I am not, historically, a fan of zombie narratives — neither in books nor in movies. The allegories are too obvious: consumerism, racism, opposing political party members, generalized xenophobia, etc. There’s hardly ever a satisfying answer as to why any of this is happening. Characters rarely do anything more interesting than board up windows, shriek at each other, get chewed on, and then do a little chewing of their own before dying gruesomely. Imagine my grateful surprise, then, when I opened up a copy of Mira Grant’s Feedback (2016), and discovered a wickedly smart novel drenched in bleach and blood.
Functioning as a companion/stand-alone novel to Grant’s existing NEWSFLESH series, Feedback provides an alternative viewpoint to the events of Feed (2010), Deadline (2011), and Blackout (2012); that trilogy, expertly reviewed by Terry, follows the exploits of famous sister-brother news team Georgia “George” and Shaun Mason, hot on the trail of the zombie-causing virus, Kellis-Amberlee, a few decades after the worldwide infection event known as the Rising. Feedback provides insight into a less-known news team comprised of four friends who find themselves in a simultaneously complementary and competing role to the Masons: an Irwin, Aislinn “Ash” North; Newsie Ben Ross; Fictional Audrey Liqui Wen; and tech-head/cosmetic consultant Mat Newson. Living in a post-apocalyptic world isn’t enough to stop the American political process, and as election season swings into action, an offer that should be a career-catapulting opportunity instead proves that not everyone has the same opinion about zombie viruses — or, for that matter, journalists.
Grant’s world is both inventive and familiar: it seems only natural that bloggers would form factions depending on their individual strengths or goals, whether that means poking things with sticks (Irwins) or actually reporting events as they happen (Newsies). The leaps in technology are completely credible, since a population living in perpetual fear of someone “amplifying” from normal citizen to bitey monster would result in normalized precautions like regular blood tests and bleach-heavy decontamination showers. At the same time, life does have to go on, and Grant carefully balances the intentional mundanity of domestic scenes against moments of truly heart-pounding terror.
Ash is Feedback’s narrator and its most compelling character; born in Ireland and relocated to the U.S. under slightly questionable circumstances, she’s funny, fierce, a wee bit reckless, and lethal with a rifle. Her husband, Ben, wants the group to be seen as legitimate competition to the Masons, and draws the attention of a big-name political candidate who needs reliable news coverage of her campaign. Audrey is secretive and wildly creative, and publically, she’s the third member of Ash and Ben’s poly-arrangement. (Privately, Audrey and Ash are a monogamous couple.) And then there’s Mat, a genderfluid person who gets as much joy from taking apart toasters as they do from putting together a perfect smoky-eye look. Each of these people bring a specific set of skills, first to their news organization and then to Governor Kilburn’s trek across the country, and the way the group works together (or has disagreements) makes perfect sense. Story-wise, Feedback is excellent, with enough twists and character betrayals to keep you gasping and turning pages all night long.
Science-wise, I’m no epidemiologist, but the little I know about viruses and pandemics is enough to tell me that Grant did a lot (and I mean a lot) of homework to shore up her fiction, and it pays off. Terry mentions in her review of Feed that Grant avoided info-dumps in that novel, and the same is true for Feedback. Information about avoiding contamination from another blood source, disease-transmission methods, and the precautions taken to contain an infectious spill of bodily fluid are incorporated into the narrative in a natural way. For many characters, this is simply what life is like post-Rising, and that acceptance of what people have to do to stay safe leads to some interesting questions and conversations about what lengths a person might be willing to go to, as well as how to hang on to what remains of one’s humanity in a world in which, at any point, a trusted friend or spouse might need to be killed.
My only issue was that many character names are too similar. There’s an Audrey, an Amber, an Amanda Amberlee, and an Aislinn/Ash. There’s Governor Blackburn and Governor Kilburn; Senator Peter Ryman and an Irwin named George Lyman; Georgia “George” Mason and Georgette Meissonier. Thankfully, each character directly featured in Feedback behaves in discrete and distinctive ways, so it was obvious through context which people were in which scene.
So how does Feedback fare as “a new entry point,” as per the jacket copy’s promise? Is it suitable for complete novices (like myself) who are unfamiliar with any of the previous entries in the NEWSFLESH series? Well… that’s going to depend on what type of reader you are. If you’re fine with some major series-spoilers at the end of the novel, especially regarding the fates of certain characters, then I’d say you’re fine to start with Feedback and work your way back around to Feed, Deadline, and Blackout (and any of the accompanying stories or novellas). Personally, by the time I reached the spoilers, I was so invested in the story Grant is telling that I immediately began tracking down copies of the other novels, because I wanted to know exactly how events transpire from those previously-established perspectives. If you’d prefer to tackle the books chronologically and leave a certain level of suspense and surprise for yourself, then by all means, do so. Let your own reading style dictate how to approach the series.
I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a whole-heart convert to zombie-flavored horror and science fiction. But Grant’s science is good, her characters and world are compelling, and I desperately want to know how these events look from George and Shaun Mason’s perspectives. Feedback certainly whetted my appetite for more!
I listened to the audiobook of Feedback, Mira Grant’s standalone companion novel to her NEWSFLESH series, in just a few days and was captured almost immediately by the voice of the main character. Aislinn North, otherwise known as Ash, is a writer and part of a blog team hired to follow the presidential campaign of Democratic Governor Susan Kilburn. Ash is smart, acerbic, brave, impulsive, and very aware of her own flaws. I loved her immediately.
The world Grant has created for NEWSFLESH and for Feedback is a post-zombie-apocalypse, set in America. Cities and towns still exist, outposts of civilization with intense defenses against incursions of the Kellis-Amberlee virus, but it would be hard to say anyone is really thriving. In fact, this is one of the themes Grant comes back to again and again in Feedback. Ash remarks several times on people who seem to believe that, given time, the world will revert to what it once was, but it is clear that the world is now very different and will remain so. The symbol of a rose garden, one of the most memorable setpieces in Feedback, makes it clear that nothing — not even horticulture — is unaffected by the existence of zombies.
This theme is writ large onto the novel’s main concerns: the news, the political process, and the interactions between the two. The work of Ash and her team — and the political campaign itself — are being constantly interrupted by security demands as characters need to get tested for the virus, or take precautions against zombies when making a run to the store for milk. But some of the concerns still felt relevant to our current political landscape. When enemies of Kilburn want to hurt her, they use members of her voting demographic — the disabled and the LGBTQ community — to lash out at her.
The same is true of the relationships between the bloggers in Ash’s team. Her relationship with Audrey felt immediate and lived-in; even though I don’t currently worry about my partner getting turned into a zombie, Audrey’s concern for Ash was entirely realistic and relatable.
Having not read any of the NEWSFLESH series, I was very impressed by Feedback as an entry into the world. As Jana mentioned, Grant does not overload readers with info-dumps about the science behind the zombie outbreak, but works her research organically into the narrative. It felt seamless and, with Ash’s voice guiding me, was entertaining and moving. The audiobook narrator, Georgia Dolenz, did a marvelous job distinguishing between character voices and accents. The warmth and vivacity of her acting made Ash even more likable.