I’ve finally gotten around to the Hugo-nominated novellas! I’ve actually had Mira Grant’s Countdown on my Kindle since its release date, but I just kept forgetting about it. That happens a lot with my Kindle downloads, actually. I forget to record them in my spreadsheet (I know, I’m a nerd) or LibraryThing, and those are the primary two ways I track my purchases, so when I forget to record a Kindle download, it’s as if the book doesn’t exist. I certainly don’t see it in the TBR! Thankfully, the Hugos have pushed this novella to the forefront, and since I finished reading Blackout earlier this month, I was glad to revisit Grant’s Newsflesh world.
There’s one thing I want to get out of the way. Originally, I figured this novella might be a good place for readers to start if they hadn’t yet read Feed but were wanting to sample Grant’s world and writing. Now that I’ve read it, I want to say I’m quite wrong about this. There’s several reasons why: for starters, there are some scenes a reader really won’t give a crap about without the background provided in the Newsflesh novels. Characters, like the Masons, will appear, and a uninitiated reader might wonder what’s the big deal with the kid and the dog, and despite the resolution of that being something of the climax, there’s still a sense of, “That’s it?” and I’ve read the whole trilogy. I can’t imagine an uninitiated reader will really care or feel the emotional impact of that, but as I’m not an uninitiated reader, I could be wrong.
Mind you, I love the Newsflesh trilogy to pieces. I want to re-read it one day. I will also devour (har-har) any novella or short story Grant throws my way in this world. However, this novella was not Grant’s best effort. There are a lot of stylistic choices here that I personally don’t care for. I’m not going to say said choices are universally bad, but in my very humble and unpublished opinion, those choices don’t make for a good story, and worse, make the writer sound like an amateur.
So while I intellectually understand the choices Grant made, I don’t like them. This includes the ridiculous number of POVs. And I do mean ridiculous. There are more POVs in this novella than there are in a single George R.R. Martin A Song of Ice and Fire novel. No, I didn’t count, but if I’m making that assumption, there’s too many. Like WAY too many. Grant even gives us the POV of not just the original viruses (and let’s be real, this is more of an omniscient POV at best), but we also get the POV of a dog. Yes, a dog. Cute until the end, but still. It’s a dog.
But that raises an interesting question: just what POV was Grant going for here? I’m used to the tight, first-person POVs from her trilogy, and as a whole, I personally prefer either first person or tight, limited third. If you start pulling the camera away for some kind of omniscient POV, I start personally demanding a really strong voice/narrator guiding me through the story. I don’t have to have one, but it helps. Yet an example of excellent omniscient POV that doesn’t give the reader an omniscient narrator is Mary Doria Russell’s criminally under-read The Sparrow. An example of one of the worst uses of omniscient POV is Frank Herbert’s Dune (it’s the reason I originally put the book down, but I was finally able to get over it to read the book, finish and enjoy the hell out of it. But it took YEARS to get over the POV). My point is that any POV, no matter what your favorites, can be well done or badly done.
And if Grant’s going for omniscient, it’s not working for me at all. Sometimes in sections she slides into head-hopping, but given the very distinct breaks between each POV, it reads more like it’s intended as multiple limited third person POV rather than omniscient. Which is a long way of saying it still doesn’t work for me.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing to enjoy on a technical level. There is. Like this wry bit of humor between a man and his husband (and the spring referred to is not a euphemism, but a literal spring. As in an uncomfortable couch):
“Now, which is it going to be? A lovely lunch and continued marital bliss, or night after night with that broken spring digging into your side, wishing you’d been willing to listen to me when you had the chance?”
Or this rather adorable bit:
The Golden Retriever thumped her tail sheepishly against the dirt, as if to say that yes, she was a very naughty dog, but in her defense, there had been a small boy with a face in need of washing.
There’s also PLENTY of irony that I feel is only truly appreciated by those who’ve read the trilogy. I say that because without the background of said books (and you don’t need to read all three to come to this. It’s a prequel, so reading the first book is just fine), reading lines such as:
“We’re going to be famous for what we’re doing here, you know,” Alexander said. “People are going to remember the name ‘Kellis’ forever.”
will only result in a cynical voice in the reader’s head making a smart-ass remark, because in fiction of any medium, you never say that unless the plot will reveal EPIC HORRIBLE THINGS to come later. Which, of course, is exactly the case here. What is that called, hubris? Which never, ever ends well.
But the background information, seeing just how the Kellis-Amberlee virus came to be the zombie-inducing virus we all know and love, was rather useful. Can I comment on the viability and believability of the science involved? Hell no. I haven’t taken virology classes of any sort, nor have I done any reading on the topic. But as presented, it all sounds plausible, so I’m willing to accept it. I think Stephen Colbert might call this “truthiness” but I could be wrong about how it’s supposed to be defined: something that sounds like it’s true, but isn’t actually true (which basically defines fiction in a nutshell, but whatever).
If “truthiness” doesn’t apply to Grant’s use of science to explain how Kellis-Amberlee did what it did, then it certainly applies to the articles written by news reporter Robert Stalnaker, who wrote the article that launched a thousand ships. Erm, I mean, the guy who wrote the article that inspired a drugged-out activist group to go liberate the Kellis vaccine before it’d been properly tested on humans. It may smack of stereotype: the greedy reporter who makes up articles that are about scaring the public more than they are about educating the public; the activist group that’s high and is ready to stick it to the man. Yeah, they are stereotypes. But stereotypes are there for a reason, and not all news reporters are greedy lying douch-bags, and not all activist groups are drugged out and wanting to stick it to The Man without doing proper research first. Grant doesn’t claim as such. But she is showing how these very stereotypes, which do exist in our society, can completely and totally screw us over.
Although, I will say I was surprised there was no off-site back up for the Kellis research. If not off-site, then something on-site but thoroughly safeguarded. Something that important should have multiple back-ups so nothing IS lost, you know? I also found myself questioning just what the Mayday Group did and how they did it. They released the vaccine, sure, made it airborne, but how? And why didn’t they release the animals? I guess the latter is because they weren’t an animal activist group, but that struck me as an odd detail. Of course, said detail pays off in a rather tragic way later in the story, but I don’t like asking such questions while I’m reading.
But there are a lot of little easter egg goodies for fans of the book. And really, that’s my reservation: if you’re a fan of the series, this is a fun read full of little things to point to and enjoy (such as the CDC’s role while all of this was happening). If you haven’t even read the series, the novella lacks a real narrative drive to keep the story moving forward. You have no characters to get attached to, no real narrative thread to hold on to. What’s to keep you reading, unless you already know how it all ends? No, this novella is not for readers unfamiliar with the trilogy. My advice: read Feed first and fall in love, or at least start demanding answers to questions, and then pick this up and get some of those questions answered. And then read the rest of the trilogy, because it’s so, so much better.
And just so we’re clear, fellow fans of Grant: I’m still a huge fan. I pick because I love. And I still intend to gobble up everything she releases. But it’s only fair to point out if something isn’t her best work, and based on what I’ve read to date, this definitely isn’t her best. Entertaining for the fans, which is what I think it was meant to be all along, and I appreciate that. But not her best work. Which is weird coming from someone who still believes that Grant’s Feed should have beat Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear in last year’s Hugos.