Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
So, here we are again. Mira Grant is back for one last kick at the Hugo novel can with Blackout, the last in her Newsflesh trilogy. All the mysteries are cleared up, all the questions answered. Georgia and Shaun Mason are reunited to kick zombie butt one last time and fight back against the government corruption that has put the entire world at risk. Sort of. I think.
Actually, this book is kind of a mess.
My opinion of the Newsflesh series has much in common with another very popular science-fiction series, The Hunger Games: each successive book has been less satisfying and less coherent. There's no question that Grant is trying hard or that she has a story to tell, but what she has produced here leaves much to be desired.
This book is far too long. This in and of itself is not a cardinal sin. You know what is? Making your book too long because you have pages upon pages where nothing is happening. I was lucky enough to read this in electronic form, albeit a PDF of a print version that was apparently 630 pages or so. It took me a few days, because I had trouble gaining traction. A book set in a post-apocalyptic zombie universe should be fast-paced and gripping. A political thriller about a conspiracy to conceal the truth behind a deadly pandemic should be tense. And the truly terrible thing about Blackout is that, for a few shining moments, it manages to be all these things. Grant demonstrates, sporadically, she is capable of the backstabbing betrayal, the cliffhanger smash cuts to another character, the heart-to-hearts prior to a massive sacrifice. But just when you think the book is finding its footing and about to really get started, it stumbles, and all the tension fizzles.
I'd be interested in seeing an inverted image of Blackout, a negative-space version of the book. That is, I'd like to see all the scenes that happen off the page and none of the scenes actually on the page. Because I kind of think the former might be more interesting than the latter. Case in point: towards the end of the book, we learn that the evil megalomaniacs at the CDC are keeping the President in check by holding his wife and kids hostage. But it's OK, because the Secret Service has a plan to rescue them when Georgia and Shaun are ready to help expose the conspiracy. George says, "Do it" and then marches off to confront the CDC baddie. A few pages later, the Secret Service reports that it has been done.
Earlier in the book, it takes hundreds of pages for the gang not to make it to Florida and capture some live mosquitoes for their resident mad scientist. We get pages upon pages of the gang driving their van through Seattle. When it comes time for them to break into the CDC building there, we don't see it. We see the ending and the aftermath, but the actual break-in is a handwave off the page. Similarly, when it comes time for the Secret Service to launch their rescue op, we see none of it, and it goes off without a hitch. Consequently, such an easy time of it made me feel like the resolution to Blackout was more contrived than it should have been. I'm not saying it is contrived, but that's what it feels like because of the way Grant handwaves what should, by all rights, be a conflict-ridden and difficult operation. (If it weren't, why did the Secret Service wait all this time to do it?)
This weird inversion of action and exposition is a problem throughout the book. There isn't much actual zombie combat in Blackout. We hear about a lot of zombie combat, but again, we don't get to see much of it. Instead, the characters prefer to spend their time chewing the scenery and yelling at each other. I've never seen such a dysfunctional group of people who nevertheless insist upon letting a crazy guy lead them and who only relieve him of the duty of command after the crazy guy's sister actually comes back from the dead to speak to him instead of just speaking to him as a voice in his head. If these are the people we need to depend upon to save the world, I am not optimistic for our chances.
The lack of zombie combat is problematic, because my appreciation of the Otherness of this world deteriorated as a result. Grant goes on ad nauseum about the necessity for blood tests and decontamination and how everyone lives in fear. Yet by not actually showing us much in the way of threatening zombies, she sends mixed messages. The constant threat of danger that was suspended over the characters' heads in Feed isn't present here. The world has become boring, a known quantity, and Grant does nothing to raise the stakes to change that. (Because those freakish mosquitoes that can act as a vector for the zombie virus? Yeah, that all happens off page.)
In fact, the more I pick at the 2041 of Blackout, the more problems I have with it. In my review of Deadline, I remarked that the series makes a mistake in "not going full cyberpunk". That is to say, Grant takes the importance of the Internet in a post-zombie apocalypse world as a given. She elevates and speciates bloggers, making them the heralds of the brave new world. Yet she never quite conveys how blogging has evolved in thirty years. I understand that, having suffered a zombie apocalypse, innovation might be slower and technology might not change as swiftly. But if human society has truly taken refuge online to the extent that bloggers are eclipsing old media, there should be social and mimetic differences from the Web of today.
This doesn't seem to be the case: Grant uses blogging as a plot device, with pithy epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter. She fails to explore how blogging as a medium has evolved--and I'm not talking about the new requirements to pass firearms tests to become a journalist. In the past few years, cyberpunk has emerged as somewhat of an unrealistic projection of where technology might take society. Regardless, what it did really well was envision a world so different that it is a little bit alien. Blackout doesn't achieve this. Instead, 2041 is unbelievably like 2013, but with zombies.
And we only really have Shaun and Georgia's word on all this. What I mean is, Grant remarkably restricts our exposure to different viewpoints in this new world. We never get a sense of the bigger picture; there is seldom a minor character who isn't mixed up in this conspiracy who can simply offer a slightly different perspective on events. Grant tells us (there's that verb again) time and again that bloggers in general, and Shaun and George's crew specifically, are influential. Apparently George is so important that the CDC simply has to bring her back from the dead with some incredibly expensive cloning. We are told that "the people" are outraged when the Masons expose some government wrongdoing or when Shaun and George make a broadcast from the battlefield. Somehow, though, amidst all these pages of nothing happening, Grant doesn't actually find time to show us any of this outrage.
It's such a shame, because this is not an awful series. There is a good story in here struggling to escape a very convoluted and often contrived plot that makes only a little more sense than the characters who ostensibly drive it. Blackout should have been the triumphant conclusion to a thrilling zombie trilogy. Instead, it seems to have inherited all of its predecessors' problems and very few of their strengths. The result is a book that doesn't deliver what it promises. Sadly, this is all too representative of the series as a whole, which dreams big but never quite manages to achieve the heights to which it aspires.