading is World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. And I’m enjoying it a lot more than what I read before (some book by Bill Bryson about some English writer – hey, it was a present!). Thing is, World War Z is a much better read than it ought to be. It sounds like a cheap cash-in on one of the geek affectations du jour, even more so when you hear that it was written by Max Brooks, the same guy who wrote The Zombie Survival Guide (and, coincidentally, is Mel Brooks’ son).

WWZ takes an interesting approach: it’s written as a series of interviews with the survivors of the zombie apocalypse (hell of an apocalypse if there were survivors, if you ask me…). You’ve got a few dozen different characters telling their little part of the bigger picture: soldiers, politicians, scientists, civilians. There’s none of the expected “Will they make it?”, which means that Brooks can concentrate on effective vignettes and on providing a rich playground for our imagination.

For the largest part, the book’s vision of a world surviving, just barely, the rise and onslaught of the living dead is compelling because it is believable. There’s also the zombie genre’s staple smattering of social criticism. This is perhaps the book’s main weakness, though: when Brooks gets critical, he sometimes veers towards broad satire, at which point the narrating characters turn into stereotypes. And since the believability of the writing and its documentary style is its main asset, those sections break the fourth wall as Brooks winks at us, believing himself more witty than he is. Another, smaller weakness, is that there isn’t quite enough material for the 300+ pages – a shorter, leaner World War Z would have been a better World War Z. (That’s the big risk in catering to a specific audience (e.g. zombie geeks): veering into fan service.) Still, this is a zombie book that has bite and is surprisingly successful at gnawing into your cerebrum.

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