Friday, 20 May 2011

Feed - Mira Grant (2010)

Zombies are boring. Sorry, but it's a fact.

You can do the George Romero thing of having a small group or community menaced by hordes of the shuffling bastards, but other than that all you have is over-reaching gimmicky pap like those Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novels, and humorous uses like Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

The problem is that they only really do a couple of things well. Menacing shambling can be pretty effective if there's enough of them or if the intended victim is in some way hemmed in (which is why 'The Walking Dead' works best in scenes featuring hundreds of swarming undead). And they can look pretty good lunging forward out of dark corners to take a quick, gory bite out of the neck of some passer-by. But other than that...

Until now, that is. I'd never heard of Mira Grant or 'Feed' until it featured on the internet's most enjoyable podcast, Writer and Critic (hosted by Fandom's Nicest Man, Ian Mond, and what may well be Fandom's Sexiest Voice, Kirstyn McDermott). I'm so glad I have now though. Grant's taken a genre which was tired and hackneyed almost from the moment it was born and - somewhat ironically - injected new life into it. Zombies still hirple round biting and infecting people in Feed's 2040 but they're not the story in any sense.

In fact, actual zombies as zombies play a very minor role in the book, although it's made clear that the threat they pose is the single most important thing in the life of every person. Instead, the virus which has infiltrated every person's (and every other large mammal's) bloodstream is the central danger. Designed as a cure for the common cold, but mutated into a lethal virus which can either randomly turn a person into a zombie (or, 'amplify' them) during life or, invariably, upon death, the Kellis-Amberlee virus is incurable, easily contracted via contact and invariably and swiftly lethal.

That last is fairly important actually - the virus is only 'swiftly' and not, say, 'instantaneously' lethal, primarily because it can be weaponised and injected, shot in a dart, swallowed and so forth. So instead of zombie victims disappearing under a mass of rending, tearing flesh, it's possible for people to be infected at a distance from the actual danger ('I was dead the second the hypodermic hit my arm', as one character says matter-of-factly). As a result they then have time for effecting final words and, more importantly, to pass on information vital to the plot.

Because this is a book with a proper, fairly convoluted plot, which at a stroke pushes it beyond even Romero's movies. Put in a single sentence, Feed is a political thriller as good as any other, but set in a world where zombies are a reality. It's a brilliant idea and Grant really runs with it. The possibility of infection informs literally everything that the characters do. There's no death penalty except for terrorism, for instance, which makes sense in a world in which the newly dead are as likely to rip your face off as lie there quietly. Apple make the very best infection testing kits (not called 'iZombie', sadly), Alaska has been abandoned, the most popular children's names are George and Georgia (after Romero), notification of death by zombie is automatically uploaded to the CDC, nobody under 40 is comfortable in a crowd and, crucially for the story, online bloggers have replaced traditional newspapers as the primary source of news.

It's a crucial consideration because the reader's viewpoint is that of one of the top news bloggers covering the Republican favourite candidate in a US presidential election (there's little mention of the Democrats, which quite neatly highlights the increasingly right-wing, paranoid America created by the zombie threat). Gonzo journalism is the norm - maintaining a distance from the news is seen as a negative in many ways - and Georgia and Shaun, brother and sister bloggers (he an Irwin who throws himself directly into harm's way to get the story, she a straight Newsie) and their team are amongst the very best. The invitation to join front-runner Senator Ryman's campaign catapults them to the top of the pile, but at the same time exposes them to deadly danger as they unearth a widespread and potentially life-threatening conspiracy.

Grant keeps a fairly tight rein on her story, with a series of reveals which seem, in retrospect, to be pretty standard for the genre but on which she puts an interesting spin. And she's also not afraid to put her characters at risk, even to death, which keeps the zombie threat to the fore. If I had one complaint it's that an editor should have caught the couple of times when she repeats the exact same information within a page or two (about the Sacramento State Fair, for example), but that's a minor quibble amongst an ocean of positives.

There's a sequel out later this year which I'll definitely be picking up. highly recommended.

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