Friday, October 31, 2014

7 Days of Novels: Feed by Mira Grant

feed

When I read Feed, it was completely out of the blue. A reviewing colleague of mine, Jim Haley, came across a contest held by Orbit Books, and in his effort to draw my attention to it, ended up winning it on my behalf. The book sat in my reading list with nary a glance until I was able to pick it up and read it, at which point I realized it was the best book I had read in years. And that, my friends, was my introduction to Feed, Newsflesh, Mira Grant, Seanan McGuire, and zombie stories that were actually interesting to me.

Seanan McGuire is the author who crafted the book in question, Mira Grant is the name she attributes her Sci-Fi horror classics to, Feed is the book, and Newsflesh is the trilogy. Zombie stories that were actually interesting to me are what I found inside the book. Considering the oversaturated market for zombie stories we’ve been getting lately, that’s saying something.

I’ve long maintained that a classic book contains a story that can exist completely independent of its setting. Once you have an excellent story, you supply it with an equally excellent setting. I’ve often held that Stephen King writes sufficient stories that his repetitive settings can be overlooked. This is because, in such a story, character depth is taken to its extremes, as well as the plot, motivations and other narrative elements. If you take out the futuristic setting, Feed is still a great story. Same goes for if you take out the zombies. Those last two things just make it iconic.

The one thing that drew me in for years is how deeply Stephen King got into the mind of even the most insignificant character. Mira Grant doesn’t do that, but when it comes to the characters we see through the eyes of, we get all that and more. Feed is an example of that exact type of book. The story is told through the eyes of Georgia Mason, named for George Romero. Yes, the setting does inform the characters, but that’s only natural, and not any sort of indication of relying on the setting. Rather, there’s back and forth between the two, which makes the characters more believable as part of the setting. George is a journalist who, along with her brother Shaun, runs a blog by the name of “After the End Times”. To return to the Stephen King comparison, Grant uses King’s trademark maneuver of including excerpts at the beginning of chapters in order to give insight into the story and the characters without interrupting the narrative. Rather than songs or quotes, Feed accomplishes this with full blog entries, either from the Rising to establish the setting or from “After the End Times” to establish George, Shaun and Buffy. While George is the more traditional journalist of the group, Shaun is the thrillseeker (a group named after a certain celebrity from the 1990s) and Buffy is the “Fictional” of the group - the person who writes things other than strictly factual accounts.

These three individuals are shown to us in the detail of a journalist explaining herself, the most important person in her life, and her best friend. Her eye for details combines with the tragedy of the story in order to bear the truth about all of the supporting characters she meets along the way. Nobody has a point of view except for George (and. through blog posts, Shaun and Buffy), but within that limited narrator we get a clear look at every character.

This is largely because when you strip away the frills of Science Fiction and horror, Feed is a mystery thriller. The “After the End Times” crew is the first group of independent internet journalists - of bloggers - invited along the campaign trail. This makes them witnesses to a stream of attacks against the Presidential candidate whom they’re following. From day one people are dying, and these skilled and licensed journalists who are used to risking death in controlled circumstances find that their lives (and many others, besides) lie on the hands of their ability to do what they do best: expose the truth. But as with any political maneuverings, things aren’t always what they seem, and when people’s opinions and ideologies are called into question, even the most trusted individual of all could become a traitor in their midst.

I say “thriller” for a reason. Like when I read The Hardy Boys as a child, I didn’t want to solve the mystery before Georgia. The story didn’t hinge on who was responsible for the death and mayhem that plagued our heroes - it hinged on when they could expose it and use the truth as a weapon. The villainous monologue at the end implied that this mystery couldn’t have been solved only by seeing what the heroes saw, but that’s okay because the thriller is the point of the story more than the mystery, and it damn well did its job. What’s important is that the audience knows everything that Georgia does. Her helplessness is our helplessness. And there’s nothing more thrilling that being George - being someone with a defined sense of right and wrong, the confidence that she can use it to change the world, and the skills to actually do so - and being helpless.

I suppose helplessness requires us to discuss the setting, finally. While the things I’ve mentioned so far are a large part of what makes Feed so good, the setting is what gives Newsflesh its appeal and memorability. The story is simple enough. The Zombie apocalypse occurred in 2014, as a result of trying to cure cancer and the common cold. I’d consider elaborating, but as I’m writing this I’m also in the process of ordering a limited edition book which includes how this happens (which , as you read this, I have probably already published a review of. I’m a fan of publishing reviews linearly, even if I don’t think or read that way). Suffice it to say that the result of Kellis and Amberlee’s miracles was Kellis-Amberlee, the zombie plague virus. It’s in every human’s body in trace amounts, has resulted in spontaneous amplification, and can be weaponized.

In order to survive the zombie apocalypse, humanity turned to people like me: bloggers and fans of horror movies. Bloggers, because they’re the ones who can get the news out quickly and without the pesky FCC getting in the way, and horror movie fans, because they’re the ones who know where to hit the walking dead with maximum stopping power. Once that was over, rules and restrictions were put into place to prevent further zombie deaths, resulting in a world where you’re constantly looking over your shoulder expecting to see something coming to eat you and just as frequently submitting yourself to tests that will allow someone to legally shoot you in the head.

The interplay between all of these elements is astounding, and the world-building here is some of the best that I’ve ever seen. The prose doesn’t rely on specific items such as Twitter (or indeed, social media), preventing any of the setting elements from becoming dated as technology changes. This doesn’t prevent the story from losing some of its strength if 2015 arrives and we still have cancer, the common cold and a distinct lack of the walking dead, however.

To see just how the various elements of a world combine, you have to look little further than the political situation of that world. Luckily, we find ourselves starting out in a political thriller, which means that we can plainly see the candidate who gets by using fear of death as a motivator for his votes (something that readers weren’t entirely unfamiliar with - Feed was released at the height of the second Bush administration) . It also means that we can get a not entirely unbiased account of the third candidate - the one that uses the instant gratification politics of the internet to almost let lingerie put her in the White House.

Feed is the centerpoint of the Newsflesh setting, one that has been expanding by popular demand ever since its publication. It is the start of a trilogy, continuing with Deadline and Blackout to detail “After the End Times”’ further conflicts, following the traditional trilogy structure of standalone, cliffhanger, finale. It does so in another way as well. Equalist writers - LGBT ones specifically - have created an art of introducing non-conventional sexual practices into work at a gradual pace. For a popular example of what I’m talking about, look at the gradual introduction of homosexuality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it progressed from not being mentioned, to being almost-taboo, to being as accepted and visual as heterosexuality was throughout the series. In that manner, Newsflesh slowly allows the sexual identities of its character to creep in, with the most traditional relationships appearing in Feed and the less traditional ones being introduced over time in Deadline and Blackout. This also helps to make Feed less of a sexual novel; simply by not talking about what exists, we’re able to focus on the intrigue and the politics. It’s no accident that the biggest source of sex in the book is a political figure showing us how her world works.

In addition to the contracted sequels, Grant has published several novellas in the universe, helping to build the world and explain what happened prior. While she has no intention of returning to the universe, I still would find myself much more pleased than I would be surprised were she to introduce another full novel into the series.

Feed is a book that knows how to tell a story, knows how to portray characters, and knows how to start a sequel. At the time of publication, I felt that the book was so good it would be impossible to follow up on. Plot elements that I won’t go into here seemed to make the idea of any sequel seem inferior to what came before. The fact that this turned out not to be true does nothing to diminish Feed’s own quality - except, perhaps, to indicate that it was even better prepared for than initially seemed. If a thriller with well-crafted characters and excellent world-building and just a hint of some of the best zombies I’ve ever seen appeals to you, then pick up Feed. I’ve yet to meet anyone, horror fan or no, who regretted it.

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