Feed (pretty hefty spoilers follow)

Posted by Unrepentant Escapist

September 18, 2011 -- 2:08 p.m.
Been awhile since I've posted a book review. I haven't been able to find my camera with the Worldcon pictures in it. My mother must have put it somewhere strange when she unpacked the suitcase I borrowed.

Anyway, I've read several books lately that I think merit a mention. First off, there's Feed by Mira Grant. Up for a Hugo, but lost to Connie Willis. Full of zombies. This review is full of spoilers, so if those bother you, stop reading now.

One of the cool things about this book is that it isn't really about the zombie holocaust. Most zombie books take place during an outbreak, and don't really look at the aftermath because its anti-climactic. Don't get me wrong, I loved World War Z and its ilk, but it's nice to see a zombie book that focuses on human beings getting on with their lives after seeing their world get taken apart.

In the aftermath of a cancer/cold-curing retro-virus gone wrong, a brother-sister blogger team gets invited to follow a presidential campaign. The candidate is trying to take things back to normal with real campaigns stops and 'press the flesh' visits, despite the fact contact with the live virus can turn you into a zombie.

I liked the female protagonist especially, and enjoyed the banter. This is an excellent study for writers on how to write characters with great quirks and great voices. Also, on how to get background info dumps across without being boring.

Still, the heavy exposition makes the beginning go fairly slow. Unfortunately, there's a lot of repetition, some of it intentional by the author (you'll be as sick of the finger-prick tests as the characters before the end). I think you could easily have trimmed out 50 pages and not have missed anything. Did we really need the eye-rollingly mustache-twirling parents, for example?

But the flip side of so much exposition is that the worldbuilding is fabulous. The society the characters are operating in feels intensely, hauntingly real. Mira Grant's put a lot of thought into both the science and the social implications of her world.

I wish Grant had put the same time into the motives of her antagonists, who are evil just for the point of evilness. Oh sure, there's some gloss of rationality put on their villainy. For example, the aforementioned parents--who adopt the twin protagonists for a ratings boost--supposedly are unable to form any close bonds with the children they've been living with for more than ten years because they're busy grieving for the loss of their original biological child. I just don't buy it, or buy that the protagonists would be such well adjusted people if they're basically living in a paparazzi-centered fish tank. We all know how messed-up the British royal family are, and this sounds almost as bad.

The book's other antagonists don't even get token glosses of rationality. Even when he's doing his wind-up speech, the main villain doesn't point to anything specific when he's explaining why he felt the need to get his megalomania on. If we'd seen just one concrete example of what he was so pissed-off about, it might have made it all feel less comic-book monologue to me. Especially since his machinations never seemed necessary, since we never got a sense that the events swirling around him would justify his dastardly plan. A close presidential race doesn't feel very close to the reader if we never see the other side.

The vagueness of the antagonist's motives was possibly intentional, modelling modern politico's tendency to get take in by empty-yet-powerful rhetoric. But at the end of the day, I felt the villain character was an overly-generalized swipe at a certain segment of the population. Satire looses its sting if it's too easy.

Also, plotwise, all the characters seem to do a lot of holding the idiot ball.

"Sure! I'll totally take orders from a guy who doesn't let me see his face or tell me his name! I'll totally trust that he'll take America back to the state it needs to be, even though I have no clue who he is or how he's going to do it!"

"Yeah, there was an assassination attempt on the presidential candidate a few weeks ago, but after one member of his family dies, we're not going to check and see if this death might have something sinister behind it. Even when the evidence is out where a reporter can conveniently step on it and we've been inside, cleaning the facility anyway..."

"Ooh, I'm an evil henchman rigging a bomb to explode in a hero's trailer. And after I do that, I'm going to kill the occupant's pet and leave it right where he can see it. If he finds a dead animal corpse, he'll totally stick around while the trailer explodes around him, right? It's not like EVIL HENCHMAN 101 teaches us about leaving everything the way we found it if we want our victim to get properly caught up in an explosion..."

The other issue that annoyed me was the book's treatment of the blogger/traditional media divide. I feel like this book came out of an atmosphere that's five, ten years old. I don't think there's the antagonism there once was, especially since print/web journalists make the hop back and forth all the time. The idea that all the Presidential campaigns but one would not include bloggers seems bizarrely retro. The idea that there will still be newspapers in thirty years in itself seems bizarrely retro, especially since going outside in this world is a hazard. What would the insurance premium be for a paper boy?

Even if I do buy the idea that the zombie apocalypse causes all the old flare-ups between reporters and bloggers to surface, I couldn't possibly think it would cause future presidential candidates to ignore online media. There are some things--including publicity seeking--that won't change, even if the world is ending.

Ah well. These are small pet peeves, and almost got me to stop reading, but I'm glad I didn't. After a slow-fuse start, the book ends with an explosive bang. Feed has a lot of great action, great humor, and great fun. I got the rug completely yanked out from under me twice by fantastic plot twists that had me jumping around in my seat. I'd totally recommend this book to people, especially people who love zombies. I would never have written about so many of my negative comments with this book if it hadn't been nominated (and almost won) a Hugo. It just wasn't on that level for me.

The frustrating thing is that this book could so easily have moved from 'good' to fantastic with a more believable antagonist and a few more red herrings. I think, in another few years, this author's books are going to be at the top of my wishlist every year. But it's not in that category yet.