Why should you put World War Z on your reading list?
Believe me, I get it. The last thing you probably want to do in the middle of an honest-to-goodness pandemic is dive into a fictional world consumed by a relentless zombie-producing contagion. It is too close to home in the most overwhelming way possible. But bear with me for a few reasons why this particular story of apocalyptic plague may be just what you need to visit (or re-visit, as the case may be).
First, this is a journey told through the relative comfort of hindsight. It examines an even more extreme version of our current reality, but it does so in a comfortingly reflective manner. There are plenty of high-drama, “zombie horror” moments, but those are all tempered by the knowledge that these stories are being told from point of view of a survivor.
The purpose of the story, as described by the “author/interviewer” in the Introduction, is to examine of all of the causes and effects of “The Crisis.” It is the result of a methodical study of “how we got there.” Political denial and obfuscation, opportunistic greed, trauma experienced by front line workers, disbelief, conspiracy theories, failure to react—the story walks us through all of the failures - and even some successes - of humanity’s response to global catastrophe. Yes, most of these examples are uncomfortably close to our current reality, but assuming the protective stance of reflection hopefully allows us to examine the “causes” before we are too far gone into the “effects.”
The tone of the narrative is very much like a therapy session. It is thoughtful and deliberate. We are always aware that we are in an interview setting, and, as such, every paragraph is informed by the active listening of the “author/interviewer." This helps to pull the reader into a positive relationship with the story being told. We want to facilitate the cathartic release experienced by the interview subjects as they recount their stories. We want them to be heard, no matter how difficult the telling might be.
Whether you do it now or at some point in the future when you feel able, I recommend World War Z as an entertaining, comforting, and necessary examination of human survival. And, as the Impact of Audio series hopefully makes clear, I specifically recommend the audio narration of this story.
Why should you LISTEN to this story?
As I have already mentioned, the structure of World War Z is a series of independent interviews. Each interview is a first-person account of a different character’s experience, with sporadic interjections from the “author/interviewer.” It is apparent even in the print version of the book that each interview is a transcription produced from a taped conversation between the subject and the interviewer. While the interviews are grouped together in broad thematic sections that follow a chronological path (Warnings, Blame, The Great Panic, Turning the Tide, and so forth), each interview stands on its own.
This unique formatting of the narrative understandably posed interesting challenges when it came time to adapt World War Z into a movie. How do you create a seamless and engaging visual narrative out the of disparate accounts of dozens of unconnected characters covering events that happened across every continent on the globe? It is impossible to fully represent the book on screen, unless perhaps as a Ken Burns-style, multi-episode documentary (which I personally would not be opposed to!).
Audiobook narration, however, PERFECTLY aligns with the author’s intent for this story. It is an exact and natural reflection of the format and, even more importantly, allows the audience to experience each interview as if they are present in the room as it is happening. It creates an intimate conversation space between the narrator and the audience with no distraction, visual or otherwise.
Thankfully, the production of The Complete Edition audiobook takes full advantage of everything this unique story has to offer. We are treated to a full cast of over forty amazing performers, most of whom have experience both as on-screen and voice actors. The production takes full advantage of the dramatic nature of the genre and story, without falling into the trap of over-production. There are no attempts to heighten the drama through sound effects or musical score. Nothing distracts us from our intimate conversation with each character.
It is difficult to over state the sheer scope of talent and experience represented by this cast. You will recognize many familiar names: Denise Crosby, Simon Pegg, Henry Rollins, Jeri Ryan, Alan Alda, Rob Reiner, John Turturro, Common, and David Ogden Stiers to just name a few. It is impossible to adequately cover all of the cast members I would like to in this article, but allow me to highlight a few standout story moments and performances.
Early in the story, we meet Stanley McDonald, a veteran of the Canadian armed forces who tells a story about his unit's first contact with the undead, which happened long before most people even understood a pandemic was underway. Actor Nathan Fillion’s understated portrayal of McDonald’s traumatic story perfectly conveys how haunted he is by what he witnessed. How, even after all of the time that has passed, he is still not quite able to believe what transpired.
Acclaimed movie director Martin Scorsese is given the task of voicing one of the more unsympathetic characters in the book, Breckinridge “Breck” Scott. Scorsese’s naturally affable delivery and upbeat tone gives Scott’s unapologetic account of marketing and profiting off of an ineffective “cure” a level of creepiness that is more disturbing than many of the graphically violent portions of the story.
Perhaps my favorite story, or at least one of the ones that has stuck with me over the years, is the account of a fighter pilot’s crash-landing deep inside the undead enemy’s territory and her perilous journey back to safety. Actress Becky Ann Baker gives an unforgettable performance as this no-nonsense war hero who is not quite able to admit just how deeply she may have been affected by her experience.
No review of this cast would be complete without talking about incomparable voice actor Mark Hamill. It is fitting, perhaps, that Hamill voices the character Todd Wainio who I believe acts as the central touchstone for the emotion of this story. Todd’s experience in “The Crisis” is one of acute front line trauma, having served as a U.S. Army Infantryman during one of the bloodiest engagements with a zombie horde to which we are treated. In his performance, Hamill perfectly embodies Todd’s fragile emotional state. You can hear every ounce of rage, confusion, and sorrow with which he still grapples.
Please let me say it again—the performers I have touched on here represent just the tip of the iceberg of amazing talent in this production. You will walk away from this recording with dozens of narrators you will want to listen to again and again, in this and other audiobooks.
World War Z is a meticulously crafted account of an epic apocalyptic tale. The Complete Edition audiobook is a suitably meticulous production that pays reverent homage to the emotion and pathos represented by every story of human tragedy and survival. Listening to this narrative is an unforgettable experience that will stay with you long after its closing chapters.
Footnote: Navigating the various World War Z audiobook productions can be a bit confusing. World War Z was originally released in 2006, and the first audiobook was an abridged version released in 2007. Later, in 2013, an unabridged version titled World War Z: The Complete Edition was released. Additionally, a separate production titled World War Z: The Lost Files: A Companion to the Abridged Edition was released with only those chapters that had not been included in the original, abridged version…perhaps as an accommodation to those consumers who had already spent money on the 2006 release. Today, audible.com offers all three titles. I absolutely recommend the complete, unabridged audiobook, so make sure you are getting The Complete Edition for all 12 hours and 9 minutes of the full text. Never settle for anything less than the whole story!