Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Hugo Week: FEED

FeedZombies are the sort of thing that - their recent appearance in books by Jane Austen aside - tend to work better as a film horror than a written one. Except for continued putrefaction, the shambling undead don't really have much of a story arc. On film, this horror, the horror of disgust and revulsion, works in a way that it almost never does on the page. And on film, there's the added bonus of feeling superior while we watch a bunch of pretty people behave like brainless idiots who have never seen a horror movie, or even played a round of Plants vs. Zombies, and so get turned into brainless idiots of another sort. Media matters - zombies almost never work well in books.


I believe FEED by Mira Grant (an extremely open pseudonym of Seanan McGuire, though I will be using Mira Grant in this review for ease of voters) should win the Hugo for best novel.

I'm going to start with the weak points - every book has them, and in the main, they matter so little here that it's best to just get them out of the way. Especially the first, which is common to all works of near-future science fiction - the future moves faster than we think it will. (And yes, these are science fiction zombies. We'll get to that in a minute.) One of the central plot points to FEED is that George Mason, her brother Shaun, and their friend Buffy Meissonier are a team of bloggers who are chosen to be part of a press pool in a presidential campaign. Post the role of citizen journalism in 2011's Arab Spring, post even the events detailed by Grant in her book, where citizen journalism was the only thing that kept people alive during the original viral pandemic in 2014, the idea that twenty-six years after that, in 2040, it will be a strange and noteworthy thing for bloggers (who, as far as I can tell from the complex journalistic licensing scheme in FEED differ from traditional journalists only in their lack of major network affiliation) to be invited to accompany a presidential campaign as part of the press pool is an off-note. But again, the failure to accurately predict the future is an off-note that is common to all near-future SF, and we notice the flaw only when we are in its temporal proximity.

The other off-note was in the necessary components of the journalistic team. George is a Newsie, a facts-only, no-spin pursuant of journalistic truth. Shaun is an Irwin, a front-lines hot-zone type of blogger who thrives on danger. Buffy is a Fictional, who writes stories and poetry. Now, I like to write stories as much as the next girl, and believe that fiction can be an important coping tool for events too huge to process through the cold light of truth. I even believe that art can and should be in dialogue with the world in which it exists. But I cannot see, even within the world of the novel, why having a Fictional department is a key requirement for a news organization. Buffy is a complex and well-developed character, but I wish Grant had allowed us to see her work as more than just the technical expert for After the End Times. I would have liked to see how being a Fictional worked in service of truth.

But as I said, these are small quibbles that in no way change the fact that FEED is a deeply impressive book. Grant's world building is extraordinary. Not just the virology behind the Kellis-Amberlee virus that caused the dead reanimate, not just what it looks like to live in a world where everyone is infected, and so everyone will convert upon death (if not sooner), but how it feels to actually live in that world. Grant shows the ways in which not just behavior but thinking will change in the face of such an enormous event, and she does so in such complete fashion that it's easy to miss what an achievement this is. Oh, and just in case you couldn't tell from the character names, she skips the easy short cut of setting her story in a world where no one has ever seen a zombie movie. As Grant shows, knowing how to end an outbreak doesn't solve nearly as many problems as one might think.

In fact, because the zombies are caused by a virus, and because this is a world in which people take constant precaution to avoid viral conversion, the fact of an outbreak itself becomes the problem to be solved. The reasons behind the outbreaks of zombies are the source of the horror, and it's a horror that doesn't go away. The rotten things here aren't just the reanimated dead, and since I've always found human evil more more terrifying - and compelling - than the guy who keeps moaning "braaains" even after his arm has fallen off, I find that a plus. FEED does a great job of using the monster as metaphor at the same time that it is shown to be a monster.

The rest of the book is just as good as the world building. The characters are real and complex, and the point of view character, George, is particularly impressive - smart, very good at what she does, and makes no apologies for either of those things. The pacing is tight, and the information realease incredibly well-managed - this is a smart book, full of smart people, and it wants its readers to be as well. It's an incredibly impressive accomplishment, and would be a worthy Hugo winner.