In all reviews there's a tendency to make something bigger than it is, to search for the hidden meaning. Looking at genre fiction, this is particularly pronounced. To pop psychoanalyse an entire reviewing culture, I'd guess it has something to do with a) our still deep-seated insecurities about the worthiness of our reading material and b) our fascination with being the "literature of the imagination".
Our books aren't merely about talking space squid, they're about talking space squid that represent...er... the stagnation of the modern socialist movement. Or the Socratic method. Whatever.
I'm certainly guilty of this on most occasions, well... every occasion. As well as being profoundly affected by both the motivations above, I'm incredibly competitive about racking up the word count. (If Anne can squeeze 3,000 words out of The Princess Bride, than I can at least crack 1,000 on Feed, dammit).
However, with Feed, I find an interesting case: a zombie thriller that, when closely examined, is revealed to be... a zombie thriller.
Feed (2010) by Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire) is set in 2040, over twenty years after the zombie apocalypse. 2014 was the year that humanity cured cancer and the common cold. Brilliant, except that the combination of the two vaccines created the "Kellis-Amberlee" virus. Anything larger than the common housecat now reanimates upon death. Bites lead to zombification, aim for the head, etc. etc. etc. You know the formula.
Fortunately, in the world of Feed, everyone else knows the formula as well. Humanity survived the 2014 cataclysm largely because of George Romero and the CDC. The cultural prevalence of the former meant that people weren't entirely ignorant of "what to do if the zombies come" and the quick thinking of the latter has kept everyone alive since then. Now, decades later, the world is still ticking along - if in a slightly more neurotic fashion. Blood tests are mandatory before entering or exiting buildings or vehicles, body armor is the new black, the zombification of cattle means that everyone is a vegetarian (this is horror!) and generally speaking, everyone's wound up pretty tightly.
Our guides through this world and Georgia and Shaun Mason. In the best tradition of epic fantasy, these two are orphans. At a young age, they were adopted by a pair of self-obsessed reality TV stars who were keen to prove their macho-ness in the brain-eating new era. Now, they've grown up to be self-obsessed reality stars in their own right: they're bloggers.
It seems that, as well as Mr. Romero and the CDC, the third reason that humanity survived the zombpocalypse was because of the blogosphere. When the plodding dinosaur of traditional journalism was awkwardly slow in picking up the flesh-eating cataclysm of 2014, the nimble bloggers were able to save the day (or so they claim). Now, in 2040, old journalism is still lumbering along, bloggers are making inroads, helped greatly by a hearty sense of entitlement. Some bloggers make news ("Irwins"... get it?), some record news ("Newsies"... get it?!) and some write fiction (er... "Fictionals." Ran out of nicknames, I guess.). Any good site has a combination of all three - someone to poke zombies, someone to snark about zombies and someone to write unicorn poetry. The internet? She is unchanged.
Georgia ("Newsie"), Shaun ("Irwin") and their friend Buffy ("Fictional") go from the blogging mid-list to the top of the heap when they're selected to follow Senator Ryman on the campaign trail. He's a moderate Republican seeking his party's nomination for the Presidency, and in order to reach out, he's selected this merry band of bloggers to dog his every move. For Senator Ryman, this makes good sense - more publicity to the young hepcat 2.0 audience. For Georgia et. al., this is great news - they'll have all sorts of shiny new content to snark/poeticize about before anyone else. And, despite her many passionate claims of blogger superiority, this is a rare instance of being able to play on the same field as the (real) news crews.
The campaign trail is an exciting place at the best of times. Conventions, conferences, speeches, deals, shenanigans and political chicanery are all fascinating stuff. In 2040, it is even wilder, as the city-to-city road trip involves moving in armored carriers through zombie-infested wastelands. And (this is where it gets fun), the Ryman campaign trail has some rather violent detractors. Someone out there doesn't want to see Ryman take the Presidency, and they're willing to go to all sorts of nastiness to keep it from happening. Sabotage, murder and the occasional zombie horde certainly keep things spicy.
The story is mostly told from Georgia's perspective. She's dry, bitter and completely obsessed with her own superiority, be it expressed through ratings or just 'acting out'. Her instincts are good - she knows how to find and follow a story - but she's incapable of removing herself from the equation. In short, despite her long rants about the ethics of journalism, she's still your normal, everyday, hits-obsessed blog owner. And bless her for it - if she weren't crabby, she'd have no personality at all.
Her partner in crime, Shaun, is the complete opposite. As an Irwin, he has to make news in order to be relevant. He's an exercise in counter-Darwinian stupidity, baiting zombies to bring in new site traffic. The two of them make a great team: Georgia's paranoia keeps Shaun alive, Shaun's charisma gives Georgia an emotional excuse to stay sharp. And don't forget Buffy, who adds tech support and unicorn poetry.
There's a lot about Feed that lends itself to overanalysis. For example, as the arc of the story is set around Senator Ryman's campaign, there are inevitable comparisons to contemporary politics. Is the two party system still working? Don't you see where social conservatism will lead? Also, zombies.
What the campaign really does is create a brilliant storytelling mechanism that allows Ms. Grant to move her characters around her neatly-developed world. It also provides a sense of timing and an exponential growth in tension. As the campaign progresses from announcment to convention, the stakes increase accordingly. Feed isn't about politics, politics are merely the book's vehicle.
Similarly, setting a book around blogging adds depth to the world, not meaning to the story. As non-traditional journalists, the protagonists have the freedom to go where they want - they can track down their story and the story. As they're not "proper" journalists, they're not bound to neutrality. As bloggers, they can find the story and be involved in it - the perfect protagonist. (It is an interesting parallel to the crime trope of using the journalist as a protagonist. In that genre, a journalist has the same access as a police officer, but isn't bound by the same narrative-stifling rules and procedures.) Georgia's slightly hypocritical stance on journalistic integrity is just that - her own narrative-progressing hypocrisy, not anything with greater symbolism.
Where Feed shines is in its depiction of a world ruled by fear - a future that's brought to life in the details. There's no crushing big bad like in The Hunger Games, the sense of wrongness is in the minutae: being afraid of pets, being sterilized before entering the front door, having a "living will" about which loved one will shoot you in the head when you're dying... Tiny fragments of life in the dystopian future. The scariest part, of course, is how this is taken for granted as an acceptable way to live.
However, Feed gets a little wobbly when it tries to give the readers a more tangible evil. It isn't the zombies - they're horrible, of course, but they're just another part of the all-permeating wrongness of Feed's future. Ms. Grant connects all the events and disasters of the campaign trail into a Big Bad, a national conspiracy to Do Something Wrong that's headed up by Evil. It isn't just obvious (although it is that), it is ill-fitting. Feed succeeds as a thriller by highlighting the subtle and everyday horrors of the post-cataclysmic future. Rolling a Big Bad into the picture is both unnecessary and clumsy. If the reader does Feed a disservice by forcing it into the mold of satire, the author treats the book no better by trying to fashion it into an epic.
Feed is a great zombie thriller - this already makes it a rarity, and it needs no additional layers of meaning to be a worthwhile read. Ms. Grant uses the setting of politics to create a background of tension and as a vehicle that keep the protagonists moving and motivated. She also uses blogging as a method of getting her protagonists not only involved in the action, but also actively pursuing it. Feed isn't secretly about politics or journalism, it is overtly about zombies. This is one case where we should celebrate a book at face value, without trying to stretch it into anything more.