Feed by Mira Grant
Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
21 February 2011
Switch on a news channel or pick up a newspaper and you will be struck by two overwhelming facts: The first is that the people who produce the news take themselves incredibly seriously. The second is that they are absolutely terrible at their jobs.
According to Nick Davies's Flat Earth News (2006), only 12 percent of the stories to appear in British newspapers were actually investigated and written by journalists in those papers. This means that 88 percent of what passes for journalism is cut and pasted from press releases and centralised "news agencies" such as the Press Association. What is more, Davies claims that of the millions of facts and claims to appear in newspapers, only 12 percent are ever checked. TV news fares little better as it combines the institutional problems facing newspapers with a populist dumbing down of the news due to the change in medium. Consider, for example, Charlie Brooker’s incisive critiques of the tics and tropes of rolling news or the great documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis on the change in journalistic culture and the rise of "Oh Dearism" in news reporting. As the journalist and novelist John Lanchester put it in his London Review of Books piece on Flat Earth News:
Back in the day, an ambitious young toad going into journalism would have seen All the President’s Men once too often, and would dream of bringing down governments with a single scoop. Good luck to them. Davies was like that. Today the equivalent ambitious young toad would dream of having a column with their picture at the top, as a precursor to a well-timed move to TV or politics or some other form of showbiz.
The decision by the fourth estate to abdicate its social responsibilities in favor of lazily blurring the lines between news, opinion, entertainment, and advertising is already having a profound effect upon our political culture. However, despite the fact that the moral and intellectual collapse of traditional journalism is affecting our society and politics in a number of fascinating ways, relatively few works of speculative fiction have sought to engage with the changing face of the media. Mira Grant’s Feed addresses this shortfall.
Feed is set a quarter of a century after the coming of the zombie apocalypse. A generation later, America is still overrun with zombies but life moves on. At least, it has moved on far enough that there is a functioning blogosphere and enough politicians and celebrities for it to fuss over. Georgia and Shaun Mason are a pair of bloggers who get the chance to "embed" themselves in a presidential campaign. Breaking stories and winning friends as they go, the pair confront many dangers and face terrible tragedies as they stumble across a conspiracy to take control of the country using zombies as weapons. Bounding along with all the dumb energy of a gigantic puppy, Feed presents itself as a futuristic political thriller, but it is best understood as a vicious satire of contemporary journalism. A satire that takes careful aim at our culture's infected brainstem and squeezes the trigger without a moment's hesitation or any trace of mercy.
The novel's terms of engagement are set early on when Georgia discusses her relationship with her parents. Georgia and Shaun are both orphans who were adopted at the same time by a pair of bloggers who lost their biological child during the early stage of the infection. While this makes for an interesting relationship between Georgia and Shaun (more on which later), what is really intriguing is the suggestion that their parents only adopted them in order to provide a source of cheap, populist content for their blog. In one excruciating set piece, George and Shaun are wheeled out in front of the media for a celebratory dinner that serves no purpose other than to drive clicks to their parents' site.
That’s our Mom, selling the death of her only biological child for a few points in the ratings game. (p. 70)
Against this baseline of moral corruption, parental exploitation, and the craven pursuit of viewing figures, Georgia and Shaun define themselves in terms of the role they play in the blogosphere. Georgia presents herself as an austere presence forever detached from the world by her dark glasses and her hard-bitten cynicism. Relentlessly humorless and self-righteous, Georgia sets herself on a moral perch from which she looks down upon the world, sneering "My journalistic integrity is unquestioned by our peers" (p. 62).
Written in a first-person narrative, Feed gives Georgia plenty of opportunities to describe herself as a peerless and morally flawless pursuant of the truth. The very model of a modern online journalist. However, when the time comes for Georgia to start filing copy and commenting on the presidential campaign we find that she is not so much a fearless newshound as a lightweight hack hawking her hopelessly partisan editorials to anyone willing to visit her site and pay the bills that keep her and her team in crossbows, surveillance equipment, and armored vehicles. Consider the "objectivity" of the piece that Georgia files after having lunch with the candidate precisely once:
Ladies and gentlemen, unless this man has some truly awe-inspiring skeletons in his closet, it is my present and considered belief that he would make an excellent President of the United States of America, and might actually begin to repair the social, economic, and political damage that has been done by the events of these past thirty years. Of course, that can only mean that he won't win. But a girl can dream. (p. 118)
If we approach Feed as a straight political thriller then the hypocrisy of the book's principle protagonist would make it impossible to take the book seriously. However, if we take the disconnect between Georgia's principles and her actions as satirical in nature then Georgia's shortcomings as a journalist can be seen as means for the book to engage with two very real challenges to the way that news is currently reported.
The first challenge, beautifully demonstrated by David Simon's Generation Kill (2008)—a TV series based upon the real life memoirs of Evan Wright, who was embedded with the US Marines during the invasion of Iraq—is that embedded reporters tend not to be objective reporters. The problem is that by embedding a reporter with a group of people you are not only limiting their perspective on what it is they are supposed to be reporting on, you are also running the risk that reporters will come to empathize with their subjects to the point where they are no longer capable of criticizing them.
Georgia and Shaun are embedded in a presidential motorcade traveling across a country that is full of rampaging zombies. In addition to this, they also find themselves in the crossfire of a series of attempts to assassinate the candidate. As reporters and victims of the attacks, the Masons wind up investigating the plot to kill the candidate. An investigation that earns them the senator's absolute trust.
The senator was the first to acknowledge my arrival. He straightened, relief radiating through his expression, and moved towards me, catching me in a tight hug before I had a chance to register what he was planning to do. (p. 398)
With this sort of relationship between the media and politicians, honest critical engagement is simply not possible. Georgia is not an objective reporter, she is a part of the candidate's public relations team, just as contemporary embedded reporters have found themselves empathizing with their military protectors to the point where they become desperate to paint them as morally upstanding heroes.
The second challenge facing contemporary journalism is the blurring of the line between news and entertainment. As Davies suggests in Flat Earth News, economic pressures on newspapers and TV alike have created a journalistic culture that prizes celebrity columnists and commentators above investigative journalists. As Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky's classic film Network (1976) predicted, it is far more entertaining to watch a news anchor rant and rave than it is to watch them soberly present carefully researched facts about the world. The careers of Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Keith Olbermann certainly lend credence to this view. For all her self-righteous talk of objectivity and truth, Georgia and Shaun are much closer to being popular entertainers than they are to being investigative reporters. Indeed, when the Masons discover the existence of a conspiracy, it is intriguing to note that Georgia farms out the actual investigation to a pair of techies who trawl through archive footage and financial records in order to expose a plot to take over the country. While these faceless subcontractors pursue the news, Shaun posts videos of himself killing zombies and Georgia pens fatuous but sincere editorials
This is the truth: We are a nation accustomed to being afraid. If I'm being honest, not just with you but with myself, it’s not just the nation, and it’s not just something we've grown used to. It's the world, and it’s an addiction. People crave fear. Fear justifies everything. Fear makes it okay to have surrendered freedom after freedom, until our every move is tracked and recorded in a dozen databases the average man will never have access to. Fear creates, defines, and shapes our world, and without it, most of us would have no idea what to do with ourselves. (p. 428)
Georgia goes on and on about her devotion to the truth, but when it comes down to it, her devotion is not to "The Truth" as a description of the world as it really is, but to "the truth" as a sincerely expressed opinion about the world. For Georgia, the truth is not about unearthing hidden facts; it is about authenticity, self-expression, and keeping those page-views coming.
By combining a complete failure to remain objective with a tendency to confuse factual truth with mere opinion, Georgia Mason embodies the very worst elements of contemporary journalism. Indeed, it is telling that despite Feed being a political thriller, Grant never really gives us any indication as to where the fault-lines in post-apocalyptic society might lie. Given that everyone in the world is now infected with the zombie disease and so automatically reanimates upon death, issues such as gun control and the death penalty are no longer as divisive as they are today. Georgia deals with most of her candidate's views on "the issues" in a single paragraph but, somewhat tellingly, these issues are not raised by Georgia but by the audience at public Q&A session. It simply does not occur to Georgia to press her candidate on the issues or even to base her opinion of him on his actual politics. Instead, the campaign comes to revolve around the question of whether or not people should be allowed to keep pets large enough to pose a threat upon reanimation. This means that, in effect, the election comes to be decided by an issue of pet ownership. (One is reminded of the sound and fury generated by the issue of pork barrel spending during the 2008 presidential campaign, an issue that allowed the candidates to point angry fingers at each other only for it to completely disappear from the political radar once the election was decided.) By allowing the issue of pet ownership to shape the campaign, Georgia is not only failing to press the candidates on the issues that matter to the people, she is also revealing herself to be both a "beltway insider" (or inhabitant of the "Westminster Bubble" if you live in the UK) and someone with an extremely limited grasp of the issues affecting her country. Accusations that could just as easily be leveled at most of the contemporary media.
Despite containing a lot of expositional prose, Feed's world feels oddly empty. We learn a lot about the virus (Grant boasts of her interest in epidemiology in an interview included in the back of the book) and we learn a lot about the complex ecology of the blogosphere, but in addition to learning practically nothing about the issues affecting the American body politic, we are shown hardly anything of American society or the rest of the world. While this extremely narrow perspective reflects the limits of Georgia's interests as a political blogger, it also serves an interesting metaphorical purpose. As Georgia herself points out in one of her more insightful op-eds, the zombies are just one of a succession of terrors to grip American society. Just like terrorism now and communism before it, the zombie apocalypse is almost a placeholder for the ills of the world as far as the political classes are concerned. The zombies are not only easy to blame, they are easy to fight, and politicians will always choose the drama of airstrikes over the complex and boring process of drafting legislation and negotiating bills that make up the reality of political action. The need for politicians to wage grand, ill-defined crusades against largely imaginary foes in order to preserve the illusion that they are doing something is represented by the vagueness of the evil conspiracy that Shaun and Georgia investigate. Far from the imperial vistas attributed to the Neoconservatives by films such as Oliver Stone’s W. (2008) and books like Andrew J. Bacevich’s American Empire (2002), Feed's primary bad guy reveals a plot that can be summarised as "Dead Zombies = Win". In this novel’s bleak future, even evil politicians seem to lack the "vision thing."
While Georgia Mason is both the primary protagonist and the main focal point for much of the novel’s satirical power, Feed's secondary characters also have an important part to play. Indeed, by filling different roles and bringing in more views than Georgia, her brother Shaun and Buffy, their resident techie and creative writer allow the novel to target some different aspects of our contemporary culture.
Shaun is an Irwin, named for Steve Irwin, the Australian broadcaster with a fondness for prodding dangerous animals until they stabbed him in the chest; Irwins are a combination of action hero, wacky weather guy, and colorful sports presenter. Alpha jocks with a suicidal streak, they make their money by going out into the wilds of the American wilderness in order to be filmed killing zombies in as sensational a style as possible. The fact that Shaun is more popular than Georgia reflects a culture in which the desire to be entertained and amused trumps the desire to be informed or cultured. The fact that Shaun is but one of hundreds of bloggers earning their money from killing zombies is a beautifully waspish comment on our culture's increasingly tiresome obsession with the zombie film. How many times can you watch a zombie being shot in the face and still be entertained? Many many thousands according to Feed's depressing vision of the future.
As well as running the website and keeping all the team's technology in working order, Buffy is a creative. She writes mediocre and derivative poetry—"These shades who walk the cloistered dark / With empty eyes and clasping hands / And wander, isolate, alone, the space between / Forgiveness and the penitent’s grave" (p. 548)—to great public acclaim. Initially, this piece of speculation comes across as bizarre and unbelievable. After all, nobody has yet managed to achieve online superstardom on the basis of their angsty poetry. In fact, poetry is now such a niche interest that, much like literary critics before them, most poets have now surrendered their place in the public sphere in favor of the more financially secure and intellectually supportive environment of academia. Indeed, the majority of professional poets are now employed by universities and published by university presses in books that are read almost exclusively by other professional poets. But to accept Buffy's popularity at face value is to read Feed in far too straight a manner. The fact that the book's future is one in which Buffy and hundreds like her are popular enough to support themselves by writing poetry reflects our growing sense of entitlement not only to self-expression but also to an appreciative audience. It is sometimes said that the primary market for short fiction is other writers of short fiction, whether this is also true of Feed's creative is never made clear but it seems entirely believable that if short story writers can keep short story venues afloat then an entire culture made up of angsty online poets might well turn the likes of Buffy into superstars.
One of the more unsettling aspects of the novel is the relationship between Georgia and Shaun. Adopted at the same time and raised as brother and sister despite having no DNA in common, Georgia and Shaun are incredibly close. At home they sleep in adjoining rooms with the door open and they frequently vocalize their love, admiration, support, and absolute trust in one another. Given their toxic home environment, such closeness between siblings is perhaps to be expected, but Shaun and Georgia are so close that they never date. In fact, they are so close that, when they are on the road, they share a bed by choice.
Steve’s eyebrows arched upwards. “You two would rather share a room?”
His expression was a familiar one. We’ve been seeing it from teachers, friends, colleagues, and hotel concierges since we hit puberty. It’s the “you’d rather share a room with your opposite-gender sibling than sleep alone?” face, and it never fails to irritate me. Social norms can bite me. (p. 420)
What is disconcerting about Georgia and Shaun's relationship is not so much its intimacy as the furious intensity of that intimacy. If Georgia is not going on about how objective she is then she is talking about how much she loves her brother and there are times when this talk becomes decidedly sexualised:
There’s something wonderful about the way he lets go, becoming all energy and excitement as he outlines what’s coming next. Maybe it's geeky for a girl my age to admit she still loves her brother. I don’t care. I love him (p. 285)
I would not call Georgia and Shaun's relationship geeky. I would call it creepy and quasi-incestuous. This seems like an odd direction in which to take the characters. Had the pair simply been old friends then the sexual frisson might have allowed their relationship to blossom from a will-they-won’t-they tease to a properly affecting love story. Alternately, had they been an actual brother and sister then the issue of physical intimacy might either have been defused or been brought into the open as part of a discussion of incest and changing social attitudes in the wake of the zombie apocalypse. However, because Grant chooses to steer a path between these two possibilities, the result is a relationship that can be quite uncomfortable to read about. If, on the other hand, we read the relationship as more metaphorical than literal then its creepiness serves a clear allegorical and satirical purpose.
The urge to inform and the urge to entertain come from very different places; the first is about promoting engagement with the world while the second is about allowing people to escape from its harsher elements. While these two forms of culture may not share DNA, they have been raised side by side on the understanding that while they should definitely work together, they should not actually touch. However, as old business models unravel and news institutions work harder and harder to capture the attention of smaller and smaller audiences, these cultural strands have been forced together. News and entertainment are now sharing a bed. Our unease at the open intimacy between these two cultural forms is reflected in our unease at the unsettling closeness of Georgia and Shaun's relationship. When we see the evening news reporting on TV shows or celebrity gossip we feel unease. When we learn that reporters have played fast and loose with the facts in order to tell a better story we feel betrayed. Our eyebrows arch upwards. Our social norms grind their teeth in disapproval.
For a 570-page book, Feed is a surprisingly brief read. Grant's action sequences are rendered with style, precision, and excitement while the dialogue zings back and forth with a playfully macho swagger fiercely reminiscent of those corridor walk-and-talks so beloved of The West Wing-era Aaron Sorkin. The book is, by and large, well-structured with detailed world-building exposition alternating with moments of tension and joy when the characters fight zombies and then check their stats only to discover that they have pwned the internet (porn and illegal downloads aside naturally). Indeed, the only times at which the book's pacing slips are towards the beginning (when Grant fails to rein in her interest in epidemiology resulting in a lot of superfluous worldbling) and towards the end (when Grant tries to hit her audience with a quick series of tragic events that do not so much build upon each other as cancel each other out). However, these issues of pacing aside, Feed is a delight. A cruise missile filled with venom and cynicism, Feed's satirical payload is only heightened by the delicious subtlety of its delivery vector. Read this book and despair.