I’m a sensitive soul, me.
I like books and words; I wear my heart on my sleeve. I cringe at the sight of gore and blood.
So why have I been immersing myself in gore recently? The Passage and The Twelve by Justin Cronin and now Feed, book one of the Newsflesh Trilogy by Mira Grant.
Zombies are the new vampires with World War Z hitting the cinemas and this book’s been kicking about in my ‘mildly intrigued’ sub-pile of my ‘to-be-read’ lists on my e-reader.
What was it that intrigued me? It’s hard to say: the cover was pretty cool; I liked the ambiguity of the title referring to the appetite of the zombies and to the blogging news feeds that the book revolves around. Moreover, though, the biggest intrigue derived here (as it did with Brooks’ World War Z) from a single question:
“What on earth do you do with zombies once you’ve got them?”
Now, I don’t mean that in a survivalist sever-the-brain-stem kind of way.
Narratively, what do you do with zombies once the visceral reveal has happened? There’s no suave temptation that drips from the pores of every non-Twilight vampire; there’s no cunning intelligence; there’s no eternal conflict between the animal and civilised, the id and the superego, epitomised by the werewolf or Jekyll and Hyde. Once you have revealed your zombie and the audience has received it’s visceral thrill or shock, they’re actually a pretty rubbish antagonist. By definition.
Max Brooks ramped up the tension by scale and the sheer weight of numbers.
Unlike Brooks, Feed shows little interest in rise of the zombies. It’s events take place a generation post-Rising. The dead rose. The living adapted. Life continued.
The skill in this novel is in the imagining of how our world might adapt to cope with a threat such as zombies. How would behaviours change? How would politics alter? How would the media mutate itself? What variations would creep into our lives if something horrific occurred? How would terror of the living dead be responded to? Or be taken advantage of?
Is it too great a leap to see parallels between the post-zombie world, populated by people whose fears lead them to isolate themselves and exclude anyone else, with a world coming to terms with a War on Terror? Or a world in the grip of a fear of the incurable AIDS virus?
The rise of the blogger is the key feature of Grant’s world: where traditional print media failed to respond to the rise of the undead, blogs recognised, recorded and reported on it thereby lifting their status to that of ‘true’ journalism. Again, the parallels with The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and a whole host of other ‘grass roots’ movements connecting through Twitter and the blogosphere feels credible. In Grant’s world, bloggers are divided into three categories: newsies such as the first-person narrator Georgia Mason, who report on the news; Irwins, such as her adoptive brother Shaun, who record their field exploits and encounters with the undead for entertainment value as much as education; and fictionals such as the Masons’ partner Buffy who appear to write rather poor doggerel to make us all feel better. Oh and Buffy is also a whizzy techno-geek. This little trio has it all therefore: a driven and ethical reporter backed up by her action-hero brother and nerd friend. And they drive around in a van. Solving mysteries.
I did spend half the book expecting Shaggy and Scooby-Doo to arrive!
The trio manage to secure a job reporting on the campaign of a Senator Ryman in the American Primaries and then Presidential elections. Shady things happen. Tragedies unveil themselves. A conspiracy is uncovered.
I am generally a little slapdash with spoiler alerts: it is possible to enjoy a journey even if you already know the destination. Especially if the journey is a good one with nice scenery. With books, I’m more interested in the characters and writing than I am with plot and events. But here, I am going to tread carefully: there are events in the book which do warrant coming to fresh and being ambushed by.
It’s not the uncovering of the conspiracy: Grant red flags the culprit pretty obviously!
And let’s face it, the writing here is not great literary prose that has much merit in its own right. To continue the journey metaphor, it’s like driving through the flat fenlands of Norfolk. Pretty flat. Nor do the characters work terribly well for me: they are pretty two-dimensional at times with the exception of George, our narrator.
So I’m going to let you enjoy the few way markers you come across without spoiling them!
So, to return to my question: what do you do with a zombie? Grant’s answer seems to be, very broadly, ‘get over it’. This is a book set in a world in which zombies live… No… Inhabit… No … Exist? But it is not a zombie book: our antagonist is not a zombie; there are perhaps two or three zombie attacks seen in the book. It is, essentially a political thriller. With a handful of zombies.
One thing I did like – and which I suspect might have put other readers off – is the nature of the virus that gave rise to the zombie plague. Apparently Grant objected to the “It’s a virus” plot device (a devil ex machina?) to explain zombies and we are treated to a fair amount of detail about the mechanics and vectors involved. I liked that part. It was, again, credible.
In short then… The good points were: some interesting world building with a fair amount of social parallels – enough to start you thinking; a string sense of the mechanics of the virus; a playful reverence of existing zombie lore and movies; decent, if slightly two dimensional, characters; some strong plot twists and pretty decent and contemplative pacing (I’m afraid the somewhat frenetic pacing of some plot-driven novels gives me a headache!)
Bad points included: competent but uninspiring writing; a lack of depth to many characters; a slightly obvious villain (though, as book one of three, I suspect this will develop); and, in my electronic version for reasons I cannot fathom, an absence of apostrophes and speech marks. In a writing style that often interposes lengthy narrative into dialogue before returning to speech mid paragraph, that became really annoying really quickly.