Orbit, 2010, 574 pages, C$12.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-316-08105-4
Hugo Nominee season can be tedious, frustrating or surprising, depending on one’s expectations about the actual nominees. I was primed to dislike Mira Grant/Seana McGuire’s Feed almost from the time I held it in my hands. Count the strikes: Not only is it another gosh-darn zombie novel, it’s also the avowed first in an trilogy and is printed in the more expensive tall-paperback format that I irrationally dislike so much. Three strikes, right there.
Hence my surprise, a few dozen pages in, to realize that I was actually enjoying the novel. Never mind the tall-paperback format, which is an idiosyncratic antipathy of mine; I can even deal with the first-in-a-trilogy factor when a novel is reasonably complete by itself. But even the zombie aspect eventually won me over. While this isn’t a new World War Z, Feed manages to do a few interesting tricks with its concept. For one thing, this is a science-fiction novel as much as it’s a horror one. In practical terms, this means that Feed takes place twenty years after a world-wide zombie outbreak (caused by a mutant virus that still courses through everyone’s veins), and that it shows us a world that has reached an accommodation with the fact that just about anyone is liable to turn into a zombie at a moment’s notice. Feed takes the time to describe how its teenage protagonists have gotten used to the constant threat, and the ways in which society has implemented the necessary safeguards. There’s a fair amount of speculative content here that goes beyond what a routine horror novel would have been expected to deliver, and much of my appreciation of the novel is based on the resulting world-building.
The other facet that works relatively well is the characterization of the story’s protagonist. Our narrator is Georgia Mason, an articulate blogger who has managed to earn media credentials for the 2024 presidential election. Along with her impulsive brother Shaun and a number of collaborators, they get to follow a candidate, suffer through random acts of violence and expose a massive conspiracy. What fun!
Still, Georgia is an engaging narrator, and Shaun proves to be a competent foil once we go beyond his daredevil façade. The other characters are handled with a decent amount of skill, and the novel is almost utterly readable from beginning to end. Strong sequences punctuate the novel at regular intervals, whereas the mechanics of a post-zombified blogging network prove more interesting than expected. There are a few unusual plotting twists toward the end of the story that both kick it up a notch and raise structural questions about what should have been kept in stock for the second novel. I closed Feed with the surprised satisfaction of a reader who got more than expected out of an unpromising title.
Don’t think, however, that I’m completely happy with the novel. The blogging triumphalism of the novel would have felt fresh and fascinating in, say, 2004. In 2010, however, it feels dated, ignoring the way blogs have been re-integrated in mainstream media and how little original content is actually being produced by the blogosphere. I understand that Feed exists at the borderline between a Young Adult novel and an adult one, and that the blogging conceit is a really smooth way to land teenage protagonists into a high-stakes political showdown. Still, bit and pieces of the novel’s background don’t feel as credible as the rest, and small dings like those accumulate, especially in a novel that depends so much on the illusion of a credible world. I was also less than convinced at the way some of the background came together, some unquestioned assumptions clashing with what we were told about the nature of the world. (Think real hard about either restaurants or political rallies in a world where people are liable to spontaneously turn into zombies.)
So it is that even though I like Feed quite a bit more than expected, I feel almost forced to qualify this recommendation with a dash of indulgence and warning. A good read; sure. A Hugo nominee? Well, 2010 wasn’t such a good year… and Feed easily outclasses at least three of the five other current nominees. It’s been a weak enough year that any half-satisfying book is good enough for me. I will even read the sequel.