Thursday, July 1, 2010


A book review of Feed by Mira Grant aka Seanan McGuire

Takes as its premise a zombie rising that kills a sizable chunk of the population and a radically traumatic war of living against the dead. The book isn’t about that moment, however. It opens twenty years later, where zombies are still an ongoing daily threat but no longer an existential menace for all of humanity. Feed explores the conditions of the world under this point of departure, in the United States as people soldier on with regular zombie sensing devices. The story focuses on a political blog writer that’s following a presidential campaign.

The shift in emphasis to a post-Rising war rather than showing the conflict itself is a good one, and allows for a powerful range of creativity and exploration of the invented future. The most effective thing in the book is the redefinition of the zombies as a menace. The book focuses on them not as a mob of cannibals but as viral carriers. McGuire has done a lot of amateur epidemiology work and it shows, and the book delivers a coherent and comparatively plausible notion of how the zombie virus could work to deliver the familiar setup. In this setting everyone is infected, however people only turn into mindless flesh-eaters if bitten by another active or if they die for any reason. Much of the horror comes from the ubiquity of the threat, the notion of an elderly man suffering a heart attack and then turning to attack his wife before anyone can do anything, the notion that one might have to kill a monster with the face of a loved one but with all capacity for reasoning and restraint blotted out. Even more dangerous in a strategic sense is animals being bitten or otherwise dying and attacking people, as the change in behavior isn’t as noticeable, and as a result the legality of pet ownership is hotly debated.

There are other nice twists in the invented world. George Romero is considered a hero for helping spread knowledge of how to survive zombies in his movies, so George and Georgia are the most popular names for people born post-Rising. Traditional media has been largely discredited by their skepticism on the early stages of the zombie outbreaks, and blogging is the regular and accredited system, with different classes of bloggers. There's Newsies--those that sit back and report the news, Fictionals, that write made up things, and Irwins, that go out and poke zombies to see what happens. In another interesting notion widespread standards of gun violence have been applied as self-defense against the possibility of the undead, and it’s difficult to tell if someone shot in the face was killed because of being a zombie or because they had just been shot and then the attacker said they seemed zombieish.

However the setting that is the book’s main draw also ends as one of its biggest weaknesses. This is at the core of my issues with the book, and where I seem to most significantly part ways with most other reviews. I have issues with other aspects of the writing, but if the fleshing out of the Feedverse were as innovative and cool as the underlying concept I’d probably give vastly less attention to the mechanistic faults. I'd have regarded it as good book, and been engaged by the interesting idea of a human world not just menaced by but also reinvented in light of the zombie threat. However I didn't ultimately accept the coherence of the societal model given, and that made me more critical, to the extent that the review will have to take a rather harsh tact overall. Feed had entertaining and interesting elements, but the ultimate problems in conceptualizing the invented future makes for a deeply problematic text. It's not a small failure because this isn't a horror novel with some incidental future details, it puts a huge amount of stress and length on how the wider human environment works. And so, the fact that it doesn't ultimately make sense is a fatal one.

Beginning with the basics, the book suffered from having its setting at once too close to the zombies and not close enough to them. Too close insofar as everything about politics and daily life focuses on zombies, every point of analysis and overview relates directly to the zombies and not to wider elements of life. A question for the presidential candidate on the death penalty had the response that he was opposed to it, because there were enough dead already. Fine, that’s natural enough. A question on gay rights had the response that faced with onslaught of the dead differences between humans looked pretty insignificant. A question on health care brings up the issues with the zombie threat and quality of life. So does abortion, so does education. It could work as a form of satire on single-issue voting where a campaign zeros in on one minor element, but the book clearly has it that such is the normal state of affairs in the United States twenty years after the Rising, at a time when single digit thousands of people die years. It would be as if every single question of politics and much of the wider social interaction in the modern world involved focusing on handguns at every point, and it quickly feels rather unbelievable. There's a core failure in imagined diversity, in being able to conceive of significant things that happened between 2014 and 2020 that weren't all about zombies. Clearly it’s a case of the author trying to show off different ways of how zombies would alter life, but it does so with a single-minded focus that destroys any sense of plausibility or a complex future, and ultimately ruins the appeal of the book’s main premise. Simultaneously, the book is also actually too far away from zombies insofar as things haven’t really been transformed by the rising. Despite losing over 20% of the population the United States is still largely the same country. There’s a major point made of how media practices have shifted over to blogs as the faster, more ready to report zombie stories, but that emphasis on discontinuity only drives home how most other things are the same. Fashion hasn’t changed, the mention of consumer products and companies is the same, and the sundering of world trade and increase in instability has caused only incremental alterations in basic lifestyle. In a place that’s lost so much of its population so suddenly and has a continued ubiquitous danger of attack there should be an environment like after a civil war, with massive political and cultural shift. Instead it’s still the same layout for culture, the same two party political system, with at most perhaps one wing of the Republican party further into religious fundamentalism and paranoid militarism. Again there’s not a real effort here to write speculative fiction on how things would change, and so things alter only in very partial and stylistically driven ways. If one is going to take a basic horror element and hang a whole world on the wide-scale implications, it’s necessary to actually give some thought to the wide-scale implications. Had McGuire given the same amount of research and consistency to the political aspects as the viral ones it would have been great. In the end I didn’t believe the book’s representation of politics and society. The occasional minor detail was intriguing, but the larger picture of daily life that emerged was not believable, requiring a continual and increasingly problematic effort to suspend disbelief.

The book could perhaps slide on weak forethought of its main premise if it were otherwise effective. It would be weak on wider speculation and real contributions to the fantasy/horror/SF format, but could be an engaging and intriguing book. Certainly the idea of needing to navigate political intrigue in a zombified world seems to lend itself to a fairly fun and fast moving book. Unfortunately it ends up as anything but that, due in large part to numerous technical failings, ending up as quite awkward, dull and plodding. Most directly there’s the problem of writing, which is never more than competent and frequently becomes rather problematic. Looking at the prose specifically there are a number of issues demanding a basic level of editing, and others that show rather strained construction of description and cliche-anchored rhetoric, increasingly putting my teeth on edge as I read.

"Besides, I have a well-established--and well-deserved--reputation for being the sort of interviewee who walks away leaving you with nothing you can use as a front-page quote or saleable sound byte." (66)

"Whether we sank or swam, there was no going back; once you make alpha you can never be beta again." (82)

"My mother once told me that no woman is naked when she comes equipped with a bad mood and a steady glare." (391)

"Under the strict interpretation of the law, the CDC would have been within its rights to come into the valley, shoot us, sterilize the surrounding area, and deal with our remains. The fact that it took us alive for extensive testing was unusual--no one would have questioned it if the CDC had killed us." (400)

The plot hosts another and rather pivotal single point of failure. Ultimately things are revealed to be happening because a politically ambitious state governor wants to unleash zombies selectively to kill off political rivals and gain his way to the presidency, there to take America to "traditional" theocratic-fascist values. Three problems here. One, he’s far too stupid a figure to be really credible in this position, having an arbitrary and poorly developed plan. For all that he’s declared to be calculating and a dangerous adversary he fails in pretty much every discrete action he tries to do in the novel, and largely succeeds in tipping his hand enormously. Second, his underlying reasons for doing this are entirely vague, and rather contradictory. At best he’s an enormous hypocrite that doesn’t seem to have noticed he’s undermining the things he claims to want to protect, at worst he’s a completely psychopath that inconsistently does whatever the plot requires. Related to these issues is that he’s not even a unique or notable poor villain, but a stock caricature that’s used extremely often in thrillers of this type. Third, he’s all too readily identifiable as evil. From the moment he’s introduced as a political challenger the outline of his views make it clear he’s immoral and unworkable, and there’s never anything given that indicates enough of an appeal to attract political support. The later plot depends on Tate’s ability to have convinced another blogger to help him, but it’s left incredibly general what points of ideology are at work here. It’s even worse after we meet him, as the interview scene and every subsequent action just ooze menace and deception. Given that, when the characters figure out that some well connected figure is trying to kill people by proxy it’s immediately obvious that Tate is the only possible candidate, and the obviousness of this and the subsequent shenanigans drags down the last third of the book enormously.

As a result, the plot is effectively unbelievable and of fairly arbitrary meaning. There’s an attempt at a big message with the end in showing the free bloggers as against the evil power-hungry political forces that want to keep people afraid and thus controlled. However Feed shares issues with Cory Doctrow’s Little Brother in this whole regard. For one thing, having the antagonist political figure be so relentlessly, over the top evil destroys the chance for a real political statement, instead it allows the grinding down of strawman by having the fanatic figure be completely without morals and without any ability for long-term planning. Similarly, by making the well connected political figure so stupid that he’s defeated by several bloggers it undermines the real stakes involved here and delivers a petty wish-fulfillment political story in a bait and switch of a dystopia. Very much like the teenager bringing down the Department of Homeland Security in Little Brother. Overall it’s less egregious here than Doctrow’s writing, because it’s not as prominent, but insofar as the political elements fold into the plot it’s a pretty thorough failure, producing a situation at once hard to believe and not at all out of the ordinary. General Tate is the sort of power-hungry politico who regrets he has but one mustache to twirl for the sake of his country.

Characterization works somewhat better, but ultimately comes across as overly flat and unengaging. At points different people seemed believable, but in that moments they were rarely appealing to spend time with. One could easily imagine a setting with continual danger producing irreparably damaged characters that have basic issues of normal human relation, but the story veers away from such psychological darkness and complexity. What’s given instead is a one-note supporting cast and relatively petty forms of alienation at the core. The protagonist, Georgia Mason, is the worst in that regard. She’s bitter, judgement, hardened and world-weary. She’s also absurdly competent and the narratives takes a point of reminding the reader continually how careful and prepared she is, in a first person narrated that makes her come across as rather conceited and overly distant from everyone beyond her brother. The problem becomes worse as she fails to react sufficiently to people around her dying, reacting directly at the time but long term failing to express more than a minor riddance or at most slight regret. There could be an interesting setup to someone rendered sociopathic or at least very cold through growing up in such an unsettled world, but again the layout is far to conventional for this, not being willing to go out on a limb and expecting the reader to engage with its protagonist despite not making her interested, realistic or particularly nice. It’s a measure of the flatness of the story and the characters within it that Georgia’s needing to wear sunglasses all the time for medical reasons constitutes one of the strongest and most appealing aspects of her nature. Another major problem is how Georgia doesn’t act, talk or think remotely like someone that’s grown up her whole life in a post-zombie world. Rather, she functions like someone that’s just entered into it, so as to provide acres of well watered exposition for the reader on every basic aspect of her world. Some of that is to be accepted in a narrative of this kind, but having the character of Georgia show such a minimal inner life beyond the reflections of exposition make for a weakness at the core of the story.

In a good point, and one involving heavily spoilers, the book kills off Georgia Mason forty pages from the end of the book. She begins to turn into a zombie, makes a last blog transmission, and is shot by her brother who takes on the viewpoint perspective. It’s an effective dramatic climax, and brings forth the reality of the menace and the horror invoked with zombification centrally. It’s not just that I disliked Georgia by that point that I welcomed the development. Centrally, having the protagonist in a first person character die near the end of the first book in a trilogy isn’t something that’s commonly done, and this subversion gives real energy to the end. The switch to the brother, Shaun, and seeing how completely unhinged he is by having to kill his sister--to the point of hallucinating her presence--helps bring in some of the psychological edge that I missed from earlier on. Despite the stock show down with the villain that follows the ending is more engaging because it’s brought in the real instability of life in this novel and in relation to the zombies, and it suggests that the second book may be rather more interesting in showing such psychological and political fallout. However, that moment cannot in itself redeem Feed for its multitude of issues as a current text, and the larger staleness of writing and world building that went into it.

This book is a failed one on the terms of science fiction, horror, political thriller, or character drama. It does not effectively worldbuild based on its point of departure. It does not provide consistent tension or particularly dramatic encounters with monstrosity. It does not give a layout of political tension that’s remotely original or believable. It does not provide a complex or sympathetic personality for relating to the world. The main premise of the novel is fascinating, and some very intriguing setup is done, but the book does not deliver on that potential to any substantial degree. There needs to be more than a question of what happens after the zombies attack, a degree of interest, energy and complexity to the invented strategy that do more than toy with genre cliches or exposit about the surprisingly little that has changed in the world. From the book it’s become clear that the world after zombies could be interesting. Equally clearly McGuire isn’t the author to deliver that.

Better than: World War Z by Max Brooks
Worse than: Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire

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