“Newsflesh” is a trilogy about a pair of bloggers and a zombie apocalypse. The zombie apocalypse happened 20+ years ago, and the human race has more or less survived. By “more or less” I mean that the Indian subcontinent is a dead zone populated by zombified cows, but other than that (and Alaska), and having to take a blood test every time you step outside, everything is hunky dory.
So zombie apocalypses are the flavor du jour. It’s hard not to draw comparisons between this series and the other one I finished recently, the one that might be more properly called a vampire apocalypse although let’s not split hairs about why the undead are trying to sink their teeth into us ok. The one I’m referring to is Justin Cronin’s The Passage (2010) and The Twelve (2012), with The City of Mirrors due in 2014. Cronin’s work is … much less pretentious than what you would expect from the graduate of America’s most prestigous MFA program. It takes some effort, yes—I don’t think I was hooked until page 150 or so—but I would not rank his books as any less entertaining than Grant’s. They even start from the same premise: Scientists try to cure cancer, accidentally unleash freak virus on humanity, cue end of the world as we know it. Which just goes to show that the supposed dichotomy between boring, esoteric high art and vapid mass culture is bullshit. I can see that Cronin’s prose has a timeless quality to it that Grant’s lacks; hers is immediate and colloquial—it has to be, it’s a first-person narrative. So it’s true that Grant’s language is easier for me, even as I’m aware that Cronin’s language will be far more accessible to my grandkids. He’s also got a much, much bleaker vision of the post-apocalypse world; in his version I think like 95% of the population dies or is infected.
Mira Grant’s post-apocalypse world, meanwhile, functions well enough that presidential elections are still a thing. Our protagonists, Georgia and Shuan Mason, are tasked with covering the campaign of an idealistic Wyoming senator. This is their big break as much as it is the candidate’s. Up till now Masons have been blogging under the umbrella of news aggregation entities (sort of like Al Jazeera or BuzzFeed I guess?), but now they’ve finally landed the story that will let them strike out on their own. It will also give them the financial wherewithal to move out of their parents’ house, which, oh boy, what is there even to say about their parents, those mercenary motherfuckers.
Twenty-odd years ago during the Rising, elder!Masons lost their eight-year-old son. He was bitten by the neighbors’ dog. That was before it was widely understood that the virus could jump between mammalian species, and that anything surpassing the 40 pound threshold was susceptible to its effects. The dog weighed over 40 pounds. Elder!Masons dealt with their grief by ceasing to care about other human beings and channeling all their emotional resources into chasing the news ratings. They went on to become phenomenally successful bloggers as well as abominable parents to their adopted children, whom they treated like ratings-generating machines.
Shaun and Georgia survived their childhood by adopting an us-against-the-world mentality that leaves little room for other other people in their lives. And who can blame them, when the parental relationship that should have been the most nurturing turned out to be the most manipulative? It’s like they built an emotional bunker and never learned to climb out of it. Georgia even uses the term “codependent” to describe it. Georgia is our narrator, and she’s so badass she wears shades indoors and never cries. No seriously. Here’s the real explanation: She’s got a disability—what’s a called a “reservoir condition” where the virus takes up residence in a body organ, in her case the retina—meaning basically that she has zombie vision; she can see ridiculously well in low light situations but direct sunlight will blind her. Hence the shades.
I’m thinking right now of one time when they’re in the field and a federal agent orders Georgia to take her shades off and Shaun nearly goes ballistic on him. That’s the way they are. You mess with one of them, you’ll have the other to contend with. Georgia is the sensible one—she takes care of the administrative and financial end of their little blogging business—while Shaun’s job is to “poke dead things with sticks” while their viewership watches with rapt, vicarious exhilaration. And as over-the-top as the shades may be, I have to admit that I like women who are significantly more reserved emotionally than their male counterparts [see also: Laura Roslin and Bill Adama]. It helps to balance out the still-hegemonic media portrayal of female characters as “the ones who cry a lot and panic at the least provocation.” Shaun actually notes at one point (he narrates the second book) that the reason he’s physically affectionate with people is so they won’t try to hug Georgia. Like he will literally intercept any hugs directed at her in order to spare her the discomfort of enduring them. I just. I cannot with these kids.
That’s it, that’s the summary: I CANNOT WITH THESE KIDS because they won’t quit stomping all over the broken pieces of my heart. Are there aspects of this series I am less than satisfied with? Sure, but neither Georgia nor Shaun is one of them. I guess I should maybe enumerate the bits that could have been improved. In the interest of ~science or whatever:
- The whole thriller/conspiracy angle seemed weak and underdeveloped. I was never sure who, exactly, constituted the Big Bad; was it the Centers for Disease Control? The Secret Service? The moneyed financial interests who bankroll our elected representatives? Dozens of people are murdered to further the plot—the body count starts piling up 1/3 through the first book and keeps rolling on like a tank—but there doesn’t seem to have been a coherent rationale for why these people needed to be gotten rid of.
- Buffy. I get that she’s Shaun and Georgia’s in-house tech expert; I get that she’s perky and blonde and writes porn in her spare time. I get that appearances can be deceiving, and that Buffy deliberately cultivates hers so that people will underestimate her. Because she’s Really Good At Circumventing Security Apparatuses, So Good She Was Aggressively Recruited by the CIA, you see. Well, bully for her. I’m not sold. There’s too much telling and not enough showing going on with Buffy, plus she’s got a geektastic Asian boyfriend, which in other circumstances would be fine; the problem is that said boyfriend gets so little screentime he’s effectively reduced to a stereotype, which, ugh, do not want.
I pulled an all-nighter to finish these books and I regret nothing. They’re books that go after your heart rather than your brain, which is ok because my brain needed a break anyway.