Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire has been nominated in the novel, novella, and novelette categories for the Hugo Awards this year (and twice in the novelette category). All the more power to her! I admit that I’m not a fan of the Newsflesh series. (I read the first two books when they were nominated for Hugo Awards.) So I’m surprised that San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats, a prequel (told through flashbacks) set in the same universe, managed to impress me.
Mahir, Shaun and Georgia’s correspondent and editor from London, has tracked down the only survivor of the 2014 San Diego Comic Convention. This occurred during the early days of the Rising, when people had not yet gotten to grips with what the infectious nature of the zombie apocalypse meant for large, open-air gatherings like Comic Con. Lorelei survived only because she happened to be in the hotel at the time, outside the main convention centre. She has lived with the guilt of losing her parents and their friends ever since.
Each chapter is a flashback recounted from Lorelei’s recollection or assembled by Mahir from evidence and recovered footage. Grant prefaces each chapter with some pithy quotations from Mahir’s writing and snippets of his conversation with Lorelei. Both of these serve to set the tone and remind us that the fate of the California Browncoats is sealed: there will be no eleventh hour rescue from the army.
It’s easy to identify why San Diego 2014 works for me while Newsflesh doesn’t. Try as Grant might, she just can’t make me care that much about her zombie-stricken characters. The plots of Feed and Deadline were too anaemic, the writing too pedantic to sustain much tension. Working over a much more condensed length, with the characters against the ticking clock as the infection spreads and nobody from the outside world comes to help, Grant manages to create a much more compelling conflict. The tragedy of the Kellis–Amberlee virus is apparent in the novels, but here it is more intense in its ruthless presence.
The ensemble cast of disconnected characters helps as well. Grant lets us see how the zombie apocalypse affects this narrow cross-section of people who are from all walks of life but united in their affection for comics, science-fiction, and other nerdery. She touches on the types of isolation and marginalization these people feel, especially those fans (or actors, in the case of Elle) who are women and at risk of being branded a “fake geek girl”. In this respect, San Diego 2014 is a very topical story that’s really of its time.
We’re having a lot of conversations right now about what it means to be a “fan”, “geek”, “nerd”, “gamer”, etc. These conversations are inextricably connected to larger discussions about race and sex/gender. Geek has gone mainstream in a big way, which worries some people. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to people going after vulnerable, visible minorities, branding them as posers and fakes. (And there seems to be a lot of sexist resentment pent up in certain sectors of geekdom, almost a “you can’t come and play with my toys” type of deal, despite the fact that women have always been a part of geek culture, as both creators and consumers, since Day Zero.)
So San Diego 2014 addresses a lot of these issues in the guise of a look at a slice of the zombie apocalypse. The meaning of fandom, the extent to which one is a fan, changes as people can no longer gather post-Rising. Also, this is a bit of a love-letter to geek culture in the way Grant portrays the self-sacrifice and bravery of the California Browncoats. It’s a bit of a “hell yeah” feeling of cameraderie, a sense that these people have come together to celebrate the shows and books that they love, and instead they have decided they will die together, if that’s what needs doing….
The thematic statements here are a little heavyhanded and on the nose, subtext often scraping the surface. Embedded in the zeitgeist as it is, I’m not sure how well this story will age as geek culture continues to evolve—as a clear product of its times, I suspect that we might look back at as “vintage” one day, rather than “classic”. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still a good story. But the trappings of the story are difficult to decontextualize. I think that readers who aren’t as familiar with the idea of Comic Cons or the issues that are currently front-and-centre will have a harder time understanding parts of this story, much like we’re less sensitive to the socialist imprecations of Dickens in this day and age.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this story for people who haven’t read previous Newsflesh books. It’s an accessible place to start, providing a taste of the universe and a little exposition, while also lacking much in the way of spoilers. Aside from Mahir, it doesn’t feature any major characters (to my knowledge), which means you can read it, get a taste of Grant’s writing, before checking out Feed. Mind you, I liked this better than either of the first two books, so take that for what you will…. While not my pick for the Hugo Award, it definitely earns its nomination, and I’m pleased there’s finally a Newsflesh story I can say I haven’t tried to shred into tiny pieces.