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World War Z is an abridged audiobook from 2007 based on the 2006 work of fiction of the same name by Max Brooks. It's six hours long and features a full cast with narration by Brooks himself. Amongst those playing characters in this audio adaption are Alan Alda, Jürgen Prochnow, Mark Hamill, Henry Rollins, Rob Reiner and John Turturro. The concept of World War Z is that the world has just endured a zombie epidemic that led to general carnage and chaos in just about every country in the world. It was World War 2 only with zombies. This momentous struggle between the living and the dead has just about been won by the living and now it's time to tell the official story of 'World War Z' through survivor stories, witness statements, government records and so on. 'The testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time.' This is somewhat reminiscent of Orson Welles' The War of the Worlds radio broadcast in tone and very gripping and atmospheric at its best. One slight problem it does have though is that in this abridged format some fans of the book might be disappointed to find some of their favourite passages and incidents absent, in particular a submarine set-piece that is one of the more memorable images painted by the original book.
The story begins with a Chinese doctor (played by Steve Park) becoming the first witness to a case of a dead person coming back to life with a crazed appetite for human flesh. 'It began with rumours from China about another pandemic. Then the cases started to multiply and what had looked like the stirrings of a criminal underclass, even the beginnings of a revolution, soon revealed itself to be much, much worse. Faced with a future of mindless, man-eating horror, humanity was forced to accept the logic of world government and face events that tested our sanity and our sense of reality.' The structure here is that a United Nations interviewer is talking to various important figures and witnesses about their experience of the zombie nightmare. The interviewer is played by Max Brooks himself and he's generally fine here although slightly too upbeat at times all things considering! One of the strengths of World War Z is that it plays everything straight and tries to make everything seem authentic. Obviously, to the best of my knowledge (!) a zombie epidemic has never happened and never will happen but the book asks how individual countries would react if it did happen. This is certainly one of the most interesting elements to the story.
South Africa heartlessly isolates the area of the country most infected with zombies while Pakistan unleashes a nuclear strike. North Korea remains a top secret state even in the midst of a zombie crisis, the government and the people reputed to have gone underground to live under artificial light. Are they all zombies by now? Nobody knows. In the United States many cities become war zones as people drift north in the hope that the wilderness and cold will keep zombie pests to a minimum. But in Los Angeles a reality television show is devised where a group of celebrities are filmed as they attempt to spend the crisis in a huge walled mansion. 'Our client liked to know people who were known by all. His plan was to provide safety for those who could raise his image during and after the war playing Moses to the sacred and famous. And you know what, they fell for it. The actors, and singers, and rappers and pro athletes.' Anyone who has ever seen one of George A Romero's zombie films will not be surprised to learn this does not quite go according to plan.
The cast generally do a good job here and no one chews the scenery up or goes too overboard. The adaption feels big but still manages to be quite restrained. Alan Alda is excellent as Arthur Sinclair and always a dependable presence in whatever he pitches up in. Eamonn Walker is very good too as a dubious character who tries to defend South Africa's stance on the crisis and Frank Kamai is worth a mention as a blind Samurai (or something) who lives in the woods in Japan and dispatches zombies with his sword. Luke Skywalker, I mean Mark Hamill, is effective too as a US soldier who recounts the changing fortunes of their battles with the zombie hordes (he's a bit like the artilleryman man in The War of the Worlds I suppose). 'Shock and Awe? Perfect name. But what if the enemy can't be shocked and awed? Not just won't, but biologically can't! That's what happened that day outside New York City, that's the failure that almost lost us the whole damn war. The fact that we couldn't shock and awe Zack boomeranged right back in our faces and actually allowed Zack to shock and awe us! They're not afraid! No matter what we do, no matter how many we kill, they will never, ever be afraid!'
This is generally an absorbing and entertaining audiobook and a good companion for a dull train journey or just a good yarn to listen to late at night. Some of the social and political commentary is a little heavy handed and there is a little too much techno babble but these are minor quibbles. The structure of many self-contained stories being related to the listener by multiple witnesses is one that works very well and if you find one segment a little dull you know there will be a completely different character from a completely different country speaking soon. Overall though this is very good. At the time of writing you can buy this new from £7 and used for around a fiver.