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Monday, May 17, 2010

Societal Woes (with a side order of Zombies)? Yes, please!

Sometimes, you’re just not prepared for something. It might be a movie you’d eagerly been anticipating, that you were so sure--judging by the trailers you’d been bombarded with for several months--would be one (awesomely-amazing) thing, only to find that it turned out to be something entirely different (in other words, a victim of major suckage). Or, maybe you’d long fantasized about visiting a certain restaurant (store, country, etc.), only to find the experience nothing like you’d envisioned, at all. (Bad food, or service, or products, or maybe nasty people and poor sanitation. Eek!) You get the idea, right? Whenever you’re let down by the anticipated whatever, the disappointment is awful. 
Every once in awhile, though, something manages to exceed all your expectations, proving to be far better than you'd even hoped. So, with that in mind, let me start by saying that I was totally unprepared for Feed. Not that there was ever any serious doubt that I’d get into it; considering the fact that Seanan McGuire-- relative newcomer that she is--has quickly become one of my absolute favorite urban fantasy authors (period), it's just a given that anything written by her (and now including her sci-fi pen name, Mira Grant, as well) instantly goes to the top of my personal “Read Me Right NOW!!” stack. Beyond knowing that Feed was a book about zombies and (I assumed) how people were trying to cope with them, though, I went into it cold, without benefit of any additional insights whatsoever. By choice, I didn’t read any of the blurbs, reviews, or interviews. I didn’t even let myself visit Ms. McGuire's website or blog for the last couple of months. I wanted to approach it as a blank slate, the famed tabula rasa.


That isn’t to say I didn't speculate, of course. I’ve seen my fair share of George Romero (who happens to be mentioned several times, by the way) movies, as well as more recent comic and serious theatrical takes on the zombie theme. Honestly, I was expecting more of the former in Feed--lots of “Night of the Living Dead” shamblers trailing plenty of rotting clothing (and body parts) in their wake, for the sheer gore and, erm, ookiness (that's a word, right?) factor, paired with the comic undertones of “Shaun of the Dead”, maybe.



That’s what I kinda-sorta expected to read; what I actually found was very different--but in a totally surprising and AWESOME way. The reality is that Feed is much closer to a “28 Days” sort of story--more epic in scale, and scary on a level far beyond the purview of a gaggle of flesh-munching monsters. Feed takes both its subject matter and its ideas completely seriously, and makes you really, really think. Sure, it occasionally talks about trying to eat hearts (or brains--and not in some St. Louisian fried-brain sandwich way, either)... but mostly, it's a story about having a heart and using a brain. Zombies--while never exactly an afterthought--are definitely secondary to the overall picture, here. 
So, what the heck IS Feed all about, then? Part of its brilliance comes from how it closely parallels life as we know and experience it. Set in the not-so-distant future of 2040, things are very much as they are today... except for the fact that everyone born during the previous 25 years or so also harbors within his or her genetic makeup the ability to suddenly turn into a zombie. (Yes, we’re really talking the makings of a full-bore, slow-moving, eater-of-human-flesh, living right inside everybody. Nice, huh?) In a rather poignant twist, this sudden change in human physiology didn’t just occur naturally (or conveniently for the sake of a plot) via some random mutation, but instead came out of an unfortunate confluence of events, which themselves had been spawned by the very best of intentions--the inexhaustible search to find cures for common human ailments and disease (colds and cancer). The end result is that everyone in the world--EVERYONE, people--is now infected with something known as Kellis-Amberlee (or K-A), and there is no cure; you do your best to stay away from outbreaks of active zombies (the merest bite or scratch from which can instantly trigger the wrong things in your body and set off The Change); and you hope against hope that your own cells never decide to just spontaneously go “live” (which is the other way you can be turned). So... it's life, very much as we know it--full of cities, towns, a few remaining farms, and an embarrassment of mega-malls and shopping strips; VW Bugs, motorcycles, SUVs, and the like; and... zombies.
Humans are plucky, though (hey, look at history if you don't believe it)--always trying to figure how to make the best of seemingly-impossible situations--and it’s no different here. The government has established strict controls and regulations on everything ("for the public good", naturally), but the majority of people can still live more-or-less “normal” lives, provided they take all the necessary precautions--and put up with some annoying necessities. (Want to enter a public building? Prepare to have your hand pricked multiple times for an on-the-spot blood test, to ensure you're still "clean". Like that.)
Of course, there's always a certain number of people who, for one reason or another, insist on throwing themselves into dangerous situations over and over again--the skydivers, devotees of Russian Roulette, eaters of puffer fish, etc. This is the story of some of those people. Georgia “George” Mason and her brother Shaun--exemplifying either supreme foolhardiness or impressive guts-- go out of their way to not only wave a red cape in the bull’s face, but to dance around in it while making lewd references to the bull and its mother (figuratively speaking; Feed is, erm, bull-free). How so? They're the backbone of a little team of bloggers-cum-journalists, firmly convinced it's their raison d' être to report What’s Really Going On... even if/when it means going out and poking sticks at hungry zombies (which, by the way, is something Shaun has actually been known to do).
The brother-and-sister pair, together with their partner, Buffy, form a small group of writers who’ve been working more-or-less successfully the last several years from different angles to get at and report the truth, and then to post their findings and thoughts on the web. Their abilities (writing some good stuff, uncovering the occasional juicy bit, and getting it all on video) have won them a respectable (small but loyal) following; the fact that George and Shaun’s adoptive parents are also famous journalists just adds to their mystique and interest. The group’s dreams for the future--aside from hoping to avoid ever going zombie, naturally--revolve around setting up their own, fully-funded blog (rather than being a small part of a larger network). 
One day they get their chance at making it big, when their “After the End Times” blog team is invited to tag along with a promising Republican presidential candidate and his entourage, accompanying the politician on a nationwide tour for as far as the candidacy takes him. They’ll be allowed nearly-unrestricted access; the primary stipulation is that they continue presenting unbiased, “fair” reporting of everything along the campaign trail. It’s the kind of thing that only comes along once in a lifetime (if you’re lucky); it takes them all of about two minutes’ thought to jump at the opportunity.
Is the campaign trail smooth-sailing for our intrepid reporters? (Ha. You don’t seriously believe that, do you?) Do bad people (full of evil plans and intentions) come out of the woodwork? (Well, this is politics, so... yeah, that sort of goes without saying, now, doesn’t it?) Are there numerous outbreaks, with zombies running amok and causing all manner of havoc in the streets? (Duh. Book about zombies; there is NO lack of excitement, here.) Is there genuine heartbreak and sadness, as good people fall prey to the infection? (Yes, that, as well. We get to know a lot of interesting characters in this story, and--just like in real life--we’re really, really sorry to see bad things happen to good people. But, such is the nature of the infection.)
To say that it's unexpected in a genre book to read a serious take on the nature of both modern politics and reporting is certainly true, yet that's what Feed offers. It provides a fascinating look at some of the behind-the-scenes considerations in today's (or tomorrow's) campaigning, when computers, servers, digital feeds, and bandwidth are the new buzzwords. It also takes a good hard look at journalistic ethics and responsibilities; how far can (or should) the journalist go, and how much of the story should he/she become?

I started out by saying that I really didn’t know what to expect (although I had a few preconceived generalizations in mind). Well, good on Ms. McGuire for blowing them all out of the water within the first couple of chapters. Feed is an intricate yet at the same time sort of simplistic tale, dealing both with “big issues” such as the role of the media, politics, duty, and governmental and societal responses to major outbreaks (including all the paranoia, irrational fear, and hatred that too often result); as well as looking at “smaller issues” like friendship, integrity and honesty, family, and sometimes just figuring out how to get through another day. McGuire (writing as Grant) succeeds in getting everything right... and in leaving me feeling absolutely wiped out, after racing through the mammoth 600-page tome as quickly as life allowed. 
I cannot wait for the second installment, due out May 2011. Then again, it just might take me that long to get over the emotional roller coaster of reading Feed...
GlamKitty rating: 5 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)