I’ve been reading a number of books lately. Some had great potential and then fell apart so completely I could barely finish them. Of particular note in that category was Emissaries from the Dead by Adam-Troy Castro. Fortunately, I just finished a book that surpassed my expectations and proved to be not only very engaging and entertaining but thought provoking, and paradoxically, depressing. That book is Feed by M.T. Anderson. First, a note on the genre. Feed is a science fiction novel classified as young adult literature. As a father of 3 girls, with one being a teenager, I wouldn’t want them reading this book. In the church, a young adult is someone who is post-high school, usually post-college age. But in literature, young adults start at Middle School. Were this book to be turned into a movie, it would be rated R for language, drug use, underage drinking (?) and sexual innuendos. So let me be clear: I do not think this is a book for young adults.
All of that to say, it is a very well written book. Feed takes place far in the future. The Moon, Venus and I think Jupiter are all colonized. The earth is falling apart. People live inside domes with each dome having its own climate system, including the sun, rain and Clouds(TM). Earth is dying: there are no forests, the oceans are filled with glowing advertisements you can see from the air; animals are nearly extinct and seemingly everyone is sick and dying. People have lesions (but it is fashionable so that is okay); as the story progresses most people go bald because their hair falls out. The health of everyone is so bad that by the time the characters are introduced, no one has been able to conceive a child naturally for generations. Everyone is grown in a conceptionarium.
Earth is divided between America and the Global Alliance who are in a perpetual state of near war. The background for the book seems to be some sort of conflict between America and the Global Alliance over South America and America’s annexing the moon to be the 51st state. However, the details of that conflict are never flushed out since the main characters don’t really care about much of anything. They are too busy being distracted by the Feed.
In M.T. Anderson’s world, everyone has a chip implanted into their body that interacts with their entire nervous system. This chip connects them to the Feed. The Feed is basically a future form of the internet. But it bombards your brain and senses. There are audio implants for music, advertisements, books, information, movies, television shows, shopping, all of this stuff projected directly into your brain. The companies that use the feed create a data-based consumer profile of each person based on their shopping preferences, conversations, mood swings, etc. So everyone, all the time, is constantly bombarded with suggested products to buy.
The main character, Titus, comes from a well-to-do family and is friends with a number of wealthy teenagers including one named Link. Link’s family have old money and Link is actually a clone of Abraham Lincoln! They head to the moon and there Titus meets Violet. Most of the story follows Titus and Violet’s romantic relationship. Violet’s father is a college professor of “dead languages” (which turns out to be computer code) and Violet is homeschooled because her father realizes that nearly everyone has become a braindead consumer. People cannot even write.It turns out that Violet’s feed chip is going bad and it is slowly killing her. Titus only learns of this after he falls in love with her. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot so I’ll stop there.
The book is written in the first person and Anderson did a great job of creating dialogue that is foreign enough to feel removed from my world, but easy enough to understand. The decadence of Titus’ social circle is conveyed extremely well. Consider the first few paragraphs of the book:
“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.
We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Arwaker was like, “I’m so null,” and Marty was all, “I’m null too, unit,” but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we’d been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them. So Marty told us that there was this fun place for lo-grav on the moon. Lo-grav can be kind of stupid, but this was supposed to be good. It was called the Ricochet Lounge. We thought we’d go for a few days with some of the girls and stay at a hotel there and go dancing.
We flew up and our feeds were burbling all sorts of things about where to stay and what to eat. It sounded pretty fun, and at first there were lots of pictures of dancing and people with romper-gills and metal wings, and I was like, This will be big, really big, but then I guess I wasn’t so skip when we were flying over the surface of the moon itself, because the moon was just like it always is, after your first few times there, when you get over being like, Whoa, unit! The moon! The goddamn moon! and instead there’s just the rockiness, and the suckiness, and the craters all being full of old broken shit, like domes nobody’s using anymore and wrappers and claws.
The thing I hate about space is that you can feel how old and empty it is. I don’t know if the others felt like I felt, about space? But I think they did, because they all got louder. They all pointed more, and squeezed close to Link’s window.”
You only get glimpses of the world and thoughtlessness that is prevalent. But it is presented in chilling and clever ways. Perhaps, my favorite demonstration of this is when Titus and Violet go “out in the country.” They find a filet mignon farm and visit it for their date:
“It smelled like the country. It was a filet mignon farm, all of it, and the tissue spread for miles around the paths where we were walking. It was like these huge hedges of red all around us, with these beautiful marble patterns running through them. They had these tubes, they were bringing the tissue blood, and we could see the blood running around, up and down. It was really interesting. I like to see how things are made, and to understand where they come from.”
This passage pretty much shows you both the world the characters inhabit and their way of thinking. Filet Mignon comes from a filet mignon farm and seeing it makes Titus feel good because he likes “to see how things are made, and to understand where they come from.” This passage reminded me of the documentary Food Inc. People don’t like to think about the fact that their steak comes from a part of an animal and that animal has other parts. The industrial food system we now exist in has sanitized eating. Meat comes from the supermarket where we can find it neatly packaged and sterilized. In my opinion, our factory farms are not that different from the filet mignon farm Violet and Titus visit.
And that is the depressing part of the novel. Written in 2001, Anderson frighteningly predicted a world where people would be constantly bombarded by advertisements; a world where corporations create profiles of individuals and then tailor their advertisements to fit the interests of the individual people. On the flip side, toward the end of the book, Titus seems to have a moment of clarity regarding the meaninglessness of consumerism:
“It turned out that my upcar was not the kind of upcar my friends rode in. I don’t know why. It had enough room, but for some reason people didn’t think of it that way. Sometimes that made me feel kind of tired. It was like I kept buying these things to be cool, but cool was always flying just ahead of me, and I could never exactly catch up to it.
I felt like I’d been running toward it for a long time.”
Ultimately, Feed is a commentary on society and our interaction with our environment. Our environment is increasingly digitally based and exploitative of the world around us. While we keep creating technology that is incredibly brilliant, we seem to becoming more thoughtless. I often say that if we are going to say that evolution is true, we need to then start considering a theory of de-volution. When you consider how ignorant people seem to be and when you consider how few people seem capable of rational thought–Feed is, in some ways, happening now. Which is what Anderson says in a blogpost he wrote about Feed years later. I really encourage you to go over to his website and read it. ‘
And then read the book.