Thursday, 12 December 2013

Mira Grant: Feed

People don't poop in fiction. They don't eat much either. Chances are, you're going to spend a couple of hours today - and every other day - attending to those basic needs. If you don't, you're going to spend time thinking about how you couldn't; one way and another, it's a big chunk of your waking life. But fiction rarely goes there, unless it's making a big deal out of how important it is; unless the whole theme of the book is food. The rest of the time, food, and pretty much every other ordinary thing we do, happens off in hammer-space so that it doesn't get in the way of the action. The action being whatever the hell the writer is interested in instead of all the ordinary things we do.

SF, and all the things like it, tend to take one big idea, wallop it into the foreground, group some characters around it to react to it, and generally ask "What if the world was like this?". Sometimes - often even - what they're really saying is "The world IS like this, but I'm having to exaggerate it to get your attention." 

Feed's one big idea is "zombies on the campaign trail." What, Mira Grant asks, might it be like in a world where zombies rose up, and never quite went away? What if civilisation didn't completely collapse, but somehow carried on, continually hemmed in by a feeling of threat? What would the USA be like?

Usually this is the point where SF ideas trip over their own shoelaces. It's one thing to have a compelling idea, a whole other thing to come up with a story to make us think about that idea. Having imagined your world, you need a magnifying glass to hold up against some facet of it. In SF, a common notion is to take something which we have right now and think we understand, and show us how that would be different if the world changed. That thing, in this book, is a US Presidential campaign race.

Because a US Presidential campaign race is such an exciting thing that almost as much as half the US electorate can be bothered voting at the end of it, Grant has to up the ante a bit and not only have the campaign trail dogged by zombies, but have the zombies merely the instrument of a plot. A plot to do what? Actually, having just finished the book, hell if I know. Something sinister to foment fear and loathing in the populace so that they'll vote for repression, I think. It's not quite made clear, what with there being sequels coming and such as.

It's taken me a long time to get to the end of Feed, which has been sitting reproachfully on the dresser for more than a year. Other things were always more interesting, and I was moved finally to finish it by the sight of all the unread books from the Nordorian exile arrayed across the bookcase at home, reminding me that I couldn't put them away properly or throw them out until I'd at least tried to finish them. So I knuckled down and trudged to the end of the wacky adventures of Georgia and Shaun Mason on the zombie campaign trail.

This, of all places, is not the place to snark about someone else's vision of a world where blogging is taken seriously enough to be a paying job. There's a book to be written about how digital production is going to turn almost everything into a hobby, but Feed is not that book. Grant's just trying to imagine a hip post modern environment which will give her cast a ringside seat to the action while still keeping them young and interesting enough to be relateable. Political hacks wouldn't have ticked those boxes as easily, though I have to say that I still think the gold standard on imagining a world of on-line political discourse is still Ender's Game, for all its other flaws.

And at least it's a not a hero's journey, at least not for the narrator; who knows whether the two sequels will turn one of the other characters into a hero? It's a bit of a mess, really, with incidents piling up without too much rationale stitching them together; here is the world, and look, here's some stuff happening in it.

And so to the world, and back to my opening. It's 2040, and the world's been living with the reality of zombies for a generation. They done rise up, they done wreck a lot, and they done got beat back, somewhat. Grant's put a lot of thought into disease spread and vectoring, and into the life-cycle of a zombie virus, all while trying to stay true to the classic presentation of zombies in George Romero movies. A key element of her virus is that it sits dormant, but potentially deadly, in any mammal that weighs more than 40 lb. So the entire human population, and all of its livestock, is a constant pool of potential infection. 

Grant talks a lot, then, about the steps taken to control movement and interaction between people, with people being constantly blood-tested to see if the virus in them has activated, and daily life reorganised so as to minimise the time spent dealing face to face with strangers. It's a somewhat convincing world, full of telling little details. At first my big reservation was that the world could change so much and US politics would somehow stay the same, still with two big parties. But after a while, I started thinking about lunch, and then I started thinking about the economy. 

Lunch was a puzzle. With livestock a ticking bomb, it was hard to imagine how anyone would tolerate its presence any more, and even harder to imagine how much you'd have to pay people to work with livestock at any point in the food chain. So there goes most meat and ALL dairy. Yet no-one in the book really talks about how food would have changed - well, maybe they do at the beginning, but it's been more than a year since I read the first 100 pages. It certainly doesn't come up after that. But stay with me; a recurring theme for Georgia, our narrator, is how exposed and threatened she feels any time she's in a large open space, where zombies could come at her from any direction. And that makes it tricky for me to figure out how you could farm grains or indeed any kind of horticulture. Even vegetarianism is starting to look tricky for the shuttered fortress towns of Grant's zombie USA.

Which got me to thinking about the economics of a zombie dominated security state. Pretty much every speaking part in the book belongs to either a blogger, a security guard/government employee, or a politician/political hack. And I started to wonder who was paying them. Well, that and I wondered how the economy had survived a catastrophic loss of population and the virtual annihilation of traditional trading patterns. 

Because you can't just change one thing and keep most of the rest. If you wipe out 20% of the population of the USA (and most of the first responders and medical staff, which is what every serious epidemiological model assumes), a lot of things are just going to fall apart with no very obvious replacement mechanism. And if everyone stays in their homes waiting for the worst to burn off, no-one's going to work. No-one. Not the guys running the power stations, not the guys shifting the oil from refineries to filling stations, not the guys at the docks running the cranes that move the goods that power the economy, and not the guys sitting at the computers in all the offices that make all the trades and keep track of who owes who what, not that the computers would be running anyhow without any electricity. 

You can come back from that, but you're not going to come back to our world with more guns and blood tests. The 1918 flu pandemic killed perhaps 3-5% of the world's population, just after WWI had killed a whole bunch of otherwise healthy young men. The world of the 1920s and 1930s was not a continuation of the world of 1910, but something qualitatively different. Something fascist.

It's nitpicking, in a way. The test of a book is not whether it makes macroeconomic sense, but whether it makes emotional sense; whether you care about the characters and want to see what happens next. Grant takes a huge chance at the end of the book, killing her narrator outright and not really giving anyone else enough time to shape up and carry the ball after she's gone. I'm not that invested in the characters, mostly because I'm far older than the obvious target audience (people Grant's own age; I did this quiz yesterday and was apparently born in 1928). So to read on, I need to be curious about the world. Do I think it's likely that the other books are going to deal with my nitpicking, or at least chuck out some new ideas which will impress me more than my own niggles? I dunno. There's a lot of books on that bookcase.

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