Orbit, 2010, 571 pages
From the back cover:
"Alive or dead, the truth won't rest. My name is Georgia Mason, and I am begging you. Rise up while you can."
The year was 2014. We had cured cancer. We had beaten the common cold. But in doing so we had created something new, something terrible that no one could stop. The infection spread, virus blocks taking over buddies and minds with one, unstoppable command: FEED. Now, twenty years after the Rising, Georgia and Shaun Mason are on the trail of the biggest story of their lives — the dark conspiracy behind the infected. The truth will out, even if it kills them.
Zombies being among the hot new trends, Feed was kind of on my radar as a book I might get to someday, but I wasn't that interested in it. But I was tempted by Orbit's $1.99 ebook offer after Feed was nominated for a Hugo, and I'm very glad I read it, as it's one of the few first books in a series I've read lately where I really want to dive into the next book (although my reading habits are such that I probably won't right away).
Like the horror movies that inspired it, Feed is a great popcorn thriller. It's pure entertainment, but with much better worldbuilding and characters than in your usual zombie flick, and the story is much more than a zombie survival tale. The prose is mostly unembellished, being written in the first-person voice of Georgia Mason, a cynical twenty-something news blogger, but there were no off-notes or badly-written sequences.
The premise of Feed is that a man-made virus caused a zombie apocalypse over twenty years ago. One of the most interesting parts of the book is how it works through the details of how the virus works, and its consequences. Zombies are, for the most part, what you expect zombies to be: shambling flesh-eating meat-puppets. But they're living viruses, not living dead, and so they act like a virus -- they don't just want to feed, they want to spread.
Thanks to airborne dispersal, every human being in the world is infected with Kellis-Amberlee virus. Usually, it lies dormant, but transformation into a zombie (or "full amplification") can occur either as a result of being bitten by a zombie or under extreme physical stress -- such as a heart attack or a car accident. That means any disaster scene or medical emergency can become the site of a zombie outbreak.
To make matters worse, humans aren't the only ones who can become infected: any mammal over 40 pounds is a potential zombie. These and other "realistic" little details (like the demise of CSI-style detective work, since preventing new zombie outbreaks means sterilizing and incinerating any bodies ASAP takes precedence over figuring out exactly how they died) make Kellis-Amberlee zombies quite nasty and horrific without the cinematic enhancement of blood and guts on a movie screen.
In this world, the survivors live in armed enclaves. Large parts of North America (and, it's implied, other continents) are labeled no-go zones; Alaska has been completely abandoned to the "infected." Paranoid security measures are a part of everyday life, as people moving from point to point must pass through airlocks and security checkpoints with blood-testing stations to ensure they aren't undergoing viral amplification before they're admitted into any new area. Vehicles are armored, and only in the most safe and secure (heavily fortified) neighborhoods do people go unarmed. (I was reminded of the post-apocalyptic, heavily-armed setting of Steve Jackson Games' Car Wars.)
Besides all the fairly logical worldbuilding, Mira Grant (a pen name for author Seanan McGuire) did a good job of capturing just what it means to live in a world where at any time, you may have to shoot a friend or family member in the head -- sometimes while they are still alive and aware. (Once you're infected, there is no cure and viral amplification is inevitable, but the transformation is not instant.) In short, this is a world where most of the human population is fucked up with PTSD.
Shaun and George ("Georgia") Mason are two bloggers in the new media era. They mostly go around poking zombies with sticks and filming it until they hit the big time: Wisconsin Senator Peter Ryman selects them to join his media entourage as he seeks first the Republican nomination and then the White House in the 2040 U.S. Presidential campaign. Once they join his team (technically they are outside observers, but increasingly they become affiliated with his campaign, even if not officially), they become the targets of a conspiracy that appears aimed at stopping the Senator. Naturally, the conspiracy's weapon of choice is... zombies. Many scenes of gunfire, bloodshed, and zombie-chomping action ensue.
Ironically, the blogging angle, though it was the device used to enable the entire plot, was the weakest part of the worldbuilding. The premise is that as zombie outbreaks spread across the globe, the regular news media insisted nothing was happening, and it was only bloggers who spread the truth quickly enough for people to take necessary survival measures. Yet the media world (and media technology) of 2040 is not terribly different from the media of 2010. Despite the public's supposed disillusionment with "traditional" media, there is still a divide between "reputable" mainstream news agencies and news bloggers. The Internet seems to be pretty much the same creature it is today, just a little faster. Also, the security geek in me kept going "No, no, no, that's not how it works!" when the hackers were doing their hackery stuff. In 2040, I'm sure Mira Grant's vision of the future will be at least as dated as 1980s cyberpunk is today. (And seriously, does anyone think print newspapers will still survive for another 30 years?)
Other than a few quibbles like this, though, (and the optimistic notion that by 2040 the Republican party might let sane, tolerant, moderates run for national office again), I thought the setting was pretty solid.
Feed is also full of clever touches and winks to its antecedents. George Romero becomes a national hero because his Living Dead movies, by sheer coincidence, proved to be mostly accurate when it came to zombies, so everyone who was willing to become Genre Savvy in a hurry had a better chance of surviving, and "George" and "Georgia" are now among the most popular names for boys and girls. And George and Shaun's third partner is a pretty blonde who calls herself "Buffy." Calling daredevil newsies who go poking zombies with sticks "Irwins" was also a wry touch, but I think my favorite was the zombie giraffe.
Now, after writing all of the above about the setting of the zombie apocalypse, I have a few things to say about the story, which turns out to be mostly not about zombies at all. It's partially about news sources and trustworthiness and the lengths people will go to for fame or to get at the truth (or to hide it), but mostly it's about freedom, security, and how much of one you're willing to trade for the other.
Grant, through her characters, gives these issues pretty good play without being too heavy-handed, for the most part. It's important to remember that zombies themselves have always been metaphors. When Romero "invented" the genre in the 60s, zombies represented the threat of communism, and were satirizing the fear of same: eager, faceless, assimilating hordes of Reds were going to come swarming into your neighborhoods, devouring everything and turning their victims into mindless creatures like them. In Feed, zombies are an obvious metaphor for terrorists -- they're inhuman monsters looking for any opportunity to infect your neighborhood and turn or eat your children, they're always lurking nearby even if you can't see them, and if you let your guard down for a second they're gonna get you! Thus everyone must stay vigilant, trust no one, and be prepared to shoot anyone who's acting a little suspicious.
I think Grant's story raises these issues very effectively -- on the one hand, there really are zombies out there who want to eat you, and if you aren't careful, they will get you. On the other hand, it's clear that this constant vigilance and paranoia has taken a toll on those who have to live this way. It's a struggle to retain your humanity in a world where you may have to shoot someone you know, and the only safety seems to lie in living in bunkered enclaves and limiting your exposure to the outside world -- and other people. The only people who still see the world for what it is are also the ones who are willing to go out and risk its dangers.
But first and foremost, Feed is just a damned entertaining story. There were a few chapters that started to get a little boring, but almost inevitably, that meant zombies were lurking just around the corner. This is what an entertaining, intelligent, but not-too-pretentious horror/dystopian novel should be. Warning for those who like happy endings, though: this is a zombie story. Have you ever seen a zombie story where all the good guys survive?
Verdict: A great combination of political thriller and zombie apocalypse and a real page-turner. Dare I call it the most intellectual zombie thriller I've ever read? That may not be a high bar, but Feed is pretty darn good if you want a slightly brainy story with a spattering of brains. (Har har, I slay me -- hey, I laid off the zombie puns for most of the review!)