Sunday, January 24, 2016

Book Review: World War Z

It's not often that if get to review an audiobook that was given to me as a gift, but that's the case with today's review.  Last Christmas I used my free Amazon Prime Trial to buy a couple books for my pal Matt Mitrovich.  In return, Matt gave me the audiobook adaptation World War Z, which arrived in my account on Christmas Day.  As such, we'll be reviewing World War Z by Max Brooks today.

Max Brooks is the son of famous comedian and satirist Mel Brooks.  World War Z is set ten years after a worldwide zombie pandemic nearly whipped out humanity.  The book is presented as a series of interviews from various survivors about their experiences during the Zombie War.  You get to meet a wide range of characters, and we will discuss them in greater detail down below. 

I'd been meaning to get around to buying World War Z at some point.  Thanks for helping me take care of that Matt.  I really liked the way that the story was presented as an oral history through a series of interviews.  It helped me gradually ease into this world and really get a feel for things as opposed to an info-dump.  It was a really unique style of writing and I can't think of anything else to compare it to.  This isn't alternate history in the strictest sense of the term, but it should appeal to that crowd.  The descriptions of the nations of the post-zombie war world really peaked my interest to know what the demographics and political geography of this world are like.  

Before we talk about the characters, and their stories, we need to talk about the audiobook adaptation.  The audiobook is divided into two abridged halves that combined form the whole book.  In the world of audiobooks it is almost always considered a cardinal sin to abridge a book, but in this instance it wasn't such a bad thing.  Like I said, two halves, known as World War Z and World War Z: The Lost Files, combine to form the whole book.  It costs a bit more, but better to buy them both rather than the unabridged version.  The abridged versions have the original cover art, whereas the unabridged version has the movie tie-in cover.

One of the most profoundly annoying things I've encountered with Audible is when they turn the cover of a book into the movie tie-in version.  As if a book is only defined by its movie adaptation.  It'd be better if they gave you the option to switch the covers, and multiple cover options there in, or at least...sorry, I got a little sidetracked there. 

Anyway, the audiobooks are narrated by an all-star cast of celebrities.  It would take a while to list all of the celebrities involved, but they all did a really amazing job and each brought something new and different to their performances.  We'll get it into specifics down below.   

There are a ton of character featured throughout book, but I'm going to focus on a few that really stood out to me.  For starters, there was Roy Elliot, a filmmaker who created documentaries to inspire people to keep moving forward and not give into despair.  He's a pretty obvious analogue to Steven Spielberg, and I liked his general outlook on the Zombie War.  He's fully aware that his films often stretch the truth and distort the facts, but people need something to give them hope and inspiration to get out of bed and keep fighting on.  

This puts Elliot in sharp contrast to characters such as Grover Carlson and Breckinridge Scott.  Of the two I can safely say that I hated Carlson more.  Sure, Scott was selling false vaccines, profiting off of other people's fear and suffering, and is completely unrepentant for the many deaths he's caused.  However, Carlson had a serious case of smug small-mindedness and Southern thick-headedness.  I have to deal with people who subscribe to that idiotic and frankly self-destructive thinking on a near daily basis, so it really got to me.  At least Scott is entertainingly evil, Carlson was just plain repulsive and seemed to take pride in encouraging the government not to act on the zombie apocalypse until it was too late.  That he's an obvious stand in for Karl Rove is even more reason to hate him.

In more positive characters that stood out we have characters such as Jesika Hendricks and Christina Eliopolis.  Jesika was just a girl from Wisconsin when the Zombie War occurred.  She and her family decided to move to the Canadian wilderness in order to be safe from the zombies.  Unfortunately, several other Americans had the same idea and it wasn't long before they rang the Canadian wilderness dry of resources.  One of the things I liked about Jesika's story is that it showed just how and average citizens would handle a doomsday scenario.  Jesika and her family are reasonably well prepared, but most of their fellow refugees are woefully unprepared and bring things such as Xboxes, DVD players and computers rather than actual survival materials.

It reminds me of this show that my family used to watch called Doomsday Prepers that used to come on the National Geographic Channel.  It was about these people convinced that the end is nigh and their preparation for that.  It was always just kind of fascinating just how woefully unprepared these people were.  Not only that, but they seemed to actually be looking forward to the collapse of society.  It was almost like they viewed it all as a big game, and obviously had no clue just how bad things could get in such a scenario.  I guess one of the big themes with Jesika's section, as well as many of the other sections, is that sometimes zombies are the least of your worries.  

Now let's talk about Christina.  She volunteered in the Air Force and her team's plane exploded over Louisiana.  As she struggled across the zombie infested landscape she's contacted via radio by a mysterious figure known only as Mets Fan...and Mets Fan might not have actually been real.  Well, as Christina's bit is set in Louisiana, it did make me wonder how I would be going if the Zombie War were to actually happen.  I really liked seeing Christina's determination and willingness not to give in.  Yeah, maybe Metis or Mets Fan was all in her head.  However, to paraphrase one Albus Dumbledore, even if it was why should take make it any less real?  

Then we have Kando Tatsumi, a nerdy Japanese teenager who spends several weeks reading up on potential survival strategies.  Then the power goes out and he realizes he has no skills nor support group.  Nevertheless, he mounts an impressive escape from his apartment building, fights his way through a zombie infested city and eventually becomes a martial arts master by training with a blind old man.  Yeah, you wish you could be that awesome too.  Though it should be noted that Tatsumi got by just as much, if not more so, by luck as he did by his skills.  

There's also Terry Knox.  He was the commander of the International Space Station when the zombie outbreak occurred.  He and his crew fought bravely to keep as many satellites in orbit as possible.  It was grueling work, but in the end they did it.  As a reward they were brought back to Earth and given the finest medical treatment the Australian government could provide as they all slowly died of radiation poisoning.  It's not the happiest of endings, but at least they died known that they did their duty to ensure the survival of the human race.

There's a ton of other characters that we could talk about, but we'd be here all day if we did that.  Let's talk about the world building in this story.  Max Brooks has certainly created a rich lore with some really interesting geopolitics.  For example, Cuba is one of the richest nations in the world following in influx of refugees from America and elsewhere that spared a liberal revolution.  In economic terms, Cuba is comparable to pre-war Iceland or South Korea and the Cuban Peso is used as an international currency of sorts.  Speaking of Iceland, it's one of the few remaining areas of the world yet to be rid of zombies due to its harsh burying them under so much snow.  Meanwhile, Lhasa, Tibet is the world's largest city.  In many way, the world has been turned on its head following the Zombie War.

So what about South Korea?  They're doing pretty well, apart from worrying about why North Korea mysteriously vanished.  Nobody knows what happened to the North Koreans and the possibilities are pretty terrifying.  Where they eaten by zombies?  Are they all living underground, or did something happen and now they're all underground zombies?  Nobody knows for sure, and many are too afraid to find out.  

Meanwhile, Russia is now a religious authoritarian regime that would make Iran look like a bunch of pot smoking hippies by comparison.  They're known as the Holy Empire of Russia and they're lead by a man, implied to be Vladimir Putin, who has declared himself the head of church and state.  The leader is Russia is also pretty much a czar in all but name by this point.  Well, you know what they say, plus la change.  

There's plenty of other geopolitical tidbits, such as China finally throwing off the communists, the West Indies uniting into a federation, the European Union (save Britain) finally federating, and many more but let's move on to other matters.  

One of the things I wondered throughout this book is, well, just where did the zombie plague come from?  I know it started when some Chinese kid, who was diving in a sunken city, got bitten by a zombie, but where did that zombie come from?  There's some rumblings about it being supernatural early on, but it soon becomes clear its a virus.  So what's a origin of the zombie virus?  We don't get any solid answers, but that is elaborated on in the companion book The Zombie Survival Guide.  Humorously, many characters mention just how useless the guide really is throughout the book.  You don't have to have read The Guide to enjoy World War Z, but I suspect it gives a little something extra.  I intend to read The Zombie Survival Guide, so expect a review of that at some point. 

There touching moments throughout the book.  One of the biggest for me was when it was mentioned that most whales are now extinct due to mass overfishing and whaling.  Granted, people had to do it because the zombies disrupted the flow of food, but it really hit home with me.  I'm an environmentalist with a love of the ocean; as pointed out in the book, you can make many new things, but you can't make new whales after they've gone extinct.  Then there's all the other horrible destruction of the environment that must have happened as a result of the zombies.  The scenes with the canine units also struck a chord with me since I listened to this book while walking my dog Wolfie.   

There were more than a few leaders who showed great heroics when their nations needed them the most.  Queen Elizabeth II bravely chose to stay in London, much as her father did during World War II, to boost the moral and comfort of the British people.  The American president, strongly implied to be Colin Powell, insist on hold onto America's democratic ideals even in the face of the zombie apocalypse.  Not only that, but he also calls up the Untied Nations to go to war with the zombies for the sake of future generations.  On a slightly more humorous note, the presidents pick for vice president is strongly implied to be Barrack Obama, and we all know what he went onto in real life.

Throughout the book you really get a sense of lingering sadness about the horror and loss that occurred as part of the Zombie War.  And yet despite it all humanity has endured, the world is in the process of rebuilding and there is a sense of hope for the future.  It's a world half empty, it's a world half full.  It's a world of laughter, it's a world of tears.  It's a world of joy, it's a world of fears.  It's...well, you get the idea.   

As many of you know there was a film adaptation.  However, it was a very in name only adaptation.  The movie won't remind you very much of the book and vice versa.  I've heard rumors that a television adaption is being considered.  Personally, television seems like a much better medium for this kind of story.  Maybe make it a mockumentary in the style of PBS or Ken Burns.  

All in all, World War Z is a really great book and I can see why it's so highly thought of.  As I've mentioned before, this review is coming at you thanks to my pal Matt Mitrovitch.  Matt has his own World War Z audiobook review that you can check out over at Amazing Stories.  He's also responsible for a good chunk of the World War Z article over on Wikipedia, as well as many alternate history related articles.  

Well, that's everything for now.  I'll see you all next time. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Flag of African Israel

This is the flag of Israel, but from a world where Israel was established in Uganda and Kenya following World War I.  It was intended to be a steppingstone towards a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, but it wound up becoming a permeate homeland for the Jews.  Race relations have been rather touchy.  Basically, substitute the word Palestinians with the words Native Africans, and you've got a pretty good ideas of what it's been like.  In recent times, however, greater efforts have been made to reconcile with the native population, as evidenced by the shield and spears on the flag.

Without a Jewish state in the Middle East thing are...complicated.  On the one hand, the United Arab Republic has been fairly successful.  It's comprised of Egypt, the nations of the Levant and Iraq; it's quite liberalized and leans towards secularism.  Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, have grown increasingly conservative and radicalized.  The two nations tend not to get along too well.

In general, Israel is moving towards greater understanding and reconciliation with the past.  The nation has come to embrace its mixed Jewish and African heritage.  Israel has fought to dismantle longstanding white minority governments in its neighbor nations, as well as bringing former Nazis to justice throughout the world.  It's a nation that truly keeps an eye on both the past and the future.