Deadline, the sequel to Mira Grant's Feed (2010), picks up the story of the After the End Times news team some time after the murders of several of the website's founders, victims of a conspiracy to kill Peter Ryman, a politically moderate presidential candidate, led by but not instigated by his vice-presidential running mate, David Tate. In the gap between the two novels, Ryman has, as anticipated, been elected, with Richard Cousins, another, older, news blogger who became caught up in the first novel's events, somewhat improbably becoming his vice-president. Shaun Mason, adopted brother of Georgia, who narrated Feed and was among those who died, has somewhat reluctantly taken over the running of After the End Times. He is still trying to come to terms with his sister's death, not least because he had to kill her when she became infected with the Kellis-Amberlee or "zombie" virus, the trademark murder weapon of the unidentified killers. He is also the narrator of this sequel but, as his grief manifests itself most often in his hearing his sister's voice in his head, Georgia Mason is still very active in the novel.
Feed was a troubling novel. Despite its superficial narrative verve, the plot was thin and absurd: a team of bloggers improbably granted the opportunity to follow a presidential candidate at close quarters on the campaign trail, with pretty much carte blanche to publish what it likes. The suggestion within the novel was that the candidate was attempting to establish that news bloggers had as much right to participate in the process as more conventional media outlets, but one was left wondering why this should be happening in 2040 when, even now, there is a flourishing independent news gathering culture on the internet and, within the frame of the story, news bloggers have been an active presence since the Rising, the zombie apocalypse.
In part, the answer is that bloggers, post-Rising, have worked hard to legitimize themselves as purveyors of news, information, and entertainment. What is most significant for the bloggers' foundational myth is that the established media outlets were slow to recognize that the Rising was underway and it was left to the online community to collate information and coordinate a response. Also important to the myth is the fact that, faced with an unprecedented situation, the online community turned to unconventional sources of information; unsurprisingly, George Romero's film, Night of the Living Dead (1968) proved to be a seminal text on zombie behavior and extermination. Since then, as Shaun notes, everyone has retreated inside, scared, and, quoting his sister, "grateful for all the things they were scared of" (p. 37).
These journalistic free spirits do their best to give their viewers a different view of the world to that provided by the mainstream media, but in the process have created an alternative system of licensing and accreditation organizations, as well as participating in the national scheme which controls who goes into the wild. For mavericks, they are all terribly well-behaved, and seem to miss the point that they are now as much part of the problem as they are the solution. Shaun Mason, an "Irwin," that is a reporter who goes out into the wild to deliberately confront zombies, has, since Georgia's death, begun to realize the pointlessness of this, but has not acted on the realization. For the rest, the sharp demarcation of roles, their taxonomy, the obsession with operational details smacks of a group that is playing at journalism rather than actually doing a job.
Had Grant provided some sort of counterpoint to this tiresome romanticizing of the press and indeed of the Rising, it might be easier to stomach, but the older people who might offer such a corrective are mostly invisible, in Deadline as in Feed. When they do appear, they are invariably distant quasi-authority or parental figures, or just plain villains. Thus, there is no one to provide a critical commentary on the bloggers' actions or perceptions, or indeed to call them out on their, at times, quite staggering sense of privilege and entitlement. There are few ordinary people shown in this series; those who do appear are either hotel staff or security guards, who are of course expendable. The one character who does make some vague attempt at criticizing the bloggers in any way unfortunately chooses to do so by telling them that they are "off the reservation" (p. 218), as though a Native American reservation was ever a place of safety. (Indeed, given what we do hear about the progress of the plague, it is reasonable to assume that most indigenous peoples on reservations and reserves did not last very long.) However, there is no other effort to offer any kind of dissenting voice, which suggests that the reader is expected to take their privilege and everything about them at face value. Alas, it is at times as though Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys have taken over the press room.
In common with Feed, the actual story of Deadline takes rather too long to get underway, while Grant introduces her cast of replacement bloggers. This suggests that she regards the people as rather more important than the story, which might explain the continuing thinness of the plot. However, it does not account for the equally thin character development, and here blame has to lie with the choice of a first-person narrative viewpoint. Neither Georgia nor Shaun is, for whatever reason, possessed of much emotional intelligence, and given their roles within the story as team boss, they do not enjoy fully-developed out-of-work relationships with anyone except each other. Their emotional self-sufficiency may have had advantages in dealing with their exploitative parents but has not equipped them for dealing with the outside world, particularly not when it constantly makes allowances for them. Thus, the Masons and everyone close to them appear to the reader in almost stereotypical terms (in part facilitated by the taxonomy of blogging, which assigns different temperaments to different roles).
Finally, story arrives in the shape of Kelly Connolly, a researcher at the Center for Disease Control, who has been working on a particular aspect of the Kellis-Amberlee virus's behavior, its capacity to go live in isolated parts of the body, a situation known as a "reservoir condition." People with reservoir conditions are paranoid about infection control and, as a rule, tend to live longer. However, Connolly's researchers have found that that people with reservoir conditions are now dying at a significantly higher rate than the ordinary population, and all attempts to investigate this anomaly are being shut down, either through the diverting of funding elsewhere, or by more sinister means. Indications are that the conspiracy reaches the highest levels of government. Connolly has faked her own death in order to escape and make contact with the End Times team and ask for their help. That this situation is easily summarized is indicative of where Grant's interests lie, namely with the plot, such as it is.
When the End Times offices are besieged by zombies almost immediately after Connolly arrives, the team, having finally worked out that she has been bugged, hits the road, taking Connolly with them, to follow the only real clue it has. A meeting with a heterodox scientist who has already dropped out of the system suggests that something even more remarkable is going on, that the reservoir condition is the body's way of coping with the zombie plague, which in turn means two things. Firstly, the government already knows this and is manipulating information and data in order to keep people in a state of fear and ignorance, and secondly, it means that Georgia, after being infected with Kellis-Amberlee, should have recovered, because she already had retinal KA, one form of the reservoir condition. It will of course be up to the End Times team to get to the bottom of the mystery, in part driven by Shaun's realization that his sister need not have died, and that he in effect murdered her.
Deadline, like its predecessor, is frustratingly superficial in many respects, and indeed throws the flaws of the first novel into even sharper relief. Both follow the same broad pattern of construction. If the team is not on the road—and traveling is the default "action" mode, in this novel—it is holed up somewhere, fretting about getting back on the road, checking its email or web stats, or having a meeting to make sense of information and decide what to do next. All of this is, one assumes, intended to show that they are a team, but it leaves the reader with a curious sense that they are mostly incapable of thinking or acting as individuals, and are relying on Shaun (often channeling Georgia) to tell them what to do next. Thus, they continue to grapple with the possibility, surely already made quite explicit in Feed, that there is a deeper conspiracy behind the various murders. Given the number of times Georgia commented on the fact that people's fear was being manipulated, it is not difficult to see what kind of conspiracy Grant has in mind as the underlying theme of the trilogy; for the reader, the only big questions remaining are who and why? The characters, unfortunately, are taking a longer and much more winding road to the truth, as the team crisscrosses the US, breaking into facilities, discovering or confirming something before moving on to the next scene. Or, as it turns out in Deadline, being conveniently out of contact when the next plot twist occurs, and being equally conveniently en route to the one place where they can find help when it does happen.
On the basis of the first two volumes, the Newsflesh trilogy appears to contain a moderately entertaining near-future thriller involving a zombie plague, major conspiracy, and a few other bits of science-fictional window-dressing, the point of which are not yet entirely clear, all of which would make one fairly decent novel. Unfortunately, rather as the Kellis-Amberlee virus forces the body's cells to multiply at a terrifying rate, animating the corpse, something has infected that novel, transforming it into a trilogy which tries to marry a thriller with a story about a group of young adults making its way in the post-Rising world as journalists. If this version of 2040 were more plausibly constructed, or the news team was as good at working on news stories as it is at dealing with internet technology and running a website, the prospect of a trilogy might be more thrilling. As it is, one can't help but think Cory Doctorow would do this so much better, and is indeed reminded strongly of Little Brother, to which this stands as a very poor relation indeed.
Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic and freelance copyeditor. She recently completed an MA in Postcolonial Studies and has now embarked on a PhD, focusing on indigenous contemporary literatures in North America. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and is now an assistant editor of Foundation.