Conversational Review with Alisa Krasnostein, Kathryn Linge, David McDonald, Tehani Wessely
HERE BE SPOILERS!
This series is impossible to review in full without spoilers for preceding books. Up front, know that we WILL be discussing major spoilers for all three books. PLEASE do not continue unless you have no intention of reading this (very excellent) science fiction thriller (with zombies), or you REALLY don’t mind spoilers!
Last chance – SPOILERS AHEAD!
Right, and here we go…
TEHANI: My favourite way to describe the first book of the trilogy, Feed (2010), is as a science fiction political thriller (with zombies). While the undead are central and fairly crucial to the series, it is the twisting, turning politics, the science and the characters which I feel really make the books so darn cool. The first novel is narrated by Georgia (George) Mason, a ‘Newsie’ who, with her adopted brother Shaun (an ‘Irwin’ – a breed of bloggers named after Steve Irwin because of their habit of poking things – in this case dead, or undead, things – with sticks!), and Buffy (a ‘Fictional’ as well as the team’s tech guru), have been selected to cover the presidential campaign of Peter Ryman on their news blogsite. Set in 2040, a couple of decades after two man-made vaccine viruses combined to change the world with the threat of zombies, Feed is action-packed but at the same time thoughtful and challenging, with an ending that rips your heart straight out.
We follow Feed with 2011’s Deadline. Conspiracy comes to the fore, while the political arena is in the background for much of this book, which is narrated by an increasingly unstable Shaun after George’s death at the end of Feed. The only thing that is keeping Shaun alive is the desire to avenge his sister, but his sanity is on a knife edge. And there is yet more ripping out of hearts, when Shaun discovers that there’s every likelihood George would have survived amplification, thanks to the reservoir condition she lived with, if only he hadn’t shot her in the head as per protocol – how do you live with that?! And if that’s not enough, the ending of this book gives us yet another shock (although let’s be honest, it’s one we were hoping for!).
Which brings us to the final book, 2012’s Blackout, which we’re all coming fresh off the back of. Now we have a cloned George who, thanks to illegal technology, has almost all of the original George’s memories, including her feelings for Shaun and her inherent desire to get the truth about the devastating virus, and those working to hide information about it, out into the world. More heart-ripping, more action, more tears, and some bloody brilliant writing.
A pretty brief overview, but let’s talk in more depth!
ALISA: What a ride the Newsflesh Trilogy was! I think where I wanted to start first was the Shaun/Georgia relationship which was, should we say, complicated? At first, in book 1, I thought they were a bit close but then I kept second guessing myself and wondering if I were judging too unfairly. Would I have thought that if the siblings had been of the same sex? Then after we got inside Shaun’s head I thought the way he thought of Georgia was way different to the way she had narrated their relationship in book 1 and then when he slept with Becks? I knew things weren’t as they seemed! After book 2, I was asking anyone at Natcon who’d read it if they thought they were sleeping together and everyone responded shocked and said No!
DAVID: I am willing to put up my hand and say, I had no idea! I must be far too sheltered and naive, but until Alisa mentioned it I hadn’t even thought about it. But, once she had planted that seed it started to make sense and explain a few things that had seemed a little odd. When it was finally spelt out, and was no longer something open to interpretation, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t as creeped out by it as I expected. Sure, it’s a little … unsettling, but as Alisa pointed out they weren’t biologically related, and IIRC they were raised knowing that all along, and even made sure there was no chance they were related by getting genetically tested. I can’t really hold it against them, the Masons created an abnormal family unit, and it is no wonder the twins clung to each other in the face of that (no pun intended, honest).
ALISA: You clearly need to read more fanfiction. Or not!
TEHANI: I obviously have spent too much time reading depravity, because I had my suspicions from quite early in book 1. It was made very clear that while George and Shaun were raised together, they absolutely were not related – doesn’t completely erase the squick factor, but it helps (also helps I read a similar situation in Charlaine Harris’s Grave series not too long ago!). There were actually quite a lot of clues about the relationship, if you were looking for them, but I give big kudos to Grant for keeping us in the dark until halfway through the last book!
DAVID: While the Newsflesh trilogy has all the elements that make a great story of the zombie apocalypse, one of the things that made it something more than just another attempt to cash in on the zombie craze, and Hugo worthy, was that it does what great science fiction needs to do and explores the consequences that technology and scientific advances have for people, both on an individual and societal level. Tehani has already alluded to the political elements, which I hope we will discuss later, but one of the really interesting topics for me was the cloning angle.
Instead of just treating it as a convenient plot device (so, how do we bring Georgia back?), I think Grant does a great job of actually taking a long hard look at the moral and, dare I say, spiritual implications of human cloning and poses some very interesting questions. Even Georgia v2 asks the obvious question, who is she, really? Is she still the Georgia we meet at the start of the books? Is she a new person who just happens to have a copy of the old Georgia’s memories? It’s fascinating, and troubling at times. I’m interested to hear what everyone else thinks. Personally, I go with the whole her being a new person, not just a copy.
And, without being anti science, she also raises important questions about the ethics and morality of science, and what can be done in the name of progress. The idea of creating version after version in an attempt to get it right, and killing off the ones that don’t work, is pretty repugnant but not overly farfetched when you look at some of the human rights abuses big pharma companies are complicit in right now. And, something that was only mentioned in passing, but for some reason really got to me, was the idea of them making a passable but not quite all there facsimile of the First Lady just to cover up the kidnap – that was terrible.
ALISA: Well this is something that I have been thinking over a lot because in some ways I found it really problematic that the characters I really loved and I thought were really awesome – Buffy, Georgia and Becks – all get killed off and all get killed off because of the things that they do that are awesome. And as a female reader, i find it very confronting when women are killed off – for me, it can very often kill my interest in the book because the person I was relating to, and experiencing the story through, is gone. And so when the second book was Shaun’s POV, I really struggled with investment, til we got more Becks…
So the other issue that for me is problematic is the killing off of Georgia – she was seen as a pawn to get Shaun to do what they wanted him to do, and frankly, she was inconvenient to the powers that be due to her own power – and they replaced her with a less-than-Georgia – a 97% version of her. George but not quite George. George but not quite as awesome as Book 1 George. And sure, she was still awesome and stuff but we kept getting reminded that she was only 97% as good. And I dunno how well that really sits with me. I’m still processing it.
TEHANI: That’s a bit reflected in the alternate ending (“Fed”) as well isn’t it? With Shaun dying and George preferring to die than live without him. I didn’t buy it, really, but I guess in one way, they were each other’s world? But that Shaun could keep going (although throughout the second and third books, we’re frequently reminded that he’s only continuing until he gets revenge for George, then he’ll kill himself rather than live without her) and George wouldn’t? No, didn’t sit well.
DAVID: That’s a really interesting point you raise there, Alisa, as I didn’t enjoy Shaun’s POV anywhere near as much as I did Georgia’s. I don’t know why, but I found him much harder to identify with. So, when Georgia died, I was really disappointed and didn’t enjoy the reading experience as much until she returned.
ALISA: Personally I thought the whole cloning thing was farfetched in terms of the resources required to do it. And the lack of science that would have been known for how stable the clones were etc. But I liked that aspect as an analogy – of both what big pharma do and have done and also how far people will go to maintain their power in a situation. Even long beyond when what they were working for makes any sense anymore. And that’s how I read it, and that aspect worked for me. Also. I wanted Shaun to get George back 🙂
KATHRYN: I loved having Georgia back, and ultimately I’m happy with the way the books finished, but I had real trouble accepting cloning as a story plot device. The technology in the Newsflesh universe is more advanced than us (as you would expect ~ 30 years in the future), but is it cloning-advanced? It seemed a cop out for Georgia to be brought back like that. Having said that, I did like the questions it brought up – is Georgia the same person as she was, or is she a new one? Is it possible to work out what ‘bits’ of the original Georgia went missing – how is she different? Grant also uses the fact that multiple (imperfect) copies of Georgia have been produced and destroyed to horrifying effect. It was nice to see a reference to some of the moral implications of cloning.
TEHANI: I’m not a scientist, but I found the cloning idea quite plausible. I mean, as far as the media tells me, we’re already able to do it on a basic level. Technology is advancing so damn quickly in the real world, that I have no reason to doubt it will continue to move so quickly in the future, which makes 30 years to proper people cloning fairly reasonable to me! Less likely (for me) was the idea the scientists would be able to completely capture a person’s consciousness up to the point they died, but I still liked Grant’s reasoning and explanation for that. But as I said, not a scientist!
DAVID: The technological aspect where I did think the author missed a trick wasn’t cloning, but the curious absence of Twitter! The way she used blogging made a lot of sense, and I can see that replacing traditional media in that situation, after all that is the trend now! But, you would have thought Twitter would be the perfect tool for always connected people to quickly update on outbreaks and locations (You could have a lot of fun coming up with hash tags). We’ve seen it used in protests and revolutions now. So, I’m wondering whether when the first book was written was just before Twitter really took off and Grant didn’t really want to write in another element.
KATHRYN: I hadn’t thought of that David, though on the whole I agree with you. Of course it could be argued that Twitter itself might have come and gone – as many different blogging platforms already have. However, I think the value of ‘microblogging’ in all sorts of breaking news stories has been demonstrated repeatedly in the last few years, that it would make sense that some sort of Twitter-like service would still exist. It would have made telling the story more complicated, however, so I can understand why Grant kept with one platform. And I did really enjoy how Grant interspersed her chapters with blog excerpts and news stories. It was a great way of adding extra depth to the story and the characters, particularly when they were in the voices of some of the minor characters. I really looked forward to reading them.
On a side note, since reading the Newsflesh trilogy, I have (somewhat randomly) read a novelisation of the movie 12 Monkeys. While the narrative was quite different, the central premise of a dangerous virus being released into the atmosphere was strikingly similar, and it really brought home the difference that even 15 years can make to development of society. 12 Monkeys was released in 1995 (vs Feed in 2010) – there are no mobile phones, no internet, no Twitter. The protagonists communicate with ‘the future’ by leaving messages on a (non-digital) answering machine. In that context, communication in 2040 is likely to be as dramatically different again (zombie virus or no zombie virus).
On the trilogy as a whole: In a way, I feel Feed is a perfect book all by itself, heartbreaking ending and all. And while having Deadline and Blackout provides us with more twists, and a happier ending, they are both flawed in small ways that made my overall reading experience a bit less ‘perfect’. For example, I think both Deadline and Blackout could have been tighter. I felt it a bit weird that both the President and Rick Cousins are both absent from both, until the final reveal. And I’m really not sure how I feel about the big reveal. It is so very vague and ill-defined. However, I did love that both Buffy and Georgia both remained a presence in the books after they had died – particularly Buffy, who is so entrenched into every bit of tech she made or modified.
TEHANI: I had it in my head that Feed was written (or perhaps sold?) as a standalone? But that might not be right (Jonathan would know!). I agree that the first book was very self-contained, but it was so devastating when Georgia died that I’m glad Grant continued the story after that!
KATHRYN: Yeah, I agree Tehani – it definitely felt like Feed started as a standalone, and the other two books were added later. Interestingly, I hated the alternate ending for Feed that Grant has written on her Facebook page (in which Shaun dies, and Georgia later commits suicide, unable to live without him). Georgia is such a strong character that I had trouble believing that she would actually kill herself – it seemed like such a weak thing to do. The idea is revived in Blackout, when Shaun and New!Georgia discuss what would have happened, had it been Shaun who dies first, and oddly the idea wasn’t so appalling to me when it was brought up the second time. What changed between reading the alternate ending and the final book? The only thing I can think is that the there has been the big reveal that Georgia and Shaun were more than just brother and sister. So apparently I feel that suicide is okay for lovers, but not siblings!? Perhaps I just became more accepting of the idea on a second exposure…
TEHANI: I wanted to talk about Shaun’s mental state in Deadline and Blackout. Initially, I thought perhaps we were being set up for some kind of technological explanation for his conversations with George, ie, she was still ‘alive’ and her consciousness was somehow implanted into his brain (or something equally unlikely!), but by the end of the trilogy, it seems that Shaun actually did have a severe mental break, yes? He was really, seriously, going insane with grief. It took me a long time to realise that Grant was genuinely writing that, and I thought it was most interesting.
ALISA: I didn’t really think it was anything other than Shaun having a breakdown which is why the ‘big reveal’ of the true nature of their relationship was less of a surprise. Clearly he was completely engrossed in her.
DAVID: I never really thought of the idea of it being a genuine voice, Tehani, though that is a fascinating idea! To me, it was quite clear that he was ‘deranged with grief’ and that he was unable to deal with his loss. That tied into the twin thing, I am sure I have read accounts of twins dying within hours or days of one another, so I saw it as a comment on how close they were, biological or not. I could even buy the team just accepting his behaviour, we are talking about a world of deeply traumatised people, where the dead walk, and I think that people would be very understanding of the different ways people would come up with to cope.
KATHRYN: I’m the same as Alisa and David, I assumed Shaun was having a breakdown, rather than any technological advance, though it’s an interesting idea, and not at all farfetched, given where they took the technology. I actually really liked how it worked in Deadline – it made Georgia a continuing character in the book, despite the fact that she was dead, and I thought it made Shaun a better (realer??) character as well. The majority of Feed is in Georgia’s voice, and for a lot of the book, I imagined Shaun as a simple happy-go-lucky Irwin, with not a huge amount of depth (apologies Shaun). Deadline made him nicely fucked up 🙂
TEHANI: In addition to the trilogy, Mira Grant has also written “Countdown”, a prequel novella, which tells in full the story of how the Kellis-Amberlee virus which caused the zombie plague came into being. From the novels, we know the basics, but in the novella, Grant details the events leading up to the fateful release of the virus. More, she gives us a brief chance to love new characters, and even learn more about George and Shaun’s adopted parents, from a very different perspective.
ALISA: I thought the parents angle was really interesting too – did they really just adopt new kids for blog ratings? It felt like such a great jump between the woman their mother was in the novella “Countdown” compared to who she is by the time Shaun confronts them in Blackout. (Sigh, I still really wanted him to work out with Becks).
KATHRYN: Apologies to the Masons, but I didn’t think their portrayal in “Countdown” particularly changed my opinion of them in anyway. Yes, they were younger, and nicer, but “Countdown” stops with Marigold (the zombie dog) biting their first son, Phillip. What would have been most interesting in their character development would have been what happened after that – discovery of Zombie!Phillip, how they deal with it, and of course their mindset when the finally adopt Shaun and Georgia. It might have been the style of narrative (which was fantastic for the increase in tension/anticipation, but precluded any in depth character exploration) but the only characters I felt a connection to was Dr John Kellis and his husband Alex (yay for gay marriage!). Maybe they got more airtime than other new characters (I haven’t checked), but to me it seemed that their chapters held a continuing narrative that most of the other new characters did not enjoy. SO I guess I felt that “Countdown” is an interesting intellectual exercise, but didn’t really augment my enjoyment of the trilogy itself.
TEHANI: I’m with Kathryn on this one, and I’d love to see Grant take the Mason’s story forward more in another novella. Alisa’s point about the jump between who they are portrayed as in “Countdown” and who we see them as in the trilogy is a good one, and I reckon their journey would make for fascinating, if heartbreaking, reading.
To conclude, it seems safe to say we all agree that the Newsflesh Trilogy is one of the more interesting and compelling science fiction, or indeed, horror, series of the past few years. Complex, layered, well-characterised, thoughtful and emotional, there’s something in these books for every reader. Best read entirely in sequence for the strongest impact!