Deadline by Mira Grant
Well, here we are in sequel land, and with more zombies. Although, in this case, only the best zombies need apply for admission. Following on the success of Feed, here comes Mira Grant (pseudonym of Seanan McGuire) with Deadline (Book II of the Newsflesh Trilogy). Stands back for a slightly ragged cheer to rise from the ranks of the massed fans. We were all impressed by the first. Indeed, it’s in the running for a Hugo Award so we’re not alone in thinking this was something special. Our months of waiting are over and we can dive into this thick mass market paperback. This produces an immediate groan. Not, you understand, because a zombie has just sashayed into view and is asking for a quick nibble. But because really long books run the risk of being padded out. The bean counters who have a lot of say in the publishing word want more pages for the bucks of their advances. That way, they can sell the public on the more-means-better marketing approach. Never mind the quality, feel the weight.
And the moment we launch into this sequel, our worst fears are realised. This must be the slowest of slow-burner starts in the history of sequel writing. Instead of starting off clean with a two page summary of what we’ve forgotten about the first, we get into a whole rewrite of the first book spread out over the first fifty pages. It’s immensely tedious and not a little annoying. This goes hand-in-hand with some really weird shit. I know I must have read a first-person narrative starring a hero who’s as mad as a box holding two frogs. I’ve read so many thousand books before. This can’t be a first with a schizo who has fully realised conversations with his dead stepsister (in third-person terms, it’s a bit like Harvey Dent who talks things though with himself rather than just flipping a coin). Indeed, towards the end, our hero Shaun is hallucinating she’s in the same room with him and actually touching him. Talk about someone who’s out of his tree and running around in the long grass looking for his psychotic break. This should be the ultimate unreliable narrator except this figment of his imagination keeps giving him very sane advice. Essentially, George, the dead stepsister, keeps him alive and functioning. This is a lot for us to get our head round (or perhaps that should be “heads”).
However, once we get past the leaden opening, it picks up speed and begins to bowl along with the same energy that kept the first book so entertaining. Except we then have a new phenomenon to contend with. It’s what I call cod science. This is content written in language suggesting it’s real science and, for most practical purposes, it’s probably convincing to everyone who knows nothing about the subject-matter involved. That’s me, of course. I could write everything I know about virology on the back of a Brobdingnagian postage stamp. So we have to stop as various experts are tapped for input and our two-minded hero and his merry (wo)men then try to make sense of it. Yes, all this is necessary to advance the plot in an interesting direction. Indeed, one might actually applaud Mira Grant for constructing a nice exercise to evaluate utilitarianism as it might be applied to disease control. When I was younger and could still think coherently, I used to play around with the basic ideas propounded by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, looking for modern scenarios in which we might explore whether the methodology was still relevant. This plot highlights a very interesting dilemma. Although there does seem to be a wider conspiracy in play, one can understand why some of the interested parties might want to hide the “big picture”. Needless to say, our team of news hounds is hot on the trail given that the solution to the problem, as and when it emerges, will also identify the person responsible for the death of stepsister George.
The final problem lies in the use of the cloning trope. I always get the theory of how the body can be grown from the DNA of the original. What I never understand is how the copy comes with the knowledge and memories of the first. Yes, I know we’re not supposed to think about this but, in a book which makes great play of its cod science, you would think there would be some effort to fill in the gaps in our understanding.
Anyway, rather than spoil the enjoyment of getting to the end of this book, I’ll avoid any more discussion of the plot except to say there’s a completely fascinating development to our understanding of the way in which George died and why Shaun has even more reason to feel upset about it. Except, perhaps all this may be a little premature. So, where does all this leave us? If Deadline had been about one-hundred pages shorter, I think it would have been lining up for nominations in its own right. But someone has failed in the editorial stakes and left the blue pencil in a drawer. So be prepared to skip over the draggy bits to get to the heart of a very good story.
And just to prove my standards are too high, this novel is one of the 2011 Philip K. Dick Award Nominees and is shortlisted for the 2012 Hugo Awards for Best Novel.
For a review of the final book in the trilogy, see Blackout.