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Zombie book double-bill: ‘World War Z’ and ‘Dude, This Book Is Full Of Spiders’

World War Z book coverWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks is perhaps the best book I have read in the zombie genre; not that I have read many books in that genre beyond Richard Matheson’s classic¬†I Am Legend. I tend to stay away from the zombie genre in books because while films in genre can be visceral, I have never considered it to be a style that translates well into the written form.

World War Z is somewhat different from in that it’s written from the serious perspective of an unpublished United Nations report on a wide scale zombie epidemic that overruns the whole world. The treatment given to the zombie outbreak is much like what you’d expect from a story on a global virus outbreak, similar to the film Contagion. From the very onset it’s quite clear that Brooks has thoroughly researched the cultural zeitgeist of various locales that make up the settings for the book’s chapters; it lends a weight to the story that goes beyond the mere “let’s hit the rural areas!” trap many zombie books / films tend to stray into.

What the book does an excellent job of doing is pointing out the hubris of the modern military and government machine at tackling large-scale, rapidly-changing scenarios. All the military force a country has crumbles quickly when faced with an enemy that literally cannot be killed because it’s already dead, and then delves into how that can psychologically affect the combat effectiveness of armed forces – and how that can spread into mass hysteria.

By breaking the mould of following a single set of survivors, and instead tracking the action on a global scale, Brooks is able to highlight the psychological impact that a disaster of such proportions can have on humankind. The eventual victory is equally grim: months and years of dogged fighting to slowly make tracts of land inhabitable again. A chilling, gripping read.

World-War-Z-Zombies-Scale-Wall

What prompted me to read the book was how impressed I was with World War Z, the film. And while, at the time, I was impressed by the stunning visuals in the film and the concept of telling the story of a global zombie outbreak. In those aspects, the film clearly works. But in relation to the book, the film shares absolutely nothing in common expect for “zombies” (as summed up by this Oatmeal comic). The climax of the film is particularly mind-numbingly stupid.

I understand why such a decision was made, because the book’s ending is a lot more grim and in terms of box office performance making a more “authentic” film would have been a riskier bet. As Damon Lindelof, star Hollywood blockbuster script doctor says, “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world.” Yet, I wonder what a truly trendsetting a film it could have been if it went down the other path.

***

Dude This Book Is Full OF Spiders book coverI have been a fan of David Wong, pseudonym for comedy writer Jason Pargin, ever since I read his first book John Dies At The End and followed him on the Internet comedy sinkhole Cracked.com. In style that can only be summarised with a Braveheart-style battle-cry of “Wong!”, he’s back with a sequel to his first novel, this one titled Dude, This Book Is Full Of Spiders. The sequel picks up after the events of John Dies At The End, with David Wong and his friend John coping with their life as people who will have to put up with the only ones to be able to see the weird shit that goes on in their town of [Undisclosed].

Unlike the previous book which was dark and was based around demonology, this one is centred around another beloved geek genre: zombies. In typical David Wong style, the book is peppered with black comedy; admittedly a hard feat for the grim topic of zombies. Yet, the book delights at every page-turn with characteristic Wong-isms, such as:

John and I have made this stuff our hobby, in the way an especially attractive prisoner makes a hobby out of not getting raped.

Wait, did I just give away a spoiler that John doesn’t, in fact, die at the end of the last book? Soz! But as you can figure out from the quote, the novel doesn’t shy away from jokes that other comedians might not consider kosher. And this is precisely what sets Wong’s writing apart: that it’s unabashedly, unapologetically funny.

For a book which is written by a comedy writer, there are quite a few moments in the plot that dive into existential questions of how mass media is controlled, time travel, love, and much more. Similar to World War Z, it explores how mass hysteria can spread through a population in the face of a “disease” that is supernatural in origin and can go undetected. There are parts of the book that are genuinely terrifying. Yet, it doesn’t shy away from mocking the culture of zombie-killing worship that is perpetuated by popular video games in the genre either; that killing zombies in real life would pretty much be like mashing buttons to kill them on a screen.

The ending to Dude, This Book Is Full Of Spiders is somewhat tamer – almost as if written for a Hollywood screenplay – than John Dies At The End, but the book overall is a fascinating bizzaro world with intriguing characters and subtle humour. I haven’t read anything of a similar tone other Alice In Wonderland.

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Escape From Camp 14

When my friend Alexandra Wilks gifted me Escape From Camp 14 – a book on North Korea – I couldn’t control my excitement to the extent that I found it hard to hold the book open because my hands were shaking so much. I may have jizzed my pants too. Those who know me will be aware that I have a huge obsession with North Korea. I fastidiously follow any news or analysis of the country. My Twitter bio reads “World’s leading authority on loving adoration of North Korea.” The country is almost cartoonishly evil: from thinking that breeding giant rabbits would be a solution to its famine problem to a brother of Kim Jong-Il being disowned from the family after trying to sneak into Japan to visit Tokyo Disneyland under a fake Dominican Republic passport where his name translated to “fat bear”.

Much of the aura around North Korea comes from its relative isolation from the world at large. I bought into the online hysteria surrounding North Korea, religiously following photoblogs of Kim Jong-Il looking at things, and when his son took over, Kim Jong-un looking at things. While I was aware of the fact that human rights violations were a reality in the country, I assumed it was mostly of the kind that would result from life in a highly communist country.

Blaine Harden - Escape From Camp 14

Escape From Camp 14 is the real-life story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person born in a North Korean slave labour camp to successfully escape. Written as a biography based on Shin’s account by Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden, it tells how North Korea’s policy of subjecting “traitors” to three generations of hard labour is used as a means of suppressing political dissent. Growing up in such an environment, Shin never had exposure to human emotions such as empathy or love to the point that he ratted out his own mother and brother for execution in the hopes of getting more food. The narrative then moves on to how Shin learnt about human trust and trickery, eventually making his escape out of the camp on foot, crossing over into China.

North Korean labour camps have existed for longer than Nazi concentration camps, or the labour camps of Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, yet it’s a human rights violation that largely gets overlooked. Western countries provide the country food aid worth millions on humanitarian grounds to combat famines, yet much of it supposedly ends up in the hands of North Korea’s √©lite. The picture painted in the book of realities on the ground is far removed from the jovial smiling faces of chubby leaders in Internet memes. To his credit, Harden reviews all information objectively, often fact-checking with external sources on the veracity of Shin’s story, as well as giving background information wherever necessary, drawing on his experience as a correspondent covering East Asian foreign policy affairs.

It’s an utterly bleak book that gives an insight into the kind of cruelty that goes on in slave labour camps and for the populace in general, made better by Harden’s narrative technique. There cannot be a better example of how much storytelling affects public exposure, since Shin’s story was published previously by a human rights organization in South Korea without garnering attention, until Harden’s take on the same gave this issue international exposure. I had the opportunity once to meet Bou Meng, a survivor of Cambodia’s torture camps who published a book on his survival from Pol Pot’s regime’s killing fields which went largely unnoticed, and Escape From Camp 14‘s worldwide success shows how important the narrative can be in shaping public opinion.