Review of Feed by

Book cover for Feed

I really like the feed icon. It's simple, clean, and easy to recognize. I love it so much that when Mozilla decided to remove it from the location bar in Firefox 4, I installed an extension just to get it back. It's awesome, and what it represents is awesome. The idea that anyone with an Internet connection (which is not as many people as we're wont to think) can report on the news is definitely a paradigm shift in how we disseminate information. Just as I'm sceptical that ebooks are going to somehow "kill" the printed book, I'm not joining those who predict blogging will result in journalists and newspapers and "traditional media" going extinct. However, it's also shortsighted to think that nothing is going to change, that blogging and bloggers are just a fad.

In Feed, it's the 2040 American Presidental Election, and Georgia and Shaun Mason are sibling bloggers. Together with their techie, Buffy, they are selected to follow Senator Paul Ryman on the campaign trail. Except that someone keeps trying to kill them. Oh, and there are zombies.

Zombie stories, especially zombie movies, start at something of a disadvantage, I feel. So many of them are essentially the same: take a small group of people, drop them into an urban situation with a horde of walking dead, and watch them fight the zombies and each other as they struggle to survive and deal with the moral implications of shooting those who get bitten. Zombies aren't like spaceships: most stories that feature spaceships don't spend a lot of time remarking that there are spaceships; the spaceships are just there. Since when did that happen with a zombie story? It occasionally happens in urban fantasy series when zombies are part of a larger taxonomy of mythological creatures, but otherwise a "zombie story" is almost always about zombies and about survival. So to succeed, one needs that dose of originality: the zombies have to be different (TVTropes alert), or the plot can't be just about staying alive.

Mira Grant tries to do both here, and she succeeds marvellously at the former but not so much at the latter. I love Grant's zombies, and the reason behind the zombie apocalypse. In a spin on the "you get bitten, you become a zombie" story, Grant adds another stake: everyone is infected with a dormant form of the virus that causes reanimation. So any death results in a fresh zombie, while being bitten activates the virus even if one doesn't die from the wound. Since the transformation isn't instantaneous, either, one might go into "amplification" and become a zombie before other people realize it. As a result, characters in the novel are constantly testing themselves and each other for infection. Society has become paranoid and obsessed with security, both security from zombie attacks and security from those who might be infected and not even know it. Oh, and the virus? Mutated strain of two viruses designed to cure cancer and the common cold, respectively. Yeah.

Feed is, despite what some might claim, still about zombies. Nevertheless, Grant manages to tear herself away from the "OMG zombies, run like hell" plot and attempt to bake an entire political thriller, complete with a conspiracy, hired snipers, and tragedy for our protagonists. Zombies play a major role in the story, from the constant paranoia that one might be in amplification to the precautions one must take every night before going to bed, and they form the backdrop for the political atmosphere in the United States of 2040. And Grant credits the zombie Rising as the primary reason bloggers are now the pre-eminent source of news, with "traditional media" taking a distant second: apparently, bloggers were the first to take reports of zombie attacks seriously and start disseminating the scarily-accurate information provided by classic Romero films. (Finally, a zombie story where people have seen zombie movies!) (TVTropes alert) Georgia, Shaun, and Buffy each belong to a different caste of blogger: Georgia is a Newsie, so she reports the facts with as little editorializing as possible; Shaun is an Irwin, so he pokes zombies with a stick for the thrills and danger of it all; Buffy is a Fictional, so she writes stories and poems and whatnot inspired by the news. Grant has certainly imagined an interesting direction for the blogger–journalism détente to take, assuming the zombies Rise on schedule.

As much as I enjoy Grant's imagining of a blogger-dominated future, I can't help but question the accuracy of her divergence from the present. Sure, bloggers haven't quite trounced "traditional media". But they are not as ignored as Grant seems to be asserting. I'm not sure if any of the presidential candidates took bloggers along with them on the trail in 2008, but I think that's beside the point. The whole point of blogging is that it's decentralized and, very often, unauthorized. I don't begrudge Grant's idea of bloggers following a candidate at his or her behest, but it certainly doesn't seem as revolutionary as she tries to portray it.

Georgia and Shaun are knowledgeable about zombies, but their political credentials seem spotty at best. Georgia is an advocate for Mason's Law, which essentially bans having animals as housepets if they are over 40 pounds in weight (as this is how massive an animal needs to be to turn into a zombie). Aside from that and a few other zombie-related matters of policy, Grant glosses over the political parts of the politics. Instead we hear a lot about how Senator Ryman seems like a nice, honest man, while his two major opponents in the Republican primary are a militant right-wing crazy and a would-be porn star, respectively. In fact, aside from Georgia and Shaun (and maybe Buffy and Emily Ryman), the characterization in Feed is bizarre. Governor Tate feels like a caricature. And why make the only female candidate mentioned into a woman who uses her plastic-surgery-enhanced body to solicit votes by wearing revealing clothing? (And why call her, of all things, Wagman?) If only Grant had as much time on the research and the depth of her politics and political candidates as she did on her virology and zombie lore, then I could call Feed something more than a zombie novel.

(NB: Speaking of research, I feel obligated to point out a factual error that I, being the credulous person that I am, took at face value. At one point Georgia claims that Ireland doesn't have (and has never had) an extradition treaty with the United States. This is not the case. Kudos to Oliver and his review for alerting me to this.)

Too much of Feed consists of exposition or repetitive scenes that are supposed to emphasize how much society has changed. I'm willing to give the exposition a more generous pass than I might do for another book; I realize that, as bloggers, Georgia and Shaun are expected to be somewhat more verbose than one's average narrator. Also, the exposition is heavy but still good, and like I mentioned before, Grant's zombie world really is interesting. I just wish it didn't get so repetitive: Georgia spends too many scenes analyzing the structural security of each building she visits. And the blood tests—oh, the blood tests. They have to test themselves almost every single time they open a door, and every time a military representative gets involved, suddenly it's a big deal that Georgia wears sunglasses and has an "active form" of the zombie virus in her eyes. I love the veracity that Grant adds to the story by describing the various testing procedures necessary in the post-Rising world. Yet the frequency of those descriptions robs Feed of some of the fire and urgency it acquires from Grant's fluid writing and Georgia's excellent voice.

Feed starts slow for me—after a nice action sequence as an opening, we get stranded in suburbia for several chapters, meet the parents, learn more about Georgia and Shaun, etc. I enjoyed the experience, but for the longest time I didn't feel that the story was going anywhere, not even after Georgia and Shaun started following Ryman's campaign. Feed only really kicks into high gear in the last act, when Georgia and Shaun become direct targets of the antagonists, whose identities are still unknown at that time. Suddenly, what was a mystery becomes a thriller and a race against time, and Grant starts killing off some important characters and threatening to kill still more. And although I'd quibble about the resolution itself, the emotional significance of the ending is unquestionable and masterful.

I kind of feel like Feed got bitten by a zombie book and has become a reanimated corpse of itself. This is, alas, one of those cases where the book undermines its own good qualities. There's plenty to enjoy about this book: Georgia and Shaun are fun characters, and as one might expect from fun, zombie-killing characters, there's lots of great dialogue married to tense moments of action—and decision. Yet getting to those moments often feels like a lot of work, and not the fun "this book is making me think about issues" type of work. Feed is worth reading if only for where it finally takes us with its ending—at least, I liked the ending enough that I'm most likely going to read the sequel—but it hasn't really changed my stance on zombies, bloggers, or zombie bloggers.

Engagement

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