Thursday, January 17, 2008

The end of the world as we know it: And I feel fine

Yesterday I simultaneously finished two books about the apocalypse, albeit from two very different causes: World War Z, by Max Brooks, a tale about a massive zombie infestation that threatens to overwhelm the world; and The Children of Men, by P.D. James, a story that takes place in 2021, 25 years after the last child on earth is born with the world's infertile population left to age and die.

Both books are very different, and not just in their subject matter: World War Z is much more action-oriented, a series of powerful narratives told through multiple characters' eyes in a series of flashbacks, while The Children of Men is written from the viewpoint of Theo Faron, a 50 year-old Oxford professor, and is a slower-moving character portait. They do share one likeness in that both contain strong political commentary.

What I liked about the books
First of all, I'm a huge sucker for books and movies about the apocalypse. It's not the violence and chaos in and of itself that I find interesting, it's watching people's reactions in extremis. Wiser men have said that true character is revealed in times of crisis, and The Children of Men and World War Z certainly deliver the calamity and the truth born from it.

I cannot recommend World War Z highly enough if you love zombies, warfare, or simply action-packed page turners. I'm not a particularly fast reader, but I was absolutely unable to put it down and burned through its 350-odd pages in three days. While the zombie plague is deliberately left unexplained--it starts in the heart of China, half-hinted as the result of some undescribed industrial waste--Brooks manages to paint a very convincing picture of how the plague quickly spreads and threatens to overwhelm all of humanity. Brooks has done his research on politics, military tactics and technology, combat fatigue, climate conditions, and the result feels like history, an event that really happened (or, chillingly, will happen).

Here's some highlights: The Great Panic, the initial outbreak of suffocating fear and rout that sent millions or billions to their deaths on traffic-choked highways; The Battle of Yonkers, which pits a large ground force of U.S. Marines, tanks, helicopters, and jets against a horde of more than a million zombies pouring out of New York; a voluntary quarantine of all of Israel to prevent the spread of the hordes; a limited nuclear exchange between the suspicious countries of Pakistan and India; hordes of zombies emerging from the oceans, attacking in massive, unexpected beach invasions; zombies attacking across the Russian steppes, slaughtering thousands before freezing in the winter (and thawing and re-animating in the spring), and much, much more. I was horrified, entertained, and best of all, convinced by the events in this book, which was deliberately written as a series of memoirs. in fact, World War Z reads much like the very well-done war documentaries of Ken Burns.

Whereas George Romero's classic Dead films (Night, Dawn, and Day of the Dead) were brilliant social commentaries that focused on portrayals of small groups and individuals struggling for survival, Brooks takes the 10,000-foot view, casting his gaze on countries and nations, examining their weaknesses, flaws, and ultimately the strength that makes them able to regroup and survive. Despite its horror, gore, and destruction, World War Z is a refreshing change from the often too-nihilistic zombie genre.

The Children of Men, while far less visceral, asks the larger questions: What gives mankind meaning, does God exist, and how can we cope with our own stark mortality? At the outset of the book Theo is living a life that should sound very familiar to 21st century man: Protected, pampered, insulated by his profession, his comfortable home, his refined tastes in books, food, music, and wine. But there's a black hole waiting at the end of it all: Oblivion.

James brings mankind's ever-present fear of mortality into stark relief by removing the universal hope that our children will carry on our works, our stories, our history, and our culture after we die. Bereft of that hope, we're left with meaningless trappings and empty existence.

Like World War Z, the cause of the blight--worldwide infertility--is left unexplained, but while James does not delve into the scientific root causes, she describes its chilling consequences in convincing fashion. To quell the widespread crime caused by crumbling societies, the British government institutes a tight-fisted, near dictatorial rule, run by prime minister Xan, who is actually Theo's cousin and childhood friend. Immigrants are turned away at the borders and criminals and dissidents are shipped off to the Isle of Man, while the aged take their own lives in government-sponsored mass suicides called a Quietus.

The story builds slowly but kicks into high gear when Theo falls in with a small band of young rebels battling against the government's atrocities.

What I disliked about the books
World War Z was great all the way through. Although there were no fully fleshed-out, truly memorable characters, it was told using dozens of post-war "interviews," so development wasn't possible (or intended). I found Brooks' portrayals of some of the cultures to be a bit stereotyped (particularly the katana-wielding Japanese survivors), and it's no surprise that the strongest and truest sections were his portrayals of the crisis in the U.S.

Overall rating: **** stars out of five.

The Children of Men had a few flaws as well. I found the whole Xan-Theo relationship to be forced, and their final face-off was heavily telegraphed. In fact, I think the film of the same name, though shallower and much more violent (often needlessly so), improved on the book by cutting out the tiring backstory, dropping Xan and focusing on Theo and the rebels.

Overall rating: **** stars out of five.


Falze said...

I was going to rent Children Of Men, I knew it was 'action' but didn't think it was ultra-violent. Is it worth watching or is it all shooting people in the face?

Brian Murphy said...

I think it's worth watching, although I don't know where your tolerance level for violence lies. Mine is pretty high, although it stops short of the torture-horror that seems to be popular nowadays.

The last half-hour includes a running gun-battle that is brillianly filmed, even though its largely unnecessary and pretty violent to boot.