I have grown weary of zombies. In the past five years, everyone started writing zombie novels, apparently out of ennui at the thought of writing yet another variation on vampires, and that was good. But the mass of zombie material all seemed to hit the market at the same time, and it was too much, too undiluted, with too many books that weren’t good enough to be worth reading. Soon I was avoiding any book that purported to be about zombies, because, hey, enough already.
So when Mira Grant’s Feed came on the market, I was not inclined to read it, especially because it was published in that really annoying new taller and thinner paperback format — it’s less comfortable in the hand and it doesn’t look good on the bookshelf next to the standard trade and mass market paperbacks. Then Feed turned up on the list of Hugo nominees; and at about the same time, I learned that Mira Grant and Seanan McGuire (who has become one of my favorite writers for her OCTOBER DAYE urban fantasy series) are the same person. Okay, I thought, one more zombie novel. If I don’t like it, I won’t have to read the others in the series.
The first chapter was not encouraging. Georgia, the first-person narrator more commonly known as “George,” is watching from a safe distance as her brother Shaun pokes a zombie with a stick. George isn’t pleased, and becomes less so when a pack of zombies descends on the two of them. They manage a hair-raising escape, seeming to promise that this book will be a tale of insane risk-taking followed by action-packed escape sequences. It would take almost nothing to turn that chapter into the opening scene of a screenplay for a bad movie. I nearly quit reading then and there.
I’m glad I didn’t, because Feed swiftly ascends from this unpromising opening into an excellent tale of life in a post-apocalyptic United States. There is a scientific explanation for zombies, clearly thought out and explained, and integral to the plot. Georgia and Shaun are reporters in this new world, one in which traditional newspapers and news magazines have been largely supplanted by blogs like theirs. These blogs have all of the advantages of the old print media, with reporters spread throughout the world. The technology enables a staff to be close-knit yet widely separated geographically, so Georgia and Shaun have one critical member in India, for instance — someone with whom they communicate daily, and who is essentially second in command to Georgia, but whom neither of them has met in person.
Georgia and Shaun see an opportunity for their blog to rise to the top of the heap when a Republican candidate for president chooses them to follow his campaign. The candidate they are shadowing is the first to include bloggers among his entourage, and all of them are feeling their way into this relationship. But events conspire to bring them closer than reporter and candidate normally are; and yet Georgia and Shaun are so imbued with journalistic ethics that they retain their political skepticism even while losing their emotional distance. That their first loyalty is to the truth becomes highly critical as time goes on.
There is so much wonderful detail about life with zombies: frequent blood tests, for instance, to make sure that an individual is not infected with the virus that converts one to a zombie before one is allowed to enter a public, or even a private, space; the arming of the nation out of dire necessity; the status of large animals in a world where the zombie virus can infect them, too; the uneasiness of people meeting in large groups. Grant does some first-rate worldbuilding. The amount of research that has to have gone into this book is amazing: politics, journalism, medicine, weapons, computer technology, epidemiology, all the way down to railroad trestles, this book is loaded with information. Yet Grant never makes the reader feel that she is dumping all the information she has on a subject just because she did the research; everything she writes is necessary to her plot, and it all fits together like the most intricate and exacting of puzzles.
Where Grant really shines, though, is in her characters. George becomes a very real person to the reader: a friend; a confidant; a strong woman who knows her own mind, who has risen to the top of her profession through lots of hard work and difficult honesty; a woman faithful to her brother, her friends and her coworkers, but willing and able to shoot them dead should they become infected with the virus. She refuses to be a victim of the world as she finds it, but confronts it head on. She is the kind of woman anyone would like to have at her back in bad times. She is not without her faults, her inability to connect deeply with anyone except her brother chief among them. She is a complete person, and one with whom the reader can easily and happily spend 500 pages.
Feed is compulsively readable and emotionally compelling. I became so involved in the book that at one point I was forced to set it down while I cried at the events George narrates. I want to meet these characters, and I want more than just about anything right now to know what happens next.
Feed by Mira Grant is one of those books that proves it’s important to step out of your comfort zone once in a while. I’m not a big fan of zombie novels, to put it mildly. Usually I’d steer well clear of anything involving zombies — or vampires, for that matter. I decided to give Feed a chance as part of my attempt to read all the Hugo-nominated novels and shorter works this year. Boy, am I ever glad I did, because it proved to be one of the most captivating and entertaining novels I’ve read all year.
The world is a very different place in 2039, two and a half decades after “The Rising,” in which two seemingly benign viruses somehow mutated and combined to turn a sizable chunk of the population into mindless zombies. For one, the quote-unquote mainstream media did a lousy job reporting on the outbreak as it happened, while the blogosphere took the lead keeping the populace informed on what was happening and how to stay alive. As a result, news blogs have taken over as the most important source of news.
Enter Feed’s protagonists, siblings George (short for Georgia) and Shaun, who are two thirds of a blogging crew that was hand-picked to be embedded in the primary election campaign of a Republican hopeful for the US presidency. As they join the campaign, it quickly becomes clear that there’s something rotten in the state of Zombieland (sorry) when the campaign runs into a series of improbable and deadly mishaps. George and Shaun find themselves on the front line of not only a vicious electoral campaign, but also of a struggle that may define more than just the political landscape of the country…
So why is Feed such a good novel, and why would I recommend it even to people who are usually as allergic to zombies as I am? Well, first of all, it’s incredibly captivating. It’s impossible to put down. There is, to put it simply, not a boring moment in this entire 500+ page novel. I tore through it in one 24 hour period, only taking breaks to eat and sleep. I laughed, I cried, I cheered for the characters. The last time I experienced this amount of can’t-put-it-down-ness was when I read The Name of the Wind for the first time. This may not be the most original or deeply literary novel I’ve read this year, but it’s definitely the most fun one. For sheer entertainment value, Feed scores a solid ten.
Secondly, the characters. George and Shaun, are simply amazingly fun people to read about. They’re good at what they do (i.e. blogging) and they’re borderline obsessed with it. They’re funny and nerdy and affectionate. Their family background set them up for all kinds of psychological scars (their parents are basically the publicity whores of the blogger era), but they bear those scars with grace and no small amount of self-deprecating humor. Their names alone made me grin (George, Georgia and Georgette became popular names after George Romero’s movies inadvertently turned out to be great manuals on how to survive a zombie apocalypse, and Shaun — well, you know. Of the Dead?). I loved these people, and one of the reasons I couldn’t put this book down is simply because I had to find out what was going to happen to them.
Third: the entire conceit of blogs becoming a respectable source of news just tickled me. Raise your hand if you ever found out about an important breaking news story on Twitter or a blog before it hit the mainstream media. I have, several times, and it’s one of the reasons why I found Feed’s scenario so plausible. Mira Grant creates an entire blogger ecology with different roles and scales of magnitude. It all makes sense, and it’s fun to follow a relatively small-time crew as they rise up through the ranks. (Oh, and to those people who complained about the absence of sites like Twitter from the book: I actually think it was a very smart decision to leave out those types of brands. After all, if this book had appeared 20 years ago, people would have complained about the absence of IRC and Usenet, and 15 years ago it would have been ICQ, and 10 years ago Myspace, and so on… It’s already hard enough for an SF novel to avoid feeling dated after a while; including internet brand names is a surefire way to speed up that process.) And while at first I was a bit unhappy about the fact that Mira Grant chose to start sections of the novel with block quotes from the characters’ blogs, because it felt a bit too info-dumpy to me, trust the author to grab the opportunity to twist that feature into one of the most emotionally gripping scenes I’ve read in years. I was moved to tears, and I still get chills thinking back on it. If you haven’t read the book yet, you’ll know the scene when you read it. Trust me. It’s a memorable one.
Fourth, the descriptions of the world a few decades after the zombie apocalypse. Mira Grant offers a realistic look at how things might turn out. From ubiquitous blood tests to almost universal vegetarianism (after all, large animals can spread the disease too), and the ways that very rich people can still circumvent those restrictions and lead a semi-privileged life… it all makes sense, and it’s all presented in a plausible way without resorting to too many infodumps. As odd as it may be to call a futuristic zombie novel realistic, I’d say that Mira Grant did a great job in creating a near future that’s scarily believable.
Did I have any complaints about the novel? Well, yes, one or two. First of all, the origins of the zombie virus are a bit hokey. Sure, we needed zombies for the novel to work, but the explanation of how we ended up with them just feels silly. I would almost have been happier with a magical cause or an alien virus or something. My other main problem was the sheer predictability of one plot element. I saw it coming from miles away, and it was so painfully obvious that I kept hoping the author was setting things up for a clever reversal — “ha, look what I made you think was going to happen!” — only to have my initial fears confirmed because, yes, it ended up being that predictable after all.
Still, Feed is easily one of the most entertaining and captivating novels I’ve read in years. It’s one of those books that grabs you by the throat early on and doesn’t let go until you turn the final page. I know for a fact that there are many people out there who have no interest in reading zombie novels. If you think you’re one of those people, I’m here to tell you: please give Feed a chance. It’s more than worth it.
Last year, I inadvertently committed what, to some, is an unforgiveable sin: I read Mira Grant’s NEWSFLESH series out of order, beginning with the fourth novel, Feedback, before moving on to the first novel, Feed. In some regards, that wasn’t isn’t an issue — after all, Feedback is a companion novel to Feed — but it did give me a false understanding of how it functioned as a companion. For example, I mistakenly believed Feedback provided an alternate view of the entire trilogy, and reading Feed proved that wasn’t true. Naturally, I apologize for any confusion this may have caused (to myself and others). Learn from my mistake and, honestly, start with Feed. You’ll be glad you did.
Starting the series out of sequence provided a fair number of spoilers, though I didn’t have any context for them, so sitting down and reading Feed was still emotionally engaging and exciting. Knowing a competing blog team’s perceptions of George and Shaun Mason was useful and informative, but was nothing like seeing their experiences first-hand. George’s narration hooked me from the first page, and so much of what she and her news team go through isn’t covered or commented on in Feedback that I never got the impression that Grant lazily cut-and-pasted content from one book to the other.
The sibling dynamic between George and Shaun is, for me, the best part of Feed. Their bickering and hyper-reliance on one another rang a little too true for me, at times; Grant has what I’d call a pitch-perfect ear for this kind of relationship, whether she’s writing as Mira Grant or Seanan McGuire.
I especially appreciated that her characters are aware of pop culture and use that knowledge, either to their advantage or for their own entertainment. Having an awareness of George Romero’s film legacy or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the way a savvy reader would, prevents the characters from doing the lethally stupid things that always lead to instant death in various zombie media. Instead, Grant can play around with tropes and expectations without having to waste anyone’s time, particularly her own, and instead uses Feed’s page-count to focus on virology and incisive social commentary.
I know, I know — zombies are boring and passé and dreadfully overdone. I’ve said it all, and much more, trust me. But Feed is worth giving a chance, all the same. I liked it so much that I sat down and re-read Feedback immediately afterward, to get a better feel for how the novels compared, and I’ve already got a copy of Deadline ready and waiting for me.