I’m a newspaper journalist who writes about a) health care and medicine and b) politics. While I haven’t been on the actual campaign trail, I did cover visits to my area this winter by three of the four Republicans running for the presidential nomination through the primary/caucus season. So it was going to be pretty much impossible for me to read this without training a critical eye on how Grant handles the public health threat of the virus and the Masons’ coverage of Ryman’s campaign. She mostly does a good job, I think, but there were some things in the novel that I thought were a bit flawed.
First of all, while I think she did a good job portraying the KA virus as a public health threat, I scoffed a bit at the virus being the combination of two viruses intended to be beneficial, mostly because the two viruses in question were a cure for the common cold and a cure for cancer. I think how she thought out the interaction between the two gels with things I’ve read in the field of public health (the dangerous outbreak that likely would happen if the H5N1 avian flu and 2009 H1N1 swine flu were to combine into a new strain, for example, bringing both the virulence of bird flu with the power of the swine flu). But my problem lies in the basic premise of viruses as cures for those two conditions in particular. I think the premise relies on the faulty assumption that both cancer and the “common cold” are monolithic as medical conditions, and they’re far from that. Cancer isn’t one thing and neither is the common cold, which is actually a description for the set of symptoms of a viral infection that can be caused by any number of viruses. That’s why you never get immunity to the common cold the same way you would for something like chicken pox, because it’s a multitude of viruses that are always changing. I should add the caveat that I’m not an epidemiologist, just a semi-educated lay person, but whenever Grant went into the epidemiology of the Kellis-Amberlee virus, I’d always think, “But… but…” and that would affect my ability to suspend my disbelief in the story she was telling.
I think Grant did a pretty good job with the political stuff, although that’s not what I thought I was getting into when I picked this up, and I’m weary enough of politics in the real world that I was mildly annoyed to find myself reading a book that’s mostly about a presidential campaign.
As far as the portrayal of journalism, I have some issues. First of all, I had to laugh at the thought of newspapers still being around 30 years from now. They may still exist, but they’ll be niche products for a limited audience with money and a strong sense of nostalgia, c.f., the current state of vinyl records and typewriters. I think she’s right that bloggers would be the ones to break the news about a zombie apocalypse, but that’s not because bloggers have more integrity than the so-called mainstream media, but because bloggers can and do put any and all kinds of shit out there without verifying it first. Newspapers can’t do that, not without risking lawsuits we can’t afford to lose. So someone could call me tomorrow and say their dead brother-in-law got up and started walking around and trying to eat people, but without solid, hard proof I’m not running that story, because dead people don’t get up and start walking around. I’m not running a story that flies in the face of everything we think we know about the world without proof, and face it folks, I’ve seen enough Fact or Fiction on the SyFy Channel to know that photos and videos aren’t proof these days unless I take them myself. Anyone can doctor a photo or CGI a video. So unless I see with my own eyes – and corroboration – the mayor drop dead from a heart attack in the middle of a live city council meeting, then get up and bite the city manager, no story. But, hey, of some blog wants to write that story about the guy’s brother-in-law, what’s to stop them?
While Grant extrapolates that bloggers telling the story of the KA outbreak first leads to the rise of blogs as a more trusted and ethical means of getting news, what I see already happening is that blogs muddy the waters and contribute to an inability by the general public to tell wheat from chaff. It’s like that car insurance commercial where the girl believes everything is true on the internet because she read that on the internet. Now, I’m not saying that all traditional media is wheat and all blogs are chaff. Far from it. There’s a lot of good and bad in both. What I’m saying is that a lot of people can’t tell the good from the bad, and can’t discern the difference between opinion and fact or rumor and fact, and that’s a problem for us as a society because the proliferation of chaff is tainting the wheat as the lowest common denominator just keeps sinking with no bottom in sight.
It disturbed me that Georgia is supposed to be the model of factual, objective, ethical journalism in this new post-apocalyptic United States, mostly because of the way she metaphorically climbs right into bed with Ryman and uses her reporting to boost his campaign. That’s called PR, honey, not news. But Georgia mostly seems to be a Mary Sue character anyway, in that as a reader I’m constantly told how awesome she is and how she’s, like, the bestest reporter in the WORLD, but I really see that until toward the end when she’s willing to take big risks to get an important story told. Before that, though, I’m just kind of like, “STFU about how awesome you are, you arrogant fucking kid.”
Let’s see – another pretty big flaw for me is that the book read more like it should be taking place five years from now instead of 30 years. There’s some extrapolation of current technology, but again I think this is stuff we’ll be seeing within five years, not three decades. I kept thinking about the difference between now and what was out there in 1982, and shaking my head that Grant’s characters are still using cell phones and MP3 recorders and that the internet seems to still be the same internet we’re using now. Then there are the pop culture references, which seem to be stuck in the late ‘90s with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin. Grant goes to great pains to create a society that’s still running, and yet technology and pop culture seem to mostly be stagnant, or at least their evolution vastly decelerated from what we’re currently experiencing. I mean, George uses a PDA, for cripe’s sake. It may be a teensy one mounted on a watch, but who even says “PDA” anymore now in 2012, much less in 2040? And I’d like to have seen more about just how society kept running given that people more or less bunkered down in their homes. How did businesses keep running? Who kept the lights on and the roads maintained and the potable water potable?
Since my word processor is telling me I’ve now written more than 1,200 words of complaints about this book, I guess I ought to wrap this up. My apologies and heartfelt gratitude to anyone who made it this far into the review. It really was an enjoyable read with an engaging plot, and I’ll probably pick up the second book sometime soon to read the continued story. My complaints are really fairly small, I think. Overall, it’s a good thriller and I’d recommend it to people who enjoy zombies and presidential politics. It would make a good movie, and it did make good motivational reading on the treadmill.