Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Feed by Mira Grant

A novel must always be judged by what it tries to be, and not by what the reader wants it to be; that's perhaps the first rule of reviewing. And so I am compelled to look at Mira Grant's Hugo-nominated novel Feed as a work of science fiction, set in the near future, about, among other things, a political crisis and the rise of blogging-as-journalism.

That's unfortunate, since the science in Feed is so laughable as to be essentially nonexistent; its politics are bland and derivative, with a plot lifted from every second-rank airport thriller of the last thirty years; and its view of the brave new world of blogging is severely pre-Huffington Post, with a breakthrough Presidential campaign of 2040 that actually has less blogger coverage and importance than the real 2008, and a cadre of bloggers who are vastly less organized and professional in Grant's future than they were in our shared past.

(Many of Feed's problems could have been solved with a slight rejiggering of the timeline -- if the Rising had happened in the late '70s, say, right after Dawn of the Dead, the George Romero cult would have made a lot more sense, and the "now" end of the timeline would be, well, now, which would fit the technology and society much better.)

Since I'm going to focus primarily on Feed's flaws -- it has many of them, each with their own distinctive characteristics -- I should somewhat counterbalance that, up front here, with a discussion of its strengths. Feed is a compulsively readable novel, with an engagingly grumpy first-person voice, and it does present a near-future world that's not quite like anything else I've seen before. I'll complain about aspects of the worldbuilding later, but that voice probably won't even get mentioned after this point, because it's strong, and it works as well as any narrative voice in any novel.

Unfortunately, that voice is forced by Grant's plot to engage in an endless series of talky and relentlessly explanatory lectures about the historical background and the social details of this world -- the incredibly unlikely and scientifically laughable way the zombies came to be, the utterly impossible social arrangements that couldn't possibly sustain an industrial civilization, the silly blogger triumphalism, and dozens of other things that the reader is asked to swallow, one by one, in a sequence of foul-tasting horse-sized pills. Grant writes as if Heinlein had never invented the inclue, from a world in which dinosaurian infodumps still roam free, which gives her narrative not just a herky-jerky stop-start pace but a musty sense that this story could, somehow, have lept out of a Grensback magazine and been only lightly updated before publication.

I suspect that stems from a central issue: Feed is not, taxonomically, a SF novel at all. It's an urban fantasy book with a thin and tattered SFnal skin wrapped around it strategically, like a fan dancer with a shabby old bit of second-hand feather desperately trying to hide all of her business at the same time. SF, particularly near-future SF, relies on a web of consistency and continuity -- it doesn't need to be completely realistic, but it must remain plausible, and somehow connected to the world we actually live in. Feed, on the other hand, clearly began from a high concept -- what if the zombie apocalypse was blogged? -- and ran forward from there, with only about as much verisimilitude as your typical zombie story ever has. (Which is to say: very little at all.)

Speaking of the blogging, which is central to Feed -- any media more organized than four people and their rented servers has either disappeared or is so far in the background as to be essentially nonexistent -- it also suffers from a very old-fashioned kind of SF furniture, the "we all do it this way" explanation. Of course, in an actual, complex world, there's no function that everyone all does the same way -- look at the recent furor over the Huffington Post's blogging model, which relies on lots of essentially unpaid drones working for "exposure" -- but there's no sign that anyone in the world of Feed is organized in any way other than the way Our Heroes are. So our narrator, Georgia Mason, is a "Newsie," who does traditional reporting. Her brother, Shaun, is an "Irwin," who does dumb things and hopes to survive them. And their third wheel, a girl who calls herself Buffy, is a "Fictional," who writes pretend stories that, in some never-quite-specified way, somehow fits in with the nonfiction produced by the rest of the team. (It's as if a major newspaper had three desks: News, Survivorman, and Slash.)

One can also note that the terminology -- irwin, newsie, buffy, and so on -- is much more reminiscent of 1995 than of 2040, or even the present day. Authors often have idiosyncratic cultural referents, and want to embed those in their fictional worlds, but those referents need to make sense within those worlds, and Feed just doesn't read as a society twenty-five years in the future, but as an alternate 2000 or so.

No zombie explanation ever makes real science-fictional sense, of course -- the best explanations for zombies are either intrinsically fantastic, of the "there's no more room in hell" variety, or are mere head-shrugging for something that's still completely unknown in the story. Feed throws around gobbledy-gook in an attempt to build a SFnal justification for its zombies, but its two-tailored-viruses-collided-and-gosh-darn-it-just-happen-to-reanimate-the-dead postulate is just too much to swallow for anyone familiar with the second law of thermodynamics. If you want to have a tailored biological organism responsible for zombiism, it has to be entirely designed to that purpose -- and, even then, it's highly implausible to begin with.

The central plot of Feed isn't about the zombies, though, which is a good thing: zombies are dull, since they only ever do the same thing over and over again, so stories need to use them as an element rather than the centerpiece. (Though that does raise the question: if everyone lives massively sequestered lives, and hardly ever goes out or does anything, what are all of these bloggers actually doing and reporting on? Is it purely that there are dozens of "irwins" going out every day, encountering zombies, and trying not to die?) Instead, Feed pretends that it will be uniquely newsworthy for a blogger team to be part of the media entourage of a Presidential candidate in 2040, because nothing like that has happened in the last three election cycles and certainly wouldn't happen in the quarter-century following.

The candidate that Georgia, Shaun and Buffy get embedded with is, I'm sorry to say, a complete cliche: the outdoorsy, anachronistically liberal Republican with a down-home, aw-shucks manner who instantly bonds with them and has the massive charisma of a born, natural leader. The only intraparty rival that we see is equally stereotyped, a corrupt, nasty Southerner with a steely eye, dark secrets, and stupidly unyielding principles, a man who even the dullest reader will tag as a villain from the first moment he oozes across the page. As to the opposition party, I'm sure that Grant mentions the Democrats at least once, and might even have dropped a hint that the USA has a current President at the moment, but none of that matters in the slightest to her narrative. (As opposed, of course, to any real campaign, which is obsessed at every turn with the opposition, both within and outside one's own party, and whose operations are focused, from day to day and minute to minute, on tactics to counter current and expected attacks from all of those opposition forces.)

It's a very hermetic, quiet campaign that our bloggers sign up for: there are very few in-person events, presumably due to the entire population's zombie-induced agoraphobia, but there also doesn't seem to be any replacement virtual events. No online fireside chats, no massively multi-voter dungeons, not much of anything. Georgia says that it's very hectic and tiring, but she doesn't actually tell us about much, aside from a few plot-important events where zombies cause trouble -- due, we soon learn, to sabotage from unknown forces. (Oh, and another way that this is a quaintly old-fashioned campaign: the only important women involved with it are the bloggers and the candidate's long-suffering, good-hearted wife. This is a 1970s political world, in which the good white men battle against the bad white men for supremacy.)

So this campaign has no scandals, no manufactured controversies, only a tiny number of plot-relevant issues -- in short, none of the actual complexity and confusion of a real campaign. (Look at what's going on right now, as a flock of Republicans squabble for next year's nomination, and compare that to the vastly quieter and more staid campaign in Feed.) Senator Ryman steams amiably forward to his inevitable nomination, because that's what happens in books about a political campaign, right?

Of course, those acts of sabotage continue, and worsen, until even the dimmest reader is sure who the responsible party is. They also allow Grant to continue to beat her zombie drum, and gives her some actual events to break up the endless paragraphs of narration-driven backstory and detailed descriptions of security arrangements. (If Grant showed the slightest awareness that Feed could be read as a metaphor for the US's current frightened-chicken state of security theatre, this would have been slyly funny and biting, but she's much more interested in yet more tedious physical details of bleach-baths and clothes-changes; Feed is one of those novels where the research has eaten the story.)

There is a shocking event at about the two-thirds mark, though I found it mostly annoying -- it damaged one of the core strengths of the book for the sake of cheap drama, and felt like a stand-in for all of the real activity and energy that an actual political campaign would have. It's too bad that Feed isn't a young adult novel, though; it would be a strong contender for the Newbery Medal if it were.

And then Feed ends, as predictably as it has run -- aside from that one shocking event -- with good triumphant and the characters who have not been nibbled by the walking dead left to shuffle forward into the inevitable sequels. (Which I have no intention of reading.)

Feed takes second-hand materials -- zombies, the political-campaign thriller, modern blogging -- and makes them all duller and less interesting than they have been in other hands, or in the real world (where applicable). It is pleasant to read on a sentence-to-sentence level, and Georgia's voice is a pleasant thing to spend a few hundred pages with. But if that's all that it takes to get a Hugo nomination these days, then I'm pretty damn angry at the shallowness of the nominators.


Charlie Stross said...

I thought FEED *was* a young adult book? In which context, its weaknesses all made a lot more sense (as whittling away at the complexity to allow 14-16 year olds to get a handle on the events in question).

Andrew Wheeler said...

Charlie: As far as I can tell, it was an Orbit book on your side of the pond, as it was on mine -- and that's a plain "adult" SFF list.

It definitely wasn't published by an established young adult line or particularly aimed at that audience; it was a SF/horror hybrid (with, I think, rather too much urban fantasy in its DNA, but that's more about the writing than how the book was presented to the world).

Grobstein said...

I suppose I don't understand how a book this bad could be good if only it had been published in a different marketing category. I buy that younger readers may have different capacities and interests than adults but the criticisms here seem to me to transcend age.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Grobstein: I think you misunderstood me; I didn't say that Feed would somehow become a good book if it were young adult, I said that it would be likely to win the Newbery Medal.

I don't mean to completely unpack that, but the Newbery is famous for going to books that have certain thematic aspects in common, and I was obliquely referring to that.

A Question Of ITIL said...

Please help Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire) in her fight against Amazon!
Mira Grant Seanan McGuire Amazon dispute Upcoming4.me

dd-b said...

My reaction to the "irwin" label, in particular, was that it was nothing like any usage that I'd ever encountered outside of fiction in my entire life -- and like exactly one usage I'd encountered in fiction, to which it is so close that I can't help seeing it as a deliberate reference.

In Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Jill says to Jubal roughly "Ben's not a Winchell! He's a Lipmann!" (referring to two early 20th century columnists I had not previously heard of). A type of columnist coming to so define his niche that his name is permanently associate with it...doesn't seem to happen. It just rings false to me, in the Heinlein and again in the Grant. (When such a defining columnist retires or dies, the niche seems to just go fallow.)

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