Blackout by Mira Grant
As an opening paragraph, I’m forced into a brief consideration of what constitutes a coincidence. At its simplest level, this is two, or sometimes three, events which happen more or less at the same time. Some external observers believe the timing of the occurrences indicates a causal relationship. But, against objective criteria, there’s nothing to actually link the two or three events together. The outside observer is making connections where none exist. The magic word is synchronicity — the magic coming from Police who wrote a song about it, “Effect without cause, Subatomic laws, scientific pause”. This is not a sign I’m desperate to pad out this review. It’s just a coincidence the forces of law and order chose to write lyrics about things that happen at the same time.
For authors, everything is under control in the worlds they create. They can write whatever they like. So when some choose to juxtapose two events, this is not coincidence. This is deliberate plotting. In most cases, the temptation to see a connection is easily resisted. We readers have hundred of t-shirts and know when the author has made a forgivable misjudgment. But the entire plot of Blackout by Mira Grant (pseudonym of Seanan McGuire) (Orbit, 2012) (Book III of the Newsflesh Trilogy) depends on a particularly outrageous coincidence. Indeed so outrageous is this coincidence that it somewhat spoils what would otherwise have been considered a worthy ending to a good trilogy. Why is it so outrageous? Because it’s unnecessary! The author has very carefully built up the credibility of an internal government challenge to the CDC. There’s no reason why this group could not have extracted Georgia without the need for this “spontaneous” meeting in a corridor followed by the appropriate explosions.
Having got that off my chest, what about the rest of the book? As an idea, I think the trilogy is rather clever. It manages to take the zombie novel to a new level of sophistication. Not only do we get a detailed context for their unexpected emergence, but there’s considerable credibility in how American society reacts. It has coherence as a near(ish) future history or science fiction extrapolation on current trends in medical research and the politics of government. Obviously we’re nowhere near the level of technology required to achieve some of these “breakthroughs” but there’s enough inventiveness on display to carry us through to the end. Unfortunately, the same can’t quite be said of the writing. By my standards, like those that went before it, this final book goes on too long. The text finishes on page 632 (we can ignore the Extras). I think it could safely have been trimmed by at least 15,000 words. I’m not denying the interest in some of the discussions and explanations but, overall, more editorial intervention would have produced a manageable length with improved plot momentum.
As a completely idle speculation, I wonder whether the emergence of a separate person in Shaun’s mind is a feature of his reservoir condition. If the virus is adapting to humans and there’s clear evidence it enhances the intelligence of the zombies once they come together in sufficient numbers, perhaps the more intelligent voice in his mind is the virus or an enhancement of his mind manifesting with a different voice (with occasional hallucinations). So where does this leave us in overall terms? On balance, there’s enough constructive thought invested in this trilogy to make it worth reading. The explanation for the zombies is pleasing. There’s a slight loss of balance in that the developments in computing and medical technology is way too advanced without there being more general visible progress in society. Even though the Rising of the zombies would have thrown a spanner into the works, I would have expected there to be more applications in everyday life, e.g. better weapons with which to fight the zombies, lightweight armour to resist bites, biomechanical body parts to replace limbs or to augment human performance, different fuel-type vehicles, more use of solar energy to replace reliance on centrally generated electricity, and so on. That said, the science fiction feels reasonably good. The trilogy also works as a political thriller with the relationship between the blogging community and the rest of the world carefully worked out. So Blackout is quite good as science fiction, it has good thriller set pieces as the characters flee from or fight the zombies, and the various political manoeuvres and conspiracies are plausible. This gives us a reasonable momentum to recommend reading, but be prepared to skip over the slow-moving bits where the editorial pencil failed to strike.
This is nominated for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Novel.