Mira Grant (that is, Seanan McGuire) just announced the arrival of a new short story in her Newsflesh universe, so – in what is becoming something of a tradition for me – I thought about retracing my reading experience with her previous novels.
Zombies were not exactly my kind of narrative trope: not on the screen and certainly not in book form. So I’m still unsure about what made me pick up the first book of Mira Grant’s Newsflesh Trilogy: probably some glowing review that underlined how different it was from the usual fare – no matter the reason, after the first few pages I was hooked, and at the same time discovered a new author, one that’s quickly entered my “buy whatever comes out” list.
Mira Grant is the pen name of Urban Fantasy author Seanan McGuire – I plan on recapping soon her still ongoing, successful series about private investigator October Daye, but for now I’ll concentrate on the alter ego who created this stunning, ground-breaking trilogy: Feed, Deadline and Blackout.
The premise: twenty-odd years from now the world will be dramatically changed by a zombie epidemic whose origins come from the accidental interaction of two experimental viral cures for cancer and the common cold. Exposure to this mutated virus (Kellis-Amberlee, from the names of the two scientists working on the projects) does indeed cure the targeted ailments but also resuscitates the dead – in the Newsflesh world it’s called “amplification”. There are two short stories that expand on this premise, and I recommend them both to better understand the train of events: one is Countdown (the tale of the incident that started it all) and the other is San Diego 2014: the last stand of the California Browncoats (the start of the epidemic seen through the eyes of the famous convention’s participants).
The ground-breaking choices I mentioned come from the fact that the usual bloody scenarios of a zombie apocalypse are strictly kept as background information: yes, the un-dead move around searching for victims – not so much to consume their flesh but rather to spread the contagion, in a sort of viral prime directive – and there are whole sections of the world made uninhabitable by the concentration of zombies, but what Mira Grant focuses on is not the cheap thrill of blood-and-gore images but rather the way people and society have changed because of the epidemic.
Amplification has forced people to completely review their way of living: houses have become fortresses capable of withstanding massive attacks from the un-dead; pets above a certain body weight – say a small dog – are out of the question, because above that limit they are subject to amplification just as humans are, and the phenomenon extends, of course, to other common animals as cows or horses, whose mass makes them as deadly as infected people. And then there is the terrible choice that everyone must be prepared to face: when one of your loved ones, or friends, dies and then amplifies before your eyes, you have to decide between survival and the impulses of your heart. How would that change the unwritten laws of society? How would it affect ethics and morality?
Fear is therefore the main driving force of society: fear of the infected, of course, but also fear of excessive proximity or crowded areas – someone dying of a heart attack in a crowd could amplify and start a new outbreak; fear of contagion, that requires constant blood checks before entering any enclosed space, be it a coffee shop or one’s own home; fear of whatever and whoever can’t be controlled. An enlightening quote summarizes the situation all too well: “...we have embraced the cult of fear, and now we don’t seem to know how to put it back where it belongs.” Fear can also be a powerful means of control, because a scared and divided humanity is much more easily subdued – or lied to.
The antithesis of fear is truth, and its… paladins, for want of a better word, are bloggers: the first to recognize the threat of the virus and to spread the word when the government still hid behind carefully worded statements. Bloggers are, at the start of the story, a force to be reckoned with, and the new heroes of a world that keeps turning in upon itself with every passing day. Enter Georgia and Shaun Mason, highly successful bloggers who have been selected, together with their team, to follow the presidential campaign of candidate Ryman: this represents an enormous opportunity for visibility, but it will also lead them along very unexpected and terrifying paths.
This is all I dare reveal about the story, because its hair-raising twists and turns must be discovered on their own: suffice it to say there is not one moment when the tension lets go, and where drama is delivered without pulling any punches – no matter how painful they can be to the readers.
What really matters, and what I can safely share here, is that it’s a fascinating look at a profoundly changed society, and also a character-driven narrative that will keep you on your toes from start to finish.
Not the easiest of books, granted, nor something I would recommend before bedtime either – but still I urge you to read them, because Mira Grant’s storytelling and powerful characters are worth the extra effort needed to find the necessary strength to do it.
My Rating: 8,5/10