I almost quit FEED, and on balance I’m glad I didn’t.
FEED is about three bloggers in their mid-twenties, jockeying for position in an America that has reached what accommodations it can with a quarter-century-old zombie epidemic. The presentation is smart and thoughtful: Zombification is an ironic consequence of the mixing of two genetically engineered viruses, but instead of the usual super-soldier serum or bioweapon gone wrong, the epidemic’s constituent viruses are actually effective cures for two modern plagues, cancer (so now everyone smokes) and the common cold. Grant has thought enough about this that the “disease” angle feels real, rather than a gesture indicating “OK, guys, there isn’t any other magic in this book.” Everyone has the virus, which of course has philosophical implications; the major practical implication is that you can’t get rid of zombification even by killing all the zombies, because anyone who dies will rise and, at least in theory, anyone can undergo “spontaneous amplification” and convert without dying. But there are also nice details, both about the virus’s interaction with mammalian bodies and the government’s response to the virus, which I think I’ll leave the reader to discover. The similarity of Grant’s premise to every other bit of zombie literature is lampshaded rather than conspicuously ignored — people use the “Z” word, George Romero is considered “the accidental savior of the human race,” and the three main characters are named Georgia, Georgette (a blonde who goes by “Buffy“), and Shaun. So the canvas is prepared pretty well.
The three main characters are bloggers, who’ve gained new status in a world that feels it was betrayed by mainstream news organizations, which downplayed the zombie epidemic when it started. Internet content is also hugely in demand because the majority of the populace doesn’t leave the house except at necessity. Georgia and Shaun are adoptive siblings more or less raised to the profession by their parents, who are also bloggers; Shaun is an “Irwin,” who takes a daredevil nature-show approach to the undead, and Georgia is a “Newsie,” who reports the straight facts that most of the world is too scared to go out and see. Their friend Buffy is a “Fictional” who writes poetry and stories. They’ve applied to be the press corps of Senator Peter Ryman, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and the book starts to get interesting when they accept the gig. We see most of the book from Georgia’s point of view.
It’s a flawed book. The opening, after which I was thinking about quitting, is a generic action sequence that feels like it was inserted as a hook; it does establish the broad strokes of the two main characters, but that’s done amply elsewhere, and the events are so clearly unconnected to any possible plot that it just doesn’t feel worth reading. There are a couple of similar meta-level problems elsewhere as well, notably a torrent of interstitial exposition slowing the action down in maybe the first quarter of the book, and a few pages of defensive writing later on where the main characters snappily preempt all possible suggestions that they might have planted a bit of crime scene evidence.*
Where we could have used a bit more defensive writing is in the exegesis of the events of the book (a series of catastrophes, mostly zombie attacks), which we’re meant to understand to have been driven by the rather muddily presented goals of a character whose villainous nature Grant doesn’t even try to conceal. The problem is that it’s not especially clear how the incredible carnage he’s inflicted advances his goals at all. The shocking revelation at the end of the book is likewise deflated by its incomprehensibility — it’s a horrible thing, to be sure, but so much so that it seems senseless. I suspect that it all makes sense in Grant’s notes and will become clearer in future books (at least one sequel, DEADLINE, is already out), but honestly, I don’t really have much patience for the spoooooky conspiracy. I’m also not wild about the portrayal of religion, which seems to exist only as an outlet for people to do terrible, insane shit in God’s name, but that’s potentially attributable to bias on Georgia’s part.
What Grant does well at a finer grain (i.e. moment-to-moment, versus the broad-brush stuff I’ve praised earlier) is character, when she works at it. Georgia is sort of Katniss Everdeen meets Spider Jerusalem**; Shaun is more like Steve Irwin meets John Gabriel, and the moment-to-moment tension between them serves as a great counterpoint to the deep, quiet love that keeps them together. I think it was an excellent decision on Grant’s part to focus on Georgia and Shaun’s love as siblings, rather than forcing a romance on one or the other; it makes the book’s moments of emotional payoff work that much better. Buffy is not quite so well drawn, and the motivation of her more consequential actions is maybe a bit thinner than we’d like, but she still basically works. Ryman and his wife are perhaps implausibly well-adjusted for a presidential candidate and his wife (and Ryman is unrecognizable as a Republican), but that’s at least acknowledged, and their alliances and antagonisms with Georgia, Shaun, and Buffy are believable emotionally and politically. There are characters who don’t work so well — the other Republican candidates, notably — but of course we stay for the main characters. And so I stayed.
Which brings me to a point. In a lot of ways, FEED is the worst of the three she-read books so far this year, and kind of bad in an objective sense. I haven’t spent much time on the plot, but it really does sour the enjoyment of the other things I’ve talked about at more length. But it shares more than a damaged, asexual point-of-view character with THE HUNGER GAMES — workmanlike-at-best writing is another thing, but the main thing is that I python-swallowed the last half the 550-page paperback over the course of three hours last night when I should have been sleeping. I wanted to know how it ended. I actually don’t consider this sort of “addictiveness” a cardinal virtue in books. I’m not pulled through, say, the Book of the New Sun or (these days) 1Q84 by suspense, but I enjoyed those books more than I enjoyed FEED — or THE HUNGER GAMES, or the last books in Harry Potter or the Dark Tower, all of which had the same sort of drive and are obviously not as good as a lot of books that don’t.
But even if it’s not a cardinal virtue, it sure beats boredom. And so although Mira Grant is not as good a writer as Elizabeth Bear, I probably will pick up DEADLINE in due time. Just to see what happens.
* Craft note: I don’t know if that’s the kind of thing most readers notice; I pick up on it and maybe even false-alarm to it because I do it all the time when I write things with complex plots, after which I have to sand it down in revision. I think the key to avoiding it, if there is one other than “develop a feel,” is to have some give and take between accuser and accused. People’s reference template for this sort of dialogue is “Accuser is aggressive, accused passively defends,” and the reversal “Accuser insinuates, accused takes the offensive” feels fresh, but it isn’t. The basic orientation is fine, but it feels more real if the accuser can at least make the accused stop and think once or twice. (Back to post.)
** Someone’s going to tell me that Grant’s never read a word of TRANSMET in her life, but for my money the thumbprint of Warren Ellis is all over this book, sometimes to an uncomfortable degree. The emphasis on ubiquitous, constant recording comes straight out of TRANSMET, TWO-STEP, and what I remember of the never-published LISTENER, which Ellis posted to his Livejournal a while back; the repeated references to Hunter S. Thompson (among, granted, other great journalists like Edward R. Murrow, who also gets a nod); the interview with Ryman’s main primary opponent, which echoes Jerusalem’s interviews with the Beast and the Smiler; the incident at the Ryman ranch, recalling the Smiler’s response to flagging poll numbers in his reelection campaign. (Admittedly, there are no bowel disruptors.) The ONION AV Club called FEED “THE WEST WING by way of George Romero,” but it’s much closer to early TRANSMET by way of WORLD WAR Z — another great example of very thoughtful, detail-oriented zombie extrapolation that’s also left a lot of marks on FEED. (Back to post.)