1/07/2011. Contributed by Richard Palmer
pub: Orbit. 560 page paperback. Price: GBP 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-898-0.
check out websites: www.orbitbooks.net, www.miragrant.com and www.seananmcguire.com
Set in a near future America, Mira Grant’s ‘Feed’ imagines a world where the accidental release of cures for the common cold and cancer have resulted in the dead 'Rising' in the manner of George A. Romero’s zombie films. Indeed, Romero’s films are used by the population as survival guides as it seems that the rules laid out in those hold true for the real world. At first, people struggle to cope as the dead rise to feast upon the living and convert them to their own. Over the years, though, people have learned to cope. The world has changed, but people live on and even prosper. It is at this point that the novel picks up.
The story is told through the eyes of Georgia, known as George, and Shaun Mason. They are the adoptive children of a couple whose biological son was killed by a dog converted by the Kellis-Amberlee virus, as the mutated cold and cancer cure became known; a dubious honour bestowed upon the creators of the cures. There are a number of secondary characters, including Buffy, with whom they work and a number of junior partners.
George, Shaun and Buffy are bloggers. George considers herself a sober presenter of the facts and little else. Shaun is an ‘Irwin’, so named after the late crocodile hunter, Steve Irwin, as they put themselves in danger to get to the bottom of whatever story they happen to be investigating. Buffy is their resident tech-head and also a purveyor of quite frankly awful poetry.
George, Buffy and Shaun applied to be embedded in the campaign of a Senator Ryman who is running for the Republican nomination in a forthcoming US presidential election. Ryman is a relatively young man and George, Buffy, Shaun and their peers would consider him more or less their contemporaries. He’s older than them, yes, but his adulthood began after the Rising and so they feel he speaks to them. Indeed, even several decades hence, the establishment is apparently failing to take news reporting via non-traditional channels seriously.
As they follow the campaign, it becomes clear that a vast conspiracy is at work. One which doesn’t like what America has become in the face of Kellis-Amberlee. Reactionary forces have been present in the world for some time and continue to try and influence the direction of the United States. So, though this is set in an unlikely future, this as a theme feels contemporary.
So far so good, a conspiracy thriller following some intrepid journalists as they seek to uncover corruption and conspiracy with some flesh-eating zombies thrown in has some potential. The only problem is that the execution of this is, I am sorry to say, dreadful. You could deflect my complaints if you read the novel as a critique of news gathering but I just didn’t read it that way.
To start with, George takes herself incredibly seriously. It’s clear that she believes that she is channelling the spirit of every investigative journalist that ever lived. Her news reports which pepper the text are vacuous, yet imbued with an undue sense of their own importance. The horror of these is further compounded when you see how she behaves when reporting on Ryman’s campaign. She utterly fails to critique the man. It is clear that she may have believed that he was genuinely a fine candidate for the presidency and that was what had prompted her to apply for the gig. However, she is so utterly desperate for the page views that the exclusive access Ryman is allowing them, she does as little as she can to unsettle him. This is probably a product of her and Shaun’s upbringing. The Masons also report the news. They never fail to exploit a situation to increase page hits and this, I think, is what has made George and Shaun the way that they are.
As I mentioned, Buffy writes poetry. Hideous poetry. Nothing odd in this and the novel does acknowledge that the poetry isn't great. I’m pretty sure that without much effort, one could find screeds of tediously self-indulgent poetry written by angst-ridden and privileged kids. However, I question the idea that this has somehow become a way of making money on the Internet. It doesn’t seem very likely to me. Similarly, George and Shaun’s ability to make a living with such vapid reporting seems questionable to me. Not that I’m under any illusions that current reporting is anything other than mostly dross, but this is certainly not a good advert for news bloggers.
This is irritating because the conspiracy plot relies upon George and Shaun being a whole lot more competent than I think they are. I suppose it’s feasible that Ryman would want a blogger who will be providing puff pieces for him and his campaign. On the other hand, if that’s all he wants, surely he’d just hire a PR and be honest about it? Ultimately, though, I think that the novel suffers from the way that George and her journalism are presented. I don't doubt that they are capable of physically surviving. It's clear that they have a lot of experience and instruction in survival. But I don't believe that the quality of their work would sustain them.
There’s far too much tedious detail on how they go about their work and, really, who cares? It just makes the novel descend into a horrendous description of their working day. Combine this with an over-earnest cast of characters and an implied ‘don’t trust anyone over thirty’ type of sub-text and you have a deeply unenjoyable novel. It’s a novel about zombies so I don’t expect it to be particularly realistic, but it could at least sidestep implausibility.
There is one other aspect of the novel that I found both odd and unsettling. Shaun and George aren’t biological brother and sister, but they have been brother and sister for a long time. The relationship, as portrayed is, a little disturbing. I’d be surprised at any brother and sister who, no matter whether or not zombies have changed society, would choose to share a bedroom rather than any alternative offered. She claims that it’s a ‘geeky’ love for her brother. I found it weird. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but the novel offers nothing deeper on this subject beyond the facts of it. So, again, in this text it’s just not pleasant reading.
The novel does introduce a number of interesting consequences of the zombie plague. As everyone in the world is a carrier of the Kellis-Amberlee virus, their death will result in their resurrection. Even those that would traditionally be the most ardent supporters of capital punishment recognise that the power of an execution is lost if the prisoner immediately resurrects. Execution is, therefore, reserved for only the most serious of crimes – in this case, terrorism. Those that are executed have are killed again and their body is used for research into the virus.
This idea isn’t a particularly bad one and I note a similar idea is being used in the new series of ‘Torchwood’, though it is immortality that is preventing executions, rather than resurrection as a zombie in this series. In the context of Mira Grant’s novel, however, there is one small problem with this. It’s not as though the person executed is resurrected as themselves and, given that I would imagine that the executioners would have control over the situation, the authorities would be in a situation whereby they could destroy the zombie safely.
Despite these almost nifty touches, the other problems that ‘Feed’ has make it a tortuous slog. I didn’t enjoy this at all.
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