This week we’re looking at the novels nominated for this year’s upcoming Hugo Awards. Today we look at Deadline by Mira Grant, the second installment of the Newsflesh trilogy, as well as its recently released conclusion, Blackout.
Here’s what you need to know: In 2014, we cured cancer and the common cold. Unfortunately, the two viruses created to tackle these problems combined in ways no one ever could have expected, creating the Kellis-Amberlee virus, which promptly took up residence in every mammal large enough to contain it. End result? Zombies.
It’s decades later, and mankind has clawed its way back from oblivion, surviving what has been dubbed The Rising. While vast areas of the world are inhabitable, written off as death traps and wastelands, we’ve managed to secure enough territory that life has resumed. People are born, educated, entertained. They live, love, vote and eventually die. They also dwell in a constant state of paranoia, with mandatory blood tests just about every time they go through a door, go outside, or do anything remotely dangerous. They live on the edge of fear, wondering if this is the time their test will go red and warrant prompt termination before they can “amplify” and turn into a bloodthirsty, mindless monster. The rich stay protected, the poor take their chances, and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) has become one of the most powerful agencies around.
But the news still needs reporting, and in this brave new world, multimedia bloggers have been elevated to the status of real journalists, providing all the news and entertainment you’ll ever need. The Newsies dig up the stories, the Fictionals make stuff up, and the Irwins—well, they poke things with sticks for the morbid amusement of those who prefer to stay home where it’s safe.
Adopted siblings Georgia and Shaun Mason, heads of the After the End Times site, are several preeminent bloggers. Tapped to cover the U.S. election, they stumbled across a conspiracy. Everything went wrong. Georgia died. Shaun was left alone. But someone still has to get the news out….
And that’s where Deadline picks up. It’s a year later and Shaun is still struggling with the loss of his sister and the guilt over being the one to kill her when she amplified. Georgia still appears to him as a voice of reason and advice, but even Shaun has to admit that he’s pretty much gone a little crazy. The rest of After the End Times have picked up the slack, riding on the prestige of covering the election and the notoriety of the tragic events of the previous book.
Things get messy when Dr. Kelly Connolly, a researcher for the CDC who was reported dead, shows up alive and well, with an irresistible story. It seems that someone’s been killing off people who possess “reservoir conditions”—instances where the virus has amplified in one part of the body but nowhere else, such as the eyes—and redirecting funds into questionable avenues of research. The good doctor’s on the run because someone’s also killing off anyone who looks too closely into the matter. So of course Shaun and his team are going to dig as deep into things as possible—especially after their offices are firebombed to “prevent an outbreak” and it becomes personal.
Now, as anyone knows, you never try to kill the journalist investigating the conspiracy, because what doesn’t kill them makes them all the more curious. But what the End Times crew discovers after a lot of digging and a few death-defying episodes is even worse than they thought: Not only is someone killing off people with reservoir conditions, they’re also manufacturing new substrains of the K-A virus and setting it loose. There’s a conspiracy actively involved in keeping the K-A a viable threat and maintaining a culture of fear and paranoia, and they don’t care how many bodies pile up as a result. And then all Hell breaks loose, as the Second Rising begins, courtesy of some infected mosquitoes, and hurricane, and the state of Florida.
Blackout picks up almost immediately afterwards, with Florida written off as a lost cause, and our heroes on the run from a decidedly corrupt CDC. Their only allies are mad scientists, double-dealing politicians, and gun-happy criminals. With nothing left to lose, they’re going to get to the heart of the conspiracy and blow it wide-open once and for all. But then Shaun’s dead sister Georgia turns up, not so dead after all. And now they have a much bigger problem. Specifically: why did the CDC clone Georgia Mason, and how does this impact things?
As the mystery of the resurrected Georgia unfolds, new allies and enemies appear on the stage, with the CDC and the EIS (Epidemic Intelligence Service) playing pivotal roles in mankind’s future. And in a world where anyone can become a zombie at any time, it’s a sure bet that not everyone’s getting out alive….
Whew! This is a difficult series to sum up, even when you boil it down to the very basics of “journalists fight conspiracies in a post-zombie setting,” because Grant (an open pseudonym for Campbell winner Seanan McGuire) packs a whole lot of story into each volume. I’ve only covered the second two books of the trilogy (for my coverage of Feed, go here) and I’m not even touching upon the related novellas or short stories that have sprung up, but that’s still more than enough to take our measure of things.
Let me just say this: McGuire loves zombies, mad science, and virology more than any reasonable person ever should (just listen to her tell Wired about how much she haunted the CDC until she puzzled out a workable zombie virus) and she distills all of these interests into a fast-paced, intense, thought-provoking, maddening, intriguing, and occasionally twisted story that rolls through several volumes without slowing down. This is a perfect example of a writer doing what she loves; the passion for the characters and the material shines with every page. Sure, she has a tendency to go into infodump mode on a frequent basis, but that’s unavoidable when you’re essentially writing science horror. What good is inventing weird new strains of zombie viruses if you can’t explain how they work? What good is developing a post-zombie apocalypse world if you can’t explore every aspect of it from the ground up? Plenty of material has covered what happens when the zombies come, it’s far more interesting to see how we survive and live afterwards.
Indeed, these books are as much about the setting as they are about the characters; the zombies are actually more of a setting element than a real focus. This is a setting where you have to undergo blood tests constantly, and the narrative reinforces this. It goes beyond redundant into outright overkill, with some places described as requiring six blood tests and retinal scan to enter, with failure at any point resulting in immediate termination and decontamination. And yet, the story slowly shows how at least some of this paranoia is unnecessary—in fact, it’s artificially fostered and encouraged by those who benefit from the constant state of terror. Make no bones about it, for all the luxuries, advanced technology, and Coke present, this is a dystopia ruled by fear, where people die on a regular, horrible basis.
And yet life goes on. That’s part of the underlying theme: life goes on no matter what happens, who you lose, what goes wrong. We don’t give in to the virus, we don’t lie down and die when the zombies come, and we don’t wait for a magical, mythical cure. We endure and we cope with an unavoidable condition that has, at least in some small ways, also benefited us. The characters in this world dwell in an awkward state where they could die at any time, and most of them have forgotten how to live. It takes Shaun and Georgia Mason and their friends to shed some light on the truth of the matter.
McGuire’s characters are entertaining, complex, and horribly flawed. While the trilogy is primarily told from the viewpoints of Shaun and Georgia, we’re introduced to a wide array of people. Some, like Dr. Shannon Abbey, are almost exaggerated caricatures (Abbey is very much a mad scientist, engaged in questionable experiments and often unpredictable) or stereotypical villains (such as the mystery villain who turns up near the end of Blackout). However, the core cast do tend be memorable, with a full array of quirks and behaviors. Becks is trigger-happy, neurotic, and often cranky; Maggie is rich, loyal, romantic, and totally out of her depth; Mahir is practical, exasperated, reliable, and has no idea why he’s even there. And so on.
Of course, you can’t talk about this series without addressing Shaun, Georgia, and the elephant in the room. Yes, they’re adopted siblings. Yes, they love each other. Yes, their relationship is painfully co-dependent, to the point where they apparently can’t function without each other (and stay sane). (An alternate ending to Feed actually describes how if Shaun had died instead, Georgia would have killed herself not long after.) Admittedly, this particular bit of characterization may not be to everyone’s taste, but awkward and weird thought it is, their relationship actually works. They’re not related by blood, and all they have is each other, in a world that stopped making sense a long time ago. They’re almost two sides to the same person, only complete when together, like yin and yang. This may be the most convincing relationship McGuire’s ever portrayed, and it works because the characters mesh together in essential ways, and she takes the time to show how they cope and don’t cope on their own. (Plus, does it really count once one of them is a clone?) As thought-provoking as it is uncomfortable, this thing that the Masons have is…complicated but real.
If there’s any one drawback to McGuire’s style, it’s that when she finds something she likes—a saying, a theme, a quirk, a plot point—she’s prone to hammering it into the ground, as though she doesn’t trust her readers to remember it for the long haul. Things like Georgia’s love of Coke, Becks’ combination of protectiveness and distrust, the way people undergo constant blood tests and security checks, the way Shaun can’t go a few pages without reaffirming his current insanity, the way Dr. Abbey is a Mad Scientist—we see these elements over and over again until they almost fade into the background with sheer repetition.
On the whole, it’s a small flaw in an otherwise fascinating, entertaining series. McGuire does a superb job of weaving together the political elements, the conspiracy thriller, the science horror, and so forth to generate something awesome. Yeah, you can argue that the conspiracy plot is actually pretty standard—when isn’t there an evil government agency involved in trying to rule the world? But McGuire approaches it from interesting angles, introducing enough variables and problems to keep it fresh. She may have won the Campbell for her Toby Daye urban fantasy series, but it’s the Newsflesh trilogy that’s truly allowed her to shine and push herself as a writer. She reminds me of another science fiction writer with an ability to weave together all sorts of thought-provoking, disparate elements, and I’m saying it now, Robert Sawyer had better watch himself. If McGuire can keep up this level of work and continue to grow, she might just give him a run for his money someday.
Bottom line: you’re not going to find a better political thriller/science fiction/post zombie apocalypse adventure out there. If you do, tell me so I can read it!
(Reviewer note: I’ve known Seanan McGuire for many years, but have strived to review these books with the same bias and objectivity I give towards every book. I don’t go easy on anyone, not even the people I like.)
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf. He is the editor of the forthcoming Scheherazade’s Facade anthology.