Friday, 22 June 2012

Blackout by Mira Grant

Lowdown: Shaun & Georgia 2 are back to uncovering the greatest zombie conspiracy ever. And this time, it's personal.
The dead first rose for me two years ago in Mira Grant’s (the pen name of Seanan McGuire) Feed. That was the case, literally, with Feed being the first proper zombie book I ever got to read. I liked it so much I voted it the best book of the year at the Hugo's, the most prestigious science fiction award around.
A year later came the sequel I did not deem necessary, Deadline. As much as Feed surprised me for the good, Deadline surprised me for the bad. I read it as an overlong drama featuring a hard to relate to hero who made the read seem even longer. Worse, I found it hard to relate to Deadline as a book in the first place since it did not have an ending worthy of a book. Having the impression of being at the wrong end of a cynical publishing trick to make me buy a trilogy where I only wanted one short book, I saw Deadline as the end of my short term romance with the undead.
Only that then the living rose up against me. In an unorthodox move for an author, Seanan McGuire published a post on her blog referring directly to my Deadline review. Together with commenting fans she answered my arguments. I was moved, and I also felt really bad to have caused enough of a stir with the author to get her to address my review in the first place. That good old philosophical question at the center of all reviewers’ minds kept stinging my mind: who am I to come between an author and the fruit of her labor? I had to give what has now become a trilogy another chance.
And so I did. Armed with my trusty VPN I bought Blackout, the final chapter of the Feed/Deadline trilogy (aka Newsflesh), shortly after its American release date. Off to to the final rising I went, and now I'm here, alive, to tell the tale.
Blackout has two tricks up its sleeve. We knew about the first from reading the exposé published at Deadline’s back: Georgia Mason, the newsie blogger hero shot dead at Feed’s end, has been cloned back from the dead. The second trick is the revelation that her brother Shaun Mason, who took over first person narration duties from Georgia for Deadline, has developed immunity to the virus that turns mid 21st century people into zombies. Separately, these two heroes exchange chapters between them as they strive to find their place in the world and find out what’s at the bottom of the worldwide zombie epidemic.
With the exception of the chapter by chapter exchange of first person narration between Shaun and Georgia, the mechanics of Deadline follows the path carved by its two predecessors. The hero tells us a detailed tale of much suspense and frequent action for a chapter, building up to a climax and putting us readers at a cliff’s edge upon the chapter’s ending. This is then followed by blog excerpts from the various protagonists that shed more light on events. Perhaps too much light; the trick feels a bit cheap, like the narration at Blade Runner’s theatrical cut. Then again, if you’re after Shakespeare, go and read the original; if you’re after good entertainment, Grant/McGuire knows how to lead a reader through.
One of my complaints in my now notorious Deadline review referred to the introduction of cloning as a cheap trick. Now I can take these words back and go find a hat to chew on, because I think Blackout deals with the cloning side of things exquisitely, answering all the questions I found myself asking about the process and then some. Reflecting back, raising people from the dead in a more “conventional” way to the tried and tested zombie technique is not out of place at all for Blackout’s world; it is a repeat of a motif, and a wise repeat if hindsight allows me to say so.
One complaint may be removed from the list but another one firmly stays. In my humble opinion, Blackout is way too long for its own good. I understand I am behind the curve when it comes to science fiction literature trends, but there are some good reasons for why I never took to the writings of George R. R. Martin. Look at this blog's history: in six years of book reviewing, I only managed to read a tad more than a hundred books. There is simply no way I would be able to read all the books I want to read during this lifetime (I’m assuming no unexpected risings of the dead). Given it is clear to me there are many more books I should be reading than books I would be able to read, I am now actively applying length filters to prefer the shorter ones. There’s plenty of good stuff around when you look for it even in these times where publishers contract authors to deliver 100,000 words per book: looking at other recent science fiction book purchases of recently published books, the core story of John Scalzi’s Redshirts and the whole of Daniel Wilson’s Amped are about half as long as Blackout. Given their authors' past achievements, I do not think these two will suck due to their shortness of length.
Even without my potentially silly discrimination against lengthy reads, I found it more than a bit taxing to read and reread of our hero’s blood testing adventures at every point in time they needed to enter a place with some security pretensions. On the other hand, and while still chewing on that hat of mine, I can see the point to the repetition.
Looking back at the whole Feed/Deadline/Blackout saga, it seems obvious to me to zombie scare in Grant’s book is an analogy to our current security/terrorism scare. The constant blood testing is the equivalent of us taking our shoes off on our way to board a plane; the zombie security theater is just the same as our very real airport security theater, porn scanners and all. Blackout’s CDC is our real life's Homeland Security. George and Shaun represent the people whose minds are open enough to ask the questions that need to be asked – starting with the “why”. They are the activist heroes that fight our fight for an open minded society that continuously probes itself and refuses to find itself paralyzed by fear, a society that is now going extinct not only in the USA but in Australia and the UK as well. Just look at how the nonsense propaganda coming from the Coalition’s side here in Australia is making people regard the carbon tax as the most evil thing on earth while also letting mining billionaires go uninterrupted as they dig the earth for the benefit of their back-pockets. Repetition, and length, are minor prices to pay for a point well delivered.
My review is getting overlong, so let’s get to the point. A book that seals a lengthy trilogy, a book like Blackout, will ultimately be judged for its ending. Does it deliver? Yes, Blackout rises up to the occasion! (Pun very much intended!)
Obviously, I will not expand the point in order to avoid bloopers. What I will say is that the end is satisfying and as conclusive as it possible can be. There are a few open questions remaining here and there, such as the role cigarette companies mentioned in Feed and neglected since play in the whole affair. Overall, though, I have no complaints (alright, perhaps the slight exception is the too convenient closure of the trilogy’s romantic aspects). Again, my judgment here is blinded by the fact I liked the overall message and its relevancy; besides, mental or not, I liked the gang of heroes. The whole package had me conclude my reading with a good taste in my mouth, a taste made even better by the fact I think I can attest to know a real life Georgia Mason like character. She’s not a clone, she’s Asher Wolf, and her real life entanglements with American authorities over matters of freedom of speech prove there is potent relevancy behind Blackout and its predecessors.
Overall - Blackout:
After balancing the overlong nature of the book with its high octane thrills and worthy message, I will give Blackout 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Overall – Newsflesh trilogy:
I will now go on to address what I thought of the Newsflesh trilogy as a whole. I would argue the world would have been a better place with Feed on its own. More contentiously, I have argued and I still do that Deadline is too compromised a book by virtue of its endless nature. True, that argument will render many other fine books obsolete; Lord of the Rings comes to mind. However, Newsflesh is not Lord of the Rings, nor was it written in the same world as Lord of the Rings. The latter was a ground breaker, the former is one of many lengthy trilogies. To me the all-conquering argument is that were I to be hit by lightning and die during the course of the year that passed between Deadline and Blackout, I would have never known how Newsflesh ends (unless, of course, I was to rise again as a zombie). I’m happy to forgive Tolkien for his sins because by the time I got to read his books they were all available and I could read them as if they were one extra lengthy book, no waiting required. Now that Blackout is out, you can have your own Lord of the Rings like experience of consecutive reading if you will.
On the other hand there is that other Blackout book, the one by Connie Willis, the one that won the Hugo last year. For similar reasons I gave it a similarly damning review to the one I gave Deadline; yet there is a huge gulf between the two. When I started reading Willis’ sequel, All Clear, I simply could not avoid thinking “not that same old sh*t again”, and loaded another book to my Kindle within minutes. It was just loads more of the same tediousness. Grant’s, however, is a different story: An entertaining story.
In other words, everything’s relative.
With that in mind, I will score the Newsflesh trilogy in its entirety 3.5 out of 5 stars, too. Aside of me having a soft spot for the truth, a value at the trilogy’s core, Newsflesh represents a worthy read. I suspect the younger amongst us, towards whom the books are obviously aimed, would love and benefit from them the most. I had and I still have my misgivings about the series, but I humbly take my hat off before Grant/McGuire. She deserves it for serving the good cause just as much as she deserves it for writing some fine books.


Uri said...

I still don’t understand all the conspiracies. With each book’s final confrontation, the villain revealed motives that didn’t make sense to me, and behaved in a way that I found pretty strange.

I get why the evils powers would want to sacrifice governor Tate, but why would he go along with it?

And don’t get me started on Wynne. If he’s that evil, why was he nice in Feed? He had a chance to wrap everything up without any problem and he went out of his way to save Georgia, Rick and Shaun. The whole thing with Kelly seemed over complicated, and if you’re a scientist who spend your time in a lab, would you really face off armed people who know how to use their weapons, and know that you plan to kill all of them (since you’ve just told them that).

And that nameless doctor in Blackout. I don’t think things were really that bad, and I don’t see how what our heroes did changed much of anything.

In short, just like I was far less disgusted with Deadline, I was not quite as excited about Feed and Blackout (and Newsflesh as a whole). I also read the Countdown novella (it’s nominated for a Hugo this year, so I spent another $2.99 to get it), and my reaction was similar.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I won't argue with you because I think you're right on all accounts. As you hint at the end, I think your points indicate at the differences between the way we read books more than they do about the books themselves.
Because my memory is not as good as yours, I tend to regard each book separately; I don't remember much of the details of what happened before. I'm therefore more pissed off when a book can't stand by its own rights, but I'm less pissed off at mismatching details.
The case of Wynne, I have to say, managed to annoy me despite all of the above. It does not make sense.