Feed: no news too hard to swallow

Book cover: Feed - Mira Grant (RSS icon painted in blood)Brilliant science and human idiocy brought on the zombie apocalypse; a generation later, the population still lives behind walls. Intrepid bloggers Georgia and Shaun Mason are the rare exception – they’ll chase a good story wherever it leads. When they’re invited to join a Presidential campaign, their ratings are guaranteed. But politics can be as merciless as the walking dead…

I rarely read zombie novels. Once a year or so I bow to peer pressure (thanks Twitter friends!) and pick up something I should have read by now: the last two (World War Z and The Girl With All The Gifts) went on to be top reads of those years. So, y’know, no pressure.

Feed puts us in the safe hands of Seanan McGuire, publishing here as Mira Grant: from the absurd opening sequence (in which the Mason siblings illustrate that Shaun is bonkers and Georgia is grumpy whilst jumping a motorbike over a zombie horde) the trademark snarky first person narrative was familiar.

That said, this is where Feed almost lost me at hello: I wasn’t actually in the mood for snark, and I’ve been critical in the past of McGuire’s ability to differentiate character voice through it. Add the absurd zombie chase scene, and it really wasn’t what I was after. I can no longer watch high-octane idiocy on the big screen without getting a headache; I don’t seek out on-page alternatives.

Thankfully, this sequence has more in common with those largely unrelated Bond / Mission Impossible pulse-racing pre-credits intro sequences or a slightly misleading teaser trailer than with the rest of the book. Once the Masons got home, the territory changed for the better and I got a rather more unsettling helping of entertainment than the Incryptids offer.

Hats off to Mira Grant: it’s absolutely fascinating looking at life after a zombie apocalypse. It’s taken as read that the apocalypse was messy and horrid; life a generation later is still on a razor’s edge. The hordes shamble around and the virus lives in everyone, so you convert when you die – zombies aren’t going away unless the CDC finds a cure. Residential zones have a security rating, which reflect the number of tests you’ll undergo to get in and out and the licence you require to live there – you have to prove you can take care of yourself before you’re allowed to be at risk from the infected.

And that right there is what sold me: I am such a sucker for zombie infections. Yes please, let’s have the carrot of a cure. In the meantime, let’s look at consequences. It’s not safe to play outdoors. It’s not safe to keep large pets (they can carry the virus, even if animals below a certain body mass won’t convert). It’s not even safe to cluster in large groups – if one person goes into ‘spontaneous amplification’ (the dormant virus swishing around everyone’s veins goes live and converts them), everyone can die – because the automated security systems will lock you in with the newly-rampaging horde.

This is a world full of necessarily paranoid introverts. The blogosphere – driven by individuals willing to take risks for ratings – is news and entertainment in one. So the pageantry of an election campaign is an odd fit (if a very timely one for me reading here on the eve of an incredibly bitter Presidential campaign with rhetoric that could happily accommodate a few zombies).

The Mason siblings are invited to join a Republican candidate on the trail – his willingness to tour the country, hold rallies and press the flesh as unusual as his moderate views (and as a foreigner I’m utterly unable to judge whether Republicans like this actually exist, or whether this is part of the snark – we don’t get to see this sort of US politician from abroad). As it becomes clear that this is a Good Guy who has a Real Chance at the White House (err, actually, there’s no reference to the White House. He has a chance at office. I suspect the White House has been replaced by a Super Secure Bunker), we start to get hints that someone may be trying to sabotage the campaign.

Political thriller with zombies? Give this lady an award. Oh wait, they did (Goodreads Best SF, but it was also the runner up for the Hugo in 2011).

There’s so much to like here, as long as you’re signed up for political thriller with intermittent zombies and post-apocalyptic trappings, rather than seeking a full-blown zombie splatterfest (sequences with zombies are good, and got me as tense as watching an episode of The Walking Dead, but are used sparingly). The snark ends up feeling like a coping mechanism, which I relate to entirely as a Brit with a black sense of humour. Jokes and grump are our final defence against meltdown, so along with her driving need for truth and fairness, it meant I liked Georgia Mason enormously.

Sadly, I didn’t like Shaun, although it took me quite a while to realise it. I’d been sidelining him in my head (although this is upheld to an extent by the narrative) as the adrenaline junkie action idiot; but his piece to camera just before entering the Rymans’ farm sealed it for me – he’s an asshole. A competent asshole who has Georgia’s back, but still an asshole. Asides that hinted at his relationships with the security team didn’t soften me on this, even though they proved he does have well-hidden emotional depths.

I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that – being a zombie book and a political thriller – things don’t go as planned, and there’s a body count. I liked how Grant handled the security aspects inherent in the premise, and admired the escalation of paranoia. Ultimately, this is a fun ride and a fresh approach to a well-spattered subgenre, and I can see why it comes highly recommended.

There’s so many layers and angles in play, and the world-building is so considered – this is polished stuff, which means it’s with deep regret that I can’t wholeheartedly rave about it in every way. There were two key aspects I was unhappy about (and they’re spoilertastic to discuss, so go no further if you want to just dive in for yourself – even with my reservations, I still recommend this highly, as I recognise that both of these issues are things I care deeply about, but that won’t ruin the ride for most readers).

SPOILERS (mouse over to read): every major character who dies – and they all do so to progress the plot – is female. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Tracy is arguably peripheral (but it’s her death that is critical to identifying that Eakly wasn’t an accident). Rebecca Ryman. Buffy (yes, Chuck dies with her, but he’s had about 2 lines to camera. He’s barely even a supporting character). Georgia.

I mean, it’s awesome that this is a book driven by women – but, oh wait, it isn’t. It’s pretty evenly balanced gender rep – let’s not ask tough questions about race, sexuality or economic status (just how do you get into blogging if you don’t come from money? And how does the rest of the world make a living and stay safe?) – but the deaths are… weighted. So would I have preferred it if Shaun died at the end? Yes, and not purely because I enjoyed Georgia’s narration and disliked him already – it would have balanced the scales (and left her undefended going into book 2; taking on the system without her wingman). 

I was also disappointed in Governor Tate, a more familiar Republican archetype from this side of the Atlantic, but also far too much a frothing villain. I was gutted that the big flashing signposts we’d been getting from his first appearance in the text were… entirely accurate. The clues weren’t subtle, and we had no reason to disbelieve them. Because his actions and his behaviours are indefensible, we don’t even get the sense that he’s a man of principle willing to take hard decisions. He’s just Eeeevil. At least he’s not an Eeeeeevil Scientist – my pet hate – but I like my villains nuanced. There was opportunity here, and it’s wasted.

Last and least, I was bothered by the way Georgia talked about Congresswoman Wagman. There was a double helping of somewhat misogynistic comments before we discovered Wagman was literally an ex-stripper (that context actually helps explain her choices; it doesn’t excuse Georgia’s nastiness). I get that Georgia isn’t without bias, and I can see that she’d be particularly ill-disposed to women she perceived as getting by on their looks rather than their talents – but this is implicit, not explicit, and it’s unnecessary unless it was intended purely to show that Georgia can be a bitch. Yes, yes, she can. And I’d have been fine with it if someone had called her on it.

Will I read the sequel? Possibly not. Do I like the Alternative Ending published a couple of years later? Actually, yes, and I would read the sequel to that. It’s not about me disliking the ending – it’s strictly about narrators – the sequel swaps to Shaun, and… I didn’t like Shaun. That said, I dithered about reading Half-off Ragnarok and it ended up being my favourite Incryptid novel; so maybe I just need to give Shaun a chance to win me over.