What makes a good novel? Zombies? Well, not necessarily. We can look at results, first. There are plenty of lists of best fiction works, at least in English. There’s even a meta-site than combines 10 different lists, some popular, some literary, some juried. Only one book, George Orwell’s 1984, appears on all ten lists. Though I very much like that book, it’s difficult to call something The Best. Looking through, some of the Top 25 I really enjoy, some I find decent, some I haven’t read, and some I find poor.
The point of this essay is not to critique top books, though. It’s to think about what makes a good fiction novel. I agree with this summary:
In fiction, the writer’s job is to entertain, to draw an emotional response from the reader. The reader is often looking for suspense, action, and to go on a journey they have not been on before, one they will not easily forget. Readers want to get drawn into and experience the story for themselves. They want characters they can relate to and form a personal connection with. But most importantly, they want a good book. One that leaves them anxiously awaiting each turn of the page.
J. K. Rowling did well in the Harry Potter series. I own all seven novels in hardback, and attended release night parties for books four through seven. People flock to her believable otherworld, her website comes in six languages, and she might be a billionaire. That’s a lot of believability.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t call the Harry Potter books great fiction. Great fiction makes an additional leap. It becomes questioning, moral, problematic. It can transform. It’s a dangerous leap, though. Setting out to write a meaningful novel often leads to contrived situations, undeveloped characters, and the loss of immersion. The idea becomes a mediocre parable. This type of book gets taught in high schools quite often, but it’s not great. I consider Lord of the Flies an archetypal example of moral as story. It just hammers away. For me, it lost credence.
The hot theme for potential immersion, and perhaps that transformation, is another transform – the Zombie. Today’s entry into the genre is An Oral History of the Zombie War, World War Z, by Max Brooks. Mr. Brooks has said that he enjoyed a book about World War II, The Good War by Studs Terkel, and decided upon the same format.
It works. Combined with his earlier, more humorous work The Zombie Survival Guide, this is an immersive world. The role playing scenarios for All Flesh Must Be Eaten practically write themselves. For more casual readers, the characters feel different. The Chinese doctor sounds different from the American warrior, who differs from the Russian priest, and so forth. None of the interviewed has the full picture, so we get little pieces. That’s interesting.
The stories vary, too. Some, like escaping the first Cape Town rush, are typical horror. Others, like North Korea, are straightforward development. They’re fun, but not noteworthy. The better stories show the fruits of Mr. Brooks’ research. I was fascinated by the underwater fighting suits, which are apparently in service today. The combat scenes, both in defeat and reconquest, are cool too. There are several little jokes, like about LaMOE survivalists.
Things start to get really good when we reach psychology and how people respond. This makes the book more than a set of war stories, though I’m afraid that the movie adaptation might lose these scenes in favor of more Whiz Bang Kaboom! Unlike, say Independence Day, the American Big Speech doesn’t lead to slow universal applause. Some people just, well, give up. I’ve seen things like ADS eternal sleep, not as severe, but I understand. Other folks make errors in panic, even though they should know better. The military, for instance, suffers from the sin of pride.
At this point, we have a good book. What makes this great? What moves it from a 2 or 3, up to a 4 out of 5? The Redeker Plan. It’s been a week since I first read the idea, and it’s still on my mind. I reread the interview last night, the first one of Turning the Tide. At Robben Island in South Africa, the details are given to us by Xolelwa Azania – in translation, Forgiven South Africa. Written by Paul Redeker, the plan begins with a safe zone, protected as possible with natural barriers, to clear and reorganize. (I’m guessing some of the Northern Cape and the northern Western Cape.) The tricky part, well, is that not all citizens are evacuated into that area. Space and resources are limited. Instead, beyond the safe zone, there were other colors. White zones meant infestation; green for military, purple for refueling, red for asset protection. Then there was Blue. Remaining citizens got moved there, with a few supply drops and trainers. No military support, though, as they had to make their own stand. The key was to gain time, as “every zombie besieging those survivors will be one less zombie throwing itself against our defenses.”
It worked, generally, better than the other ideas. The Redeker Plan saved countries, and a large extent of the human race. But how do you write that plan? How do you put it into place? Can you be forgiven? Xolelwa? I’m very unsure that I could. Mr. Brooks considers that question through his characters. It’s not just the Stockdale Paradox, which deals with a person’s life. It’s also more than field leadership. It’s something I just don’t know. The characters struggle, too.
There’s no simple response to the Redeker Plan. In it, World War Z moves from story to problem, the leap that makes this more. That dilemma, as is said, that even in a good war, “God help you, man.” “God help us all.”