Book 1, Newsflesh
Reviewed by Tansy Roberts
When I finished reading Feed, by Mira Grant (who also writes urban fantasy as Seanan McGuire) I felt like I’d been bludgeoned about the head.
I put off reading this one longer than I should, because it looked awfully grim and dark, and I didn’t feel like spending any more time this year with zombies. I was very pleased to discover that Feed isn’t really a zombie novel at all – it’s a hard-edged SF political thriller which deals with the future of communications and the media, and happens to have zombies in it.
Well, okay. The zombies don’t just happen to be there. They are essential to the worldbuilding as well as the plot. But this is the story of what the world is like twenty years after the zombie uprising, one of many elements that lifts this story above and beyond its overworked source material.
We all know what a zombie uprising looks like, right? Grant doesn’t waste much time going into that – except to say it was pretty much like all the movies said it was going to be (and, ironically, it was caused by a side effect of scientists curing cancer and the common cold). Feed subscribes to the postmodern school of zombie stories which are set in a world where people have seen zombie movies before and have a cultural frame of reference for what they are, and how to fight them. Most recently this was very well done in Amelia Beamer’s The Loving Dead and Simon Pegg’s brilliant comedy Shaun of the Dead. Just in the last few weeks I’ve heard people complaining about the lack of zombie knowledge in the protagonists of the Resident Evil films, and the refusal to admit the word “zombie” exists, in current TV series The Walking Dead. It may have become a cliche in itself since Scream to have horror protagonists refer to the culture of the genre they’re now part of, but it is a lot harder to believe in an alternate reality where such books and movies don’t exist – and it saves narrative time, too!
Feed goes one step further, claiming that George Romero is credited with saving the human race, because his movies taught people what to expect when the zombies rise up. Two of the main characters are named Georgia and Georgette in his honour, as are most of the girls of their generation, and while it’s not acknowledged, I’m assuming Georgia’s brother Shaun was named in honour of the Simon Pegg movie – not only by the author, but by his parents.
All this, while entertaining, is the window dressing. The effect of twenty years of an active zombie virus on humanity is a constant theme. We get to see how society in the US has adapted to this constant threat, and how it has affected all corners of life: home security, architecture, social traditions, dining out, pets, hobbies, transport, politics and most importantly of all, media and communications. For a fast-paced novel full of zombies, it’s a very intelligent piece of science fiction.
The most important science fictional stream to the story is about the future of blogging as a media: how it works as a business, and as a social construct. Georgia and Shaun are so wrapped up in their world, where the type of blogging you do is akin to a social caste, that they have trouble seeing outside it, and that very much affects their world view and the perspective of the novel. Their perspective is so fascinating and compelling, though, that I was more than happy to surrender to their deeply biased version of the world they were tearing through. As young adults in the world twenty years after the zombie uprising, they have quite alien ideas about danger, risk and privacy, and it’s this that makes their world come so powerfully to life.
Georgia is an extraordinary protagonist. She is a force of nature – tough, uncompromising and gutsy, and I very much enjoyed her snarky perspective on everyone and everything around her. She has two points of vulnerability: her love for her danger-loving brother, and her eyesight, which is affected by a retinal disorder as a side effect of the zombie virus. The way that George and the people who care about her deal with her disability is another strength of the book, and her fierce co-dependence with Shaun is very much the heart of the novel.
Feed is littered with great, well-realised characters, and even many of the very minor characters are memorable despite a few brief appearances. I thought Senator Ryman came across very well as the kind of political figure you want to believe in, though human and flawed like everyone else. His choice to allow bloggers to join the campaign instead of limiting it to more controllable media is an important one, and many questions are raised about the nature and value of truth rather than the appearance of authenticity to a political campaign. His wife Emily is also an interesting, well-rounded figure, and it’s through her that we see the way that being an animal-lover has become a high risk and very unpopular occupation.
There was one, admittedly minor, niggle I had with the book, and that was the portrayal of a congresswoman who is up against Senator Ryman at pre-selection stage. References to her history as a stripper, her general tarty and inappropriate behaviour in public, and what a joke she is as a politician, are scattered through the book. It’s a weird thing to find in a world that otherwise seems to be doing fairly well on the equality front, and particularly off-putting that this is the only significant female politician we see, in a story primarily about politics. Maybe this shit happens in real life, but that doesn’t make it funny. I thought less of the author for choosing to make the “joke” politician a woman and to use her sexuality against her (really, in the age of Sarah Palin, we can’t think of criteria other than sex to discredit a female politician?), I thought less of George and Shaun for their slut-shaming attitude towards the character (really, George can put aside her anger about horse-owners to treat Emily well, but she can’t summon up a fraction of that tolerance for a woman who used to take her clothes off for a living?), and it didn’t exactly edify the Senator to have beaten someone so lacking in public respect in the pre-selections – indeed, the whole contest was presented as being between the two male candidates because the woman was such a joke. Can you tell I’m still cranky about this? It really is a tiny part of the novel, but it’s repeated often and made me grumpy every time.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I can go back to talking about how brilliant this book is. Because, it really is. It presents such a credible future (apart from the zombies), and shows with beautiful drip-fed worldbuilding detail how we got there from here. It also has a deeply emotional throughline and on several occasions, completely eviscerated me. The combination of high-risk adventure, political machinations and snark is a winner, and I completely fell in love with the brittle, stressed, caring, angry, brave, competent, heroic woman at the centre of the story.
Which, by the way, Mira Grant totally used against me. I don’t know if I can forgive her for that. The last fifty pages or so had me sobbing like an angry toddler, and the end of the book took my breath away. There are more books coming – I think it’s a trilogy – but I honestly don’t know if I have the heart to read them.