by Mira Grant

Cover image

Series: Newsflesh #1
Publisher: Orbit
Printing: May 2010
ISBN: 0-316-12246-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 600

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I have to start this review with a giant warning: This is an exceptionally good book that is also very easy to spoil. If you have any intention of reading it, and I highly recommend it even if you don't think you'd like the genre or idea, do not read reviews that may have spoilers. Definitely do not read any information at all about the subsequent books in the series. This is a book that is significantly improved by entering cold. I will avoid spoilers in this review, but, really, my recommendation is to just stop reading here, go buy it, and enjoy it without foreknowledge (remembering that the first few chapters are not representative of the rest of the book).

Books like this are why I read all the Hugo nominees every year.

Feed wasn't on my radar at all prior to the Hugo nominations. It wasn't a book that my friends were talking about, zombies are my least favorite paranormal monster, and a book about bloggers was setting off warning bells about reading novels about something I know too much about. But it was on the Hugo nomination list, so I got a copy and settled into it with a bit of a sigh.

That didn't last long. For one, this is not a horror novel, nor is it an urban fantasy. It's science fiction through and through. It's also one of the best-characterized SF novels that I've read: fresh, exciting, unexpected, and with possibly the best slightly dysfunctional brother-sister dynamic that I've ever read in fiction. I started raving about it to my friends before I even finished it. It is by far the best book on the Hugo nomination slate that I've read, and I've now read all of them except the second half of The Dervish House.

Georgia (George) and her brother Shaun are bloggers in an alternate future where a virus named Kellis-Amberlee developed as a side effect of the natural mingling of viral-carried cures for the common cold and for cancer. It's the virus that causes zombies, of course, but that's not the only thing it does. The virus doesn't only infect zombies; it has spread through essentially everything on the planet, although smaller animals can only be carriers. It's dormant in most people, most of the time, but sudden systemic shocks (like death) or contact with the active virus can cause it to become active, at which point it takes over any human or large animal and turns them into a mindless creature who tries to spread the virus. People can also get isolated live infections; George's eyes have such an infection, which means that her pupils are permanently dilated, she can't cry, and she has to take special precautions around bright light (as well as showing as infected on any retinal scan).

You have to suspend disbelief on the basic idea and a few details (like a sort of collective intelligence) to make the zombies act like zombies, but once you get past that, Grant has clearly put thought into this and tried to make it somewhat plausible, both biologically and in terms of social impact. Every security system that you can think of, and a few that you haven't thought of, have had blood tests added to them to detect and keep out anyone with active virus. (The disposable medical equipment industry must be the center of this economy; it's terrifying how many testing kits the characters go through.) And society has shifted to a posture of paranoia and careful avoidance of situations where the virus could go active. The natural child of George and Shaun's adoptive parents was killed when a large neighborhood pet dog, over the forty pound limit, went active and infected him, leading to a ban on large animals in most human communities. Some would take that farther and kill all large mammals, something that becomes a minor plot point later in the book.

Bloggers have become the trusted media in this world because they were the first to take a zombie uprising seriously, rather than a hoax, and to start disseminating the information that was required to survive it while the regular media was still calling it a hoax or failing to say anything useful. The zombies have been driven back into cordoned-off unsafe zones, and people have largely retreated into guarded communities. This has made on-line interaction even more important, which has also fed the popularity of bloggers. They still have an inferiority complex about traditional journalism, but they may now be more influential.

For reasons that are never well-explained in the book (another required suspension of disbelief, but the results are so much fun!), every major blog site divides itself into roughly three sections: the Newsies, who try to report facts and concrete information, possibly with separated editorial comment; the Irwins, who go to dangerous places and poke zombies with a stick to get exciting film and serve as the reality show equivalent; and the Fictionals, who write stories, poetry, and the like. George, the first-person narrator, is a Newsie, and Shaun is an Irwin. After some preliminary background and character introductions, the story really kicks into gear when they discover that they've been selected to be the first blogger team to ride along with traditional journalists in the press entourage for a Senator who's trying to get the US Republican Presidential nomination.

I could go on, but that provides a feel of the depth of world-building. There are innumerable details behind everything I've mentioned, and behind everything else in the book. Grant has given real thought to the social and cultural changes that would result from the ever-present fear of zombies, the different ways society would distort, and the sorts of relationships and the sorts of technology that people would build. It's not perfect: there are things one could nit-pick, and there are places where the infodumping is a bit much. But Grant takes on world-building with a joy and flair that puts this book firmly into the science fiction category rather than urban fantasy. SF readers will recognize the love of ideas, technology, extrapolation, and how social and technological issues mingle.

As good as it is, though, the background isn't what makes this book. What makes this book are the characters.

George and Shaun are both adopted, but they were adopted together and their adoptive parents are glory-seeking attention hounds who are mostly uninterested in them as people. They only have each other, and they've always had each other, to the point where they're a little obsessive about it. The emotion isn't that visible on the surface, but Grant makes it clear in subtle ways how deep it goes, and how deeply it matters to both of them. They're comfortable with each other, cover each other's weaknesses, recognize each other's moods, and set up each other's opportunities to shine.

They're flat out the best brother-sister relationship that I can remember reading. Grant creates two completely different characters who work as a team, are believable as family (particularly chosen family), love each other in the quiet way that shows itself through action and banter, and who avoid all the standard pitfalls of quick and easy characterization. Reading about them is an absolute delight. Grant doesn't beat you over the head with it, or spend a lot of time with inner monologues about the relationship. She just shows it, and makes you believe it.

Almost as good is their friend Buffy, the lead Fictional of their team, who maintains their computers, gear, and the plethora of wearable cameras and mikes that they use to get footage of zombies and, later, of the campaign trail. She also writes (bad) poetry and paranormal romance about zombies, and calls herself Buffy because "I'm cute, blonde, and living in a world full of zombies. What do you think I should call myself?" She's not particularly physically brave, but she's the most paranoid of the three, responsible for all of their computer security, possessive of their equipment and software, and obsessively good at her job.

I cannot tell you how nice it is to see a character I could recognize among my friends and colleagues in the free software world as a techie in a book, instead of the stereotyped (and virtually nonexistent in the real world) pasty-faced unsocialized weirdo. Buffy is completely believable as a computer expert, with all the right bits of obsession in the right places, but also has a complete life and other skills outside of computers. It makes me want to get this book in a substantial hardcover, track down some other authors, and beat them over the head with it. This is how you write a believable young character with computer knowledge.

Grant takes these characters and puts them through a plot that is extremely effective at building tension, but it does start slow. The first chapter of Feed doesn't do the book justice, and I'm worried people will try it and give up too early. There's a lot of background to start, quite a bit more infodumping than there will be later, and nothing particularly interesting happening. (On re-reading, the initial parts gain more depth because the reader brings the knowledge of George and Shaun's dynamic to it, but the first-time reader doesn't have that.) Hang with it; the book starts getting good about the end of part two, gets really good by the end of part three, and then started blowing me away. There is a payoff moment near the end of the book that is one of the best single scenes I've ever read in fiction, both for itself and because it is the perfect culmination of everything that has happened dramatically leading up to it.

Feed does have some flaws, as much as I loved it. The biggest is probably that it sometimes falls into the SF trap of being a little too in love with its technology. We get extensive description of the gadgets and gear that the characters use and how they go about maintaining their site and posting new content, and you have to be at least a little interested in that to not get bogged down in it. I was interested, and enjoyed those parts of the book much more than I was expecting to, but I can see how others might think they go a bit long. It's not so much infodumping, although George does a touch of that as well, as it is excessive descriptive detail, but usually there are some character dynamics subtlely woven into the background to hold the reader's interest.

The tech itself is surprisingly good, though. I always cringe when reading books where computers play a large role, since they never work right in fiction, but here I mostly had nitpicks. FTP shows up in one implausible place, a recorded message starts playing where it makes no real sense that that could happen, and there are a few other issues of a similar magnitude, but these are minor and ignorable. Overall, I could believe that a group of bloggers would use technology mostly like this, and that it would work roughly like how it worked in the book. And I'll forgive a lot for as good of a character as Buffy is.

The other major flaw is that the villains of the piece are simply too obvious, too stereotyped, and too hissable, with no real depth or believable countering world view. (Religious conservatives are going to particularly cringe at some of this stereotyping.) This unfortunately significantly hurts one scene that I badly wanted to have more substance, although Grant mostly salvages it. However, at least for me, that's the only scene it hurt, because this book just isn't about the villains. The story is about George, Shaun, and Buffie, and that seems to be where all the characterization work has gone as well. (The protagonists are hopelessly idealistic and take themselves a bit too seriously for the degree of actual objectivity they bring to their stories, but that I think is perfectly in character and works well with the story.)

But, flaws nonwithstanding, this book utterly surprised me and put Mira Grant (both under that pen name and under her real name as Seanan McGuire) immediately onto my "buy and read on sight" list, and every friend I've gotten to read Feed has had the same reaction. I have no idea how it snuck under my radar, but I'm glad it didn't sneak under the Hugo radar. I utterly fell in love with this book; the world is a better place because it exists.

Highly recommended. If the dynamic between George and Shaun is clicking for you by the end of part two, you're in for an amazing reading experience.

Followed by Deadline.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-07-26

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21