Odds and Ends Shelf: World War Z and The Grace of Kings

“Now that I have seen the larger world, I wish to change it, as does Mata. But while he wishes to restore the world to a state that never was, I wish to bring it to a state that has not yet been seen.”

So this is the new year, and I don’t feel any different. I did read a couple of new books, though.

World War Z by Max Brooks

The son of spoof movie director Mel Brooks took a different path to pop culture: zombies. He started out with The Zombie Survival Guide, which I haven’t read because I never had the insatiable, need-to-eat-your brains appetite for zombie fiction that many others seem to. It also seemed just like a dry how-to book with survival tips. Looking it up now, I can see that there are also fictional historical facts about previous zombie outbreaks, suggesting another world that doesn’t really mesh up with the one provided in World War Z, where the public is caught completely unawares with no cultural knowledge of what a zombie is or how to deal with it.

World War Z, by contrast, is a story collection first and foremost. In another timeline where humanity survived a zombie apocalypse at great cost, a man I’ve been told is supposed to be Brooks’ alter ego decides to publish all of the personal human interest stories he collected while gathering after-action reports. What follows is an account of how the pandemic started—unfortunately glossing over how it went global—how different national cultures changed and dealt with the situation, and the eventual turning points, presented in the form of dozens of different viewpoint stories from people who each only provide a small piece of a mosaic. The structure brought a smile to my face, reminding me of a David Mitchell book at its best. This, and the actual victory of humanity, compelled me to finish a book belonging to a horror genre that I’m usually ambivalent to.

Complaints are few and far between. I don’t know how accurate all of the military tactics and political information that went into the book is; some of the book club questioned whether the military’s reaction really would be to use shock-and-awe tactics on zombies, though since everyone in real America knows better thanks to zombie culture the point is essentially moot. What I did have a specific problem with were three segments in particular. First, there’s a segment detailing a man who advocated the elimination of emotion from decision-making, in simplistic rhetoric that made me think of JRPG villains. While I like the ambiguity in whether his stupid life philosophy actually works in the context of the global narrative, his story ends with a twist that wouldn’t be out of place on The Twilight Zone. Another segment uses almost the same twist, but would have been perfectly fine otherwise.

Then there’s the otaku’s story, the one that I heard people snickering about on Something Awful. It’s immediately apparent why; the story of a shut-in nerd who realizes that civilization is dying outside of him, and adjusts to the survival lifestyle by finding a sick-awesome katana and eventually living in the wilderness, whiffs of the wish-fulfillment trap that apocalyptic fiction falls into frequently. When I tried to bring this up to the book club, however, many of them pointed out that the story does go into how otaku often work in Japan, a fact I lost sight of because of how often the internet glorifies and fetishizes the otaku life. Indeed, the saving grace of the scene comes in depicting the man at his most vulnerable, ending on the exact moment he finds the katana and letting what happened to him afterward come across in other people’s stories.

Even when I have problems with a story in World War Z, I can see mitigating factors that make me reconsider. I started reading it during the hardest time of my year, and by the time I finished I thought that maybe we had a future after all, though there’s no guarantee.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

I’ve covered Ken Liu here before, from his work in translating great Chinese science fiction stories to his much less impressive attempt at his own short story. When he wasn’t busy taking it upon himself to introduce the West to an untapped subculture, he wrote a huge tome about an uprising and civil war in a land that clearly resembles China and other Asian countries circa medieval times. A blurb I saw very early into the book called it an Asian Game of Thrones, and while this seems shallow, contrasting the two works proved illuminating.

The Grace of Kings reads like the work of an author who is very familiar with all of the traps that George R. R. Martin fell into while writing A Song of Ice and Fire and wanted to learn from his eventual mistakes. In the course of writing what was supposed to be a simple trilogy, Martin bit off more than he could chew and is now struggling with the weight of his unwanted fame and the subplots of dozens of characters, only half of which even needed a spotlight on them. Liu goes to the opposite extreme; the nine hundred pages of The Grace of Kings span the entirety of the war and almost a decade in time, and though it has a varied cast the lion’s share of attention is on two men whose professional relationship is the lynchpin of the entire story.

Subplots for other characters do appear, but aside from a Greek chorus of literal brothers in arms, they are short, to the point, and quickly resolved, often by sudden death. For instance, the war begins not with the main characters, but with a slave laborer emboldened by a sign from the gods, themselves characters as opposed to the ominous, unknowable force that is the Lord of Light from A Song of Ice and Fire. From humble beginnings, this laborer lets his newfound respect and power go completely to his head, becoming a mad king whose brief reign is a disquieting sign of things to come. While all of the subplots are re-integrated into the main story in one form or another, which is more than you can usually say for ASoIaF in its unfinished state, it sometimes feels like Liu is holding other people at arms length, unwilling to let too much of someone else’s life complicate the tale of Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu.

Thankfully, Kuni and Mata are interesting characters in their own right, especially Kuni, and especially after they get together and play off each other. Kuni begins the story as a lazy bum who says he can make something out of himself if only the right opportunity falls into his lap, but thankfully there’s a more organic, less masturbatory transition, since he falls in love and shapes himself up to live up to his lover’s status before the rebellion even enters his life. Mata, meanwhile, is always driven, a man raised from birth to crave vengeance on the empire that almost destroyed his family. He’s a gigantic brute of a man who changes the world by murdering scores of people in battle, as opposed to Kuni’s preference for trickery and thinking outside the box. Despite them being opposites, they come together because of the rebellion and prove to have surprisingly good chemistry together.

The best part of The Grace of Kings is how much more collected and tied together the whole thing is than Martin’s books. Liu took circumstances that would take Martin several books to depict and condensed it all into one volume. The pace is so fast that the events I thought would be much later kept happening in only a few chapters, and it made me wonder where the story was going. The worst part is that, as a result of this ruthless efficiency, there’s barely any prolonged tension. I was concerned about the fates of certain characters, only for those questions to be answered soon after they were brought up. Once I reached the two-thirds mark, the trajectory of the final acts became obvious, though my regret at remembering some of characters and relationships that were laid to waste kept me invested in seeing the inevitable. Also, on a pure fandom level, the world is not as deep or interesting as Westeros’s planet yet, nor does it have as strong a cast overall, with none of the people in the evil empire being a fraction as fascinating as Tywin Lannister. Still, if you’re burned out on ASoIaF and think someone else could do it better, this book will prove you half-right.

That’s 2016 done with, finally. In the new year, if I’m not too busy, I’ll write more about Doctor Who and highbrow literature. Until next time.

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