Zombies as Real Science Fiction: A Review of Feed and Deadline by Mira Grant

Last year I read a novel by Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire) called Feed. I picked it up because of the cover: the symbol for an RSS feed, drawn in blood, and a blurb of some sort indicating that it was about zombies. I was on a bit of a zombie kick at the time (because let’s face it, zombies are cool), and I figured what the hell. Ten bucks, right?

It was awesome.

Feed takes place in a world in which the zombies rose, but life went on. In this world, zombies come back to life because of a pair of artificial viruses–a cancer cure, and a cure for the common cold–which were released too early, and interacted very badly. Every person in the world, or mammal over forty pounds, has these viruses. And when they die, whether by accident or natural causes or whatever, they wake up again and start trying to infect anyone nearby. Which means it’s not only the zombies you need to watch out for: it’s that old dude in line at the supermarket who looks like he might have a heart attack. ‘Cause if he does, next thing he’s going to do is try to eat you.

The fun of Feed is that rather than try to be a horror movie, it does political intrigue. It starts a good 20 years after the initial outbreak, in a world that has learned to live with the ever-present zombie threat. The main characters are a pair of bloggers, a brother and sister named Shaun and Georgia, who are covering the a US presidential campaign. Grant does a masterful job of leading the voters, and the readers, through the changes in this new America. Some issues which were long contested, like the death penalty, seem almost silly: if you put someone to death and he gets up to start eating people, the point is somewhat lost. Some are still just as real: abortion, civil rights, and the proper scope of government don’t get settled by the Living Dead. And many new issues crop up, mostly related to the best way to structure a society in which every dead person becomes a zombie. But while the zombies are a big part of the story, they aren’t the story themselves, which was very refreshing.

The characters are also fun and well-written. Shaun and Georgia snark as only siblings do, while still making it clear that each of them cares about the other more than anything in the world. The candidates for President are all believable, though the author and our heroes are obviously believable. And every other character is written such that you can believe they are a person… and you can see the unique personal scars that living in a zombie world has given them.

Feed works as a pretty good political thriller, and I thought that was that. But then the sequel came out, Deadline, and it just blew me away.

While the first novel wrapped up the political plot, there are enough loose ends to pull on for you to see there’s more going on. If Feed was “political science fiction”, Deadline is epidemiology fiction. Zombieism spreads like a virus, because that’s what it is–and viruses mutate, and change, and act in funny ways when conditions change. Our heroes start right in the thick of things, as we discover that the corruption glimpsed before has spread all the way into the CDC–an organization which is treated as above reproach in the first novel. And then things get crazy. I can’t say much more for fear of spoilers, but the end of the novel made my brain hurt in a good way. And I’m so frustrated that I’ll probably have to wait for a year to read Blackout, the third novel of the “Newsflesh” trilogy.

These novels have fun and believable characters; fast, interesting plots; and a refreshing take on an old horror standby. I love that zombies are brought firmly into the realm of science fiction here. Too often they’re just a convenient way to make you jump, or simply not thought out thoroughly. But you can tell that Grant has done her research, and has thought through almost every detail of how this world should work, while still not letting it get in the way of a good story. And besides, epidemiology doesn’t get enough literary love.

Feed is nominated for the Hugos this year, and while I haven’t finished reading the other Best Novel nominees, I have to see they’ve got their work cut out for them. Read these books: they’re awesome.

Mira Grant’s real name is Seanan McGuire, but she writes under both names in different genres. (And Mira Grant is a better horror name, don’t you think?) Her twitter is also always amusing, and has bits with cats in it.

Questions, comments, interesting anecdotes? Tweet to me at @ajdecon, or send me an email at ajdecon@ajdecon.org.