Feed is the first of the five 2011 Hugo nominated books I got to read ahead of placing my vote. It won this honor by virtue of the RSS feed symbol on its cover: a book about bloggers has some distinct appeal with a guy who likes blogging himself. Feed happens to be another personal first, with it being the first proper zombie book I ever got to read (and I say “proper” because I regard Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as a practical joke). There are good reasons why I never delved into zombie infested lands thus far, so the question was – can a zombie book be a good enough for me to read? And, if it is, can it be a worthy Hugo candidate?
To its credit, Feed creates a very detailed zombie world. Set in 2040, it tells of a virus outbreak that occurred in our near future where the viral solutions for the common cold and the viral solution for cancer combined to create a new virus. This new virus is everywhere, but when people die it amplifies and turns them into zombies, zombies with a mission to spread the virus further. Thus Feed’s world is a world where death always lurks behind the corner.
In this world we follow a group of three bloggers led by Georgia, who tells us the story in first person. She tells us how the world reorganized itself to cope with the disease, and she does all that while telling us what goes on in her life at the moment – namely, how her group of bloggers are following a Republican presidential candidate as he campaigns across the country to get his party’s nomination to the White House. A lot happens during this campaign, most notably – zombies! Our three bloggers, there to report the news to the world, embedded style, find themselves the subject of news headlines.
The true story behind Feed is not the tale of our heros’ adventures with the undead, but rather what the story of a society living in constant fear of what is lurking just behind the corner can imply on our present real life society. The message there is quite similar to what George Romero has been trying to tell us in films like Land of the Dead; indeed, Feed does not shy away from its sources of inspiration, mentioning Romero several times and also crediting him for the name of the book’s hero. That message is all about societies living in constant fear, be it zombies in the case of the book or terrorists in our case. Through carefully detailed descriptions of security measures in the land of Feed we can detect what author Mira Grant wants us to think of things like TSA porno scanners at airports and other “security measures” that are there for the show only, aimed at creating the illusion of safety. She goes forth to demonstrate the potential dangers of societies driven by fear in a very convincing and relevant manner, true to how all well made science fiction is there to say something about the real world.
I guess my main problem with Feed lies with its detail level. Feed is so detailed it often feels tedious – great, another viral blood test! Extra layers of detail add depth to the book, but I will go out and say I think Feed would have been much better if it were half as thick on pages. I admit writing such a book, a book that toggles between the challenges of maintaining depth while keeping voltage levels constantly high, would be very hard. Nevertheless, as a critic I’m allowed to point at the book’s shortcomings; tedious descriptions that hurt the flow of reading are at the top of my list.
Feed is made ever more relevant through references to contemporary culture, including the gadget/Internet culture. Apple still dominates the technology world of Grant’s futuristic vision, only that instead of the iPhone 40 they’re making viral detection kits that never go wrong. More importantly, Feed delves deeply into questions of extreme social importance to our world today: news coverage and its role in maintaining a viable democracy. In particular, Feed looks at the clash between blogs and traditional media. That war is over by Feed’s time, with bloggers becoming the creators of news rather than mere reporters. The point, though, is that Feed explores this avenue and suggests detailed and well explained mechanisms for the way new age media could work, including the all important struggle for ratings.
Religion is also on the discussion board. Feed’s USA society is divided in two, those that lost their faith because of the zombie uprising and those who see the uprising as some sort of a trial or punishment from their deity of choice (in many respects, this is similar to Jews' crisis of faith as a result of the Holocaust). Again, this representation is only slightly more extreme than what is taking place in contemporary America’s culture wars. Throughout most of the book, Grant (through Georgia's character) seems to side on the side of the former. She does so at her peril, because it renders some of the main events in Feed quite predictable, but she also does so inconsistently: at the very end of the book we are back to politically correct statements of the type we hear from American directions all too often, a statement along the lines of “we can’t prove god doesn’t exist so it’s a 50-50 question and I just don't know”. No it’s not; I cannot prove there is no invisible dragon in my garage (to quote the detailed example Carl Sagan provided in Demon Haunted World), but that does not make that dragon’s existence is a 50-50 question. There is this thing called “probability”; we cannot disprove the dragon, but we can assume the probability of its existence is so close to zero we can safely ignore the possibility of its existence.
Last but not least: despite issues with predictability, Feed can still throw interesting plot twists here and there.
Alright: Having established Feed to be a book worth reading, I will now turn to the second question posed at the beginning of this post: Is Feed good enough to win a Hugo award? Now, if you were to wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me which books deserve a Hugo, I would mention the likes of Gateway and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. That is, books that really shook the foundation of science fiction literature; book with immense depth; books that any fan of literature should read regardless of whether they’re into sci-fi or not.
I cannot say that Feed is in the same league as these two. Nor is it in the same league of many other science fiction books that I cherish. However, upon waking up I have to admit the majority of Hugo winners are not Gateway or Harsh Mistress good; take last year’s The Windup Girl is an example there. The majority of winners are fine books, but not books that would shake literature foundations. Once I accept the reality that not every Hugo winner can be as great as I would have liked it to be, I have to acknowledge that Feed is a viable candidate. I would not be surprised if it ends up getting my top vote for best science fiction book of 2010.
Overall: I enjoyed this first step of mine into the [detailed] world of the living dead. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Added on 21/6/2011:
Another thing I forgot to mention with regards to Feed is the way the Internet is used to deal with one another in a society where personal contact is feared. Feed's Georgia has some online friends she trusts more than her parents even though she never met.
I liked this insight. It was easy to identify with: through blogging I have established friendships I regard very highly with people I am never likely to meet in person due to physical distance. I would say that's a very nice touch by Feed given contemporary proliferation of social media.
Further addition on 22/6/2011:
I also forgot to mention how the part where the zombie virus got spread through childcare facilities and schools touched a soft nerve here. Every winter we get the best of the viruses delivered to our home in the fastest way possible via childcare, so I can definitely identify with Feed's world.
In fact, by virtue of the fact I keep on thinking about the book, it has become clear to me that Feed deserves its rating boosted to 4 out of 5 stars. It is definitely going to receive my top vote for this year's best book in the Hugo awards.