! 'Feed'! I don't even know how to start. This zombie book is brutal and so, so sad and I kind of wanted to punch a wall at the end of it. Clearly it has my heart forever. *ahem*
I picked up Mira Grant's zombie novel 'Feed' as part of my ongoing quest to feel ,oh I don't know actually alive, engaged and understood, by reading political fiction. You might expect zombies in a political thriller to be stand in symbols for the oppressed masses, as typically that's their usual monster symbolism role, much as vampires traditionally represented the upper classes feeding on the working class until modern novelist started re-configuring the vampire. 'Feed' however, is relatively uninterested in class politics (I'll get to this quiet, narrative indifference later) and instead spends its time exploring the ways a zombie apocalypse might be used politically by the people who hold positions of high authority. This seems a pertinent line of investigation in a time when we are all used to watching politicians spin disasters in ways which allow them to control us more thoroughly through fear.
'Feed' is set in America in 2024, many years after an event called The Rising. In 2014 two medical cures 'met' accidentally in American airspace and combined to create the Kellis-Amberlee virus, which spread throughout the entire world. This mutated new virus was rather special. It caused the dead to rise.
By 2024, Kellis-Amberlee is passed on genetically to every person born after The Rising and lies dormant, waiting to take over and re-animate their bodies after they die. People can also spontaneously amplify if the virus randomly decides to activate (although these occurrences are rare), or if they come into contact with fluids containing the virus. Once amplified or re-animated a person is legally dead, transformed into an unconscious 'meat puppet' host with no memory, emotions or sensitivity to pain. They are able to function physically, urged on by the animating virus, so that they can eat flesh which enables them to gain energy which in turn allows them to move around, spreading the virus by spitting on, biting, scratching human beings. The zombie apocalypse has officially arrived and it isn't going anywhere, ever if the virus has its way
In the post-Rising world the zombie outbreak is a global tragedy which imposes severe restrictions on people. It requires a monumental amount of organisational change, but the world does
go on. See, the era of The Rising isn't just named after the rising of the dead; its name reminds society that when the dead rose up so did the living. When The Rising began, initially the government censored what the public knew, keeping them in the dark about the virus. No official reports were made detailing the actual truth, though some misleading reports, designed to keep citizens calm and distracted, were issued. The real news eventually reached the public through an unregulated channel, when a scientist took control of his 14 year old daughter's blog and started leaking the truth. When information eventually escaped about what was really going on, the enraged, betrayed general public massed together and fought the zombies using an assembly of homemade weapons and knowledge gleaned from zombie films, determined to reclaim their world. They were (after a period of deadly experimentation) rather successful. That's the first indication that 'Feed' is as concerned with the political . The general public rose in anger, instead of waiting for unreliable governmental bodies to decide whether they actually needed to be given the truth.
The America presented in Grant's book is not the post-apocalyptic world in breakdown you might expect to see appear after the dead return to kill the living, if you've watched any zombie film. In many areas people live, commerce prospers, developed life goes on; it's just that now every aspect of societal development has to take the zombies into account. This re-designed, but relatively stable version of society is replicated in the UK and presumably the world over (we don't hear so much about how other countries are coping, which is a shame and I would love to see spin off investigative world building tomes written by Grant). Such a successful defence and re-establishment of society, in the midst of an active and perpetual zombie problem, raises some interesting questions, which preoccupy the book. If the world goes on even once it's full of zombies how will the authorities, who continue to hold power, spin that situation to make it work to their advantage? And how do the people stop them from screwing everyone, from making capital off our fear and from essentially making the world worse after the initial zombie outbreak?
Enter bloggers! Ever since the officials criminally manipulated the news to keep citizens calm as their death lurched towards them, blogging has become a huge growth industry. Regular journalists exist and work for the news corporations, but the independence of Newsie bloggers like the book's protagonist Georgina (George) Mason and their serious commitment to presenting real news as honestly as their own biases allow them to, resonates with something deep inside the public. At the same time blogging is still treated with suspicion by politicians and regular journalists alike.
The official stance of many politicians seems to be that bloggers are kind of lawless reporters without ethics, but with each blogger officially licensed, their biases registered for all to see and their reports held to professional journalistic standards by their community, it's difficult for anyone to factually justify this portrayal of bloggers. The real reason why people in power seem antagonistic towards bloggers stems from the independent nature of bloggers and the heritage of revolution associated with this type of reporting. They're not on the payroll and they can't be controlled, without oh say, recourse to blackmail. And if we take George as a typical representation of a Newsie, they're natural diggers when faced with an important story that no one in authority wants them to look into. Bloggers are the force keeping politics as honest as it can be. A mass blogging industry is the public response to the betrayal of the government and associated organisations; the public restructuring of existing systems. Regular people, take control of the news! That's political flash point number two.
The bloggers presented in 'Feed' are very much people that I think current bloggers will be able to identify with, as they deal with some of the snideness we face from the established media. However, they're also members of a distinct future society where blogging looks quite different occupation than it does now, due to the unique circumstances of the post-Rising world. When I started reading 'Feed' I have to admit I thought that Grant had created a version of blogging that sounded like some author's fluffiest internet dreams. Licensed bloggers? The first question that raises in my mind is, are any licenses being deliberately withheld? Are bloggers back bowing to the gatekeepers in this world if they want to gain legal access to material? These questions never really come up in Grant's universe. Licenses are issued based on a person's ability to pass or fail merit based exams and bribery, corruption and bias never enter into that system, which seems rather unlikely in a world with power systems similar to our own. George and her team are so familiar with the system that they never raise a critical eye at it and they never encounter a textual reason to question the system, but I found it hard not to wonder about this aspect of Grant's world while reading the first installment of her trilogy.
I also wondered why everyone
was blogging to pay the bills...There are probably solid reasons for the disappearance of free blogging in the undisclosed meta of the book, but it's never flat out brought up in the text and I couldn't independently work out that reasoning from the context of the society presented. Taking the blogging industry (and it is very much an industry after The Rising, where click-throughs, market share and sponsorship matter a lot) that George and her team of bloggers work in as a representation of real, possible future blogging would make for uncomfortable reading for me. So, while reading I pretty much decided to take Grant's world as an experimental fiction cut off from reality rather than an anticipated future projection. Your mileage may vary on this issue.
Questions about the potential revolutionary limits of such a regulated and monetised system of blogging become especially pertinent when you examine the economic status of most of the bloggers we meet. George and her action reporter (or Irwin) brother Shaun are the children of wealthy, famous Newsie's. Buffy, the team's IT expert, lives in a secure compound for the rich. While reading I wondered if the blogging aspect of this society's revolution was being directed by all of the regular population or if access to the blogging world relied on having independent wealth and high levels of social status.We have very little economic or family background on the other bloggers we meet, so it's difficult to assess whether their presence answers these questions. Any view that 'Feed' is a book of political revolution must be tempered with questions about the economic status of those it sets at the head of the revolution and the absence of less financially secure characters, until the text of the whole trilogy provides reasons for the missing levels of our current economic structure in Grant's world.
So there are aspects of this novel which remind me that it may not feel especially politically progressive to everyone but looking at this book from a personal perspective, any SF book that is capable of explaining that bloggers aren't the devil or some kind of annoying, immoral parasites is doing at least one thing that satisfies me 1
. One of the more original things about 'Feed' is that it's an SF novel which manages to engage with the idea that new scientific advances may kill us all if they go wrong and
that technology can be harnessed in useful ways! Not to give anything away here, but the evil people in this book are not the ones embedded in scientific culture. There isn't just one mad scientists or techno hardware terrorist bent on destroying the technically inept. The villains are bad, bigoted people who mistrust technology and want to use a terrible virus as a weapon (and yes these people may manage to corrupt technically gifted people, but I feel that is different from some technological genius orchestrating a whole evil plot). Thank goodness! I mean I dig scientifically created post-apocalypses, because the reality of something going wrong with technology/technology just being the cause of our environmental downfall is quite high. Still, give it up for a little understanding of the difference between 'science and technology has gone bad' and 'science and technology are Eeeevilll and corrupt those who use them'. Can I get a hell yeah for an attempt to address the dominance of certain narratives?
Moving away from discussion of 'Feed's technologically centred world to talk about the novel's main plot: George and Shaun Mason have been doing well as syndicated bloggers working for The After End Times but 2024 is the year when they get their big break. They win the contract to be official bloggers on Senator Ryman's campaign trail, as he angles to become the Republican candidate for the presidency. At this point 'Feed' reveals its political thriller heart, as George and her crew become active parts in a conspiracy where someone is using the Kellis-Amberlee virus to try and take down Ryman. The use of the thriller structure is tight and powers the plot forward with a satisfactory amount of drive. Some epic tension is created through dramatic revelations, deferred knowledge and fraught zombie encounters. Although I found the resolution to the mystery kind of lacking in dominant narrative subversion and nuance, I ate the thriller pacing and political setting of this novel up.
As George gets more access to the political inside, the reader gets to hear more of her views about how the zombie problem is being used to keep the people down, or frightened. Aside from the pacing and action adventure elements of the political plot, hearing her insights about the politics of zombies was one of the things I enjoyed most about the bloggers getting involved in the campaign trail. George is just so smart and uncompromising in her opinions. I loved hearing her intelligent, cynical voice so much, which is lucky since 'Feed' is written entirely from her first person perspective. I adore George. I just...she's like one of my favourite characters now.( Huge, huge spoilers ahead. No fooling around. )
'Alive or dead, the truth won't rest. My name is Georgia Mason, and I am begging you: Rise up while you can.'
' "I was writing"
"You're always writing, unless you're reading, screwing with something mechanical, or masturbating, I replied.
"Are you wearing clothes?"
"Currently," she said, irritation fading into confusion. "Georgia is that you?"
"It ain't Shaun." I pulled on a white-button down shirt, jamming the hem under the waistband of my skirt. "We'll be there to pick you up in fifteen. ''We' being me, Shaun, and the 'rents. They're taking the whole crew out to dinner. It's just them trying to piggy-back on our publicity for some ratings, but right now failing to care." '
'There are moments when I look at the world I'm living in, all the cutthroat politics and the incredible petty, partisan deal mongering, and I wonder how anyone could be happy doing anything else. After this local politics would seem like a bake sale. Which means I need to stay exactly where I am, and that means making sure everyone sees how good I am at my job.'
George writes like that in her professional capacity and she talks in a similar way throughout the book. Her voice is cynical, piercing, intelligent, frequently snarky and often full of passion. If you want to try more of it before you decide whether to read the book, Sarah Rees Brenan wrote a good roundup post full of quotes that show you George's voice in action for her 'Sleuth Thursday'
series. I love crack whip characters whose comebacks are sharp, so George's verbal smarts captivated me early on. I've also got a TARDIS sized space in my heart for cynical ladies who see through the world's facades and call people out on their fudging (probably because they're the brave role models I need). George is a world weary journalist who wouldn't choose any other job, a lady shaped by the circumstances her career choices throw at her and her clear eyed scepticism is an integral part of that natural personality. With her shades, rabid Coke habit, firm management style and straight down the line professional drive George is the very model of a particular kind of pulp journalist aesthetic redrawn for a futuristic society.
And that idea of George as an old school character type redefined for SF carries through into the way that George approaches journalism. When she begins working on Senator Ryman's campaign it becomes clear that although she's very concerned with the concept of truth, she's also aware of the underpinnings of fair play that accompany journalism, which feels like a holdover from an older moral school of fictional journalist characters. For example she doesn't think all her readers need to know the Senator's wife has a reservoir Kellis-Amberlee condition (the same condition George herself has) as the conditions are common and don't pose a threat to people, so in George's opinion it's none of her readers concern. I like heroines who play fair, I mean really fair and objective with no fudging of the important truths but also without needlessly insisting that everything must be exposed or their integrity will be compromised. You might expect that idea of privacy to have vanished in a world with 24/7 near live reporting where access to the truth has become so important, but George maintains that important distinction in her reporting. I never really stood a chance of seeing George objectively, because her character type is so in synch with a lot of my likes. The development of her character may not be extensive (although her characterisation isn't shallow, it's more that she's purposeful and she follows a pretty clear line through life so her personality is reasonably constant throughout the novel) but she is a very well created character of a certain type. I adore her. It broke my heart to see her go.
I should probably note here, because I expect a lot of you are already drawing your own conclusions from the way I've described George, that George does generally fit the traditional shape of the 'strong female character'. I actually read 'Feed' around the time that a bunch of blog posts appeared about the problem of
the strong female characters
. The hunt was on in the blogosphere for more diverse representations of female strength and for female characters whose personalities weren't based around any kind of manifestation of strength, but here I was reading a pretty traditional feminist reaction character who, with her shades down, and her snarl on, shot zombies in the course of focusing on a career which endangered her life. The shortened version of her name is both male and a (maybe inadvertent) reminder of a great tomboy character from classic children's literature, who now evokes conflicted feelings in many adult women.
Surely George is part of the problem afflicting female characterisation, so why did I love her quite so much?
I'm totally behind the idea that the 'strong female character' can be problematic and that the dominance of this kind of female character over any other kind can feel stifling, but I also stick by what I said at Ana's blog a few years ago when I talked about warrior women
. I still like reading about female characters that fit the strong female character mould, as long as they're not excepto-girls
who directly or indirectly trash other women, which George very much isn't as she has awesome female friends like Buffy who she cares about. l also like those individual characters for more than…I guess you could say their creator's choice to dress their characters in feminist armour. I mean, I like George's name, no lie. I think her smart, basic choices in dress sense sound cool. I find her sarcastic, no nonsense voice fun to read. I like that I think I perceive a feminist influence in the trappings of her character creation, but…overall I like George and George's presence is both the sum of her parts and more than the sum of her parts and also full of things that do not relate to her feminist armour at all. Like Buffy (the original) is Buffy at the same time that she is the Slayer and Billi is Billi at the same time that she is the first female member of the Knights Templar
, George is both just George and 'strong female character type'. Of course the two are intertwined; it is impossible to say that George is more than the label 'strong female character', because that is so much a part of her personality that to disown it is to be disingenuous. I would be creating a separation where none exists to avoid feeling like I'm letting the feminist side down, but I also think that to reduce her down to a label because of some of her characteristics is equally simplifying.
I think my feelings on George as a 'strong female character' are along the same lines as Phoebe North's feelings about complaints that the overwhelming dead parent/orphan child trope needs to be ovah
. As an individual, particular examples of this kind of characters are still appealing to me, in fact more than appealing, I embrace them with open arms. That doesn't mean I don't welcome critical discourse about characters that anyone considers ridiculous examples of the trope, or that I don't understand that when when one trend spreads too far it can feel like that trend is blocking representation of other truths that are important to people (they're important to me too, I want all the ladies represented). Nor does it mean that I think the world of 'Feed' is some kind of shining beacon of feminist writing, simply because it contains a particular kind of strong female character.
There was…let's say an uncomfortable air of casual sexism occasionally in the book, which along with George's resemblance to the 'strong female character' archetype was the cause of a fair bit of agonising. The biggest example of the book's unquestioned inclusion of sexism probably comes from the descriptions of the only female Republican candidate:
'Word on the blog circuit is that Kirsten 'Knockers' Wagman has serious breast augmentation surgery before she went into politics, acting on the assumption that in today's largely Internet-based demographic, looking good is more important than sounding like you have two brain cells to knock together.'
'Wagman believes in using her breasts in place of an informed debate'
'We're talking about a former stripper who got her seat in Congress by promising her constituency that for every thousand votes she got, she'd wear something else inappropriate to the floor'
The book returns to the idea that Wagman is scantily clad and ill-suited to politics regularly. While this could be seen as another example of the book gleefully satirising/targeting Republican politicians (the other male candidate besides Senator Ryman gets a pasting too) it's hard to deny that this particular way of writing off the female candidate makes for uncomfortable reading. The descriptions of her focus on the way she looks and dresses, then appear to link her physical presentation with her lack of intellect and political ability. They also paint a pretty traditional picture of a woman who uses her body to try to get herself into a top position, which is rlly not a straw woman idea that needs to be reinforced again. If Palin's car crash drive for office taught us anything, it should be that political disdain is still no excuse for sexism.
Add to this portrayal the images of the female journalists that George and her brother have to engage with as 'chirpy little "anchorwomen" — because every twit who knows how to post an interview on the vid is an anchorwomen these days; just ask them…' as well as the talk of female 'groupies' that follow Ryman's campaign trail and it does start to look like the narrative of my beloved 'Feed' is infected (oh obvious zombie jokes, I am so funny) with casual sexism. I hesitate to say that George is sexist, even though the story is entirely told in her first person voice, because she is just commenting honestly on the world she sees around her, a world where her creator has made some of the background female characters kind of ridiculous .And like I said she is good friends with other women. She does not trash all women and she cares about her female colleagues/friends. Still, as she doesn't really comment on what social pressures may influence the ways the women in the background of her world appear to act, but instead tends to rather harshly criticise them for having failings and feels her comments are perfectly justified, I think it has to be said that George has ended up carrying around as much casual, unaddressed sexism as a lot of ladies (including myself). do in the real world. This is realistic, but a bit disappointing in a book which in other ways adds to the progressiveness of fiction (kick ass heroine type, Republican candidate in happy lesbian marriage, not an all-white cast, female super genius computer programmer). And then there is a thing to do with the spoiler section of this post which gave me a bit of a pause, but no more spoilering so instead vague sentences and *ask me about it in the comments type motions*3
And all of the things I've mentioned above are important and made me feel a bit weird, but…I wouldn't give up my experience of having read 'Feed' for anything. I feel, like this is going to sound odd because she is fictional, but I actually feel lucky to have been able to spend time with George, as well as Sean and all the other characters. I feel like I got to see something special in this book, where reading about the lights on the infection test kits of an inseparable brother and sister flash red to green, red to green red to green, put my heart in a vice no matter how many times the trick was repeated because I knew how inconsolable they would be without one another.
This novel managed to put so much interesting stuff in one place: political engagement; well judged pacing; characters bound by important relationships with each other; humour; no-fear use of in depth fictional science; intricate world building that made me want to keep up; a paranormal setting where telling people the truth is more important than keeping them safe by withholding knowledge (secrets for safety is one of my least favourite tropes); a focus on characters instead of zombie deaths and a brutality that rocked me and made me realise just how much I cared. Like all my favourite media I know 'Feed' isn't perfect. I'll listen to you talk about how not perfect it is if you want and I'll join in, as long as we can talk about the bits that work so, so well too. But non-perfect media goes straight to my heart all the time and that's what has happened with 'Feed' (and to a lesser extent 'Deadline', which I hope I'll talk about soon). Thank goodness Meghan has agreed to read Blackout',the final instalment of the trilogy, with me. I'm not sure how I'd cope without my reading buddy.
I mean I'm clearly still #teamunicorn, but still...'Feed'! <3( Notes - again some spoilers )Other ReviewsThe BooksmugglersSteph Su ReadsThe Little Red ReviewerJawas Read Too