Monday, November 24, 2008

M.T. Anderson's Feed

I was already planning to read M.T. Anderson’s Feed when my friend Steve Mollmann gave it such effusive praise last month, so I was doubly motivated to pick it up over the weekend. And it furthers my look at young adult fiction, somewhat of an ongoing theme here. Anyway, the book is a cautionary tale combining cyberpunk and teenage culture. At some point in the future, brains are wired into the internet near birth, which creates a streaming ‘feed’ of audio, video, and text that act as a sort of secondary consciousness to all those equipped.

Anderson tells the story through Titus, a teenager from an affluent family whose friends are shallow stereotypes of typical idiotic teenagers. They follow fashion trends that change by the hour, alter their bodies in disgusting ways because supposedly it is in vogue. When the group of friends goes to the moon for spring break, Titus meets Violet, a girl who is home-schooled and didn’t receive her feed until she was seven, much later than is typical. It’s never clear just why Violet would be interested in Titus at all; he’s not particularly bright, and the only stated reason
is that he wants to be dumb but isn’t. That’s a typical teenager stereotype too, and not a very interesting one.

While they are on the moon, the group is hacked and their feeds crash. The absence of the feed gives Anderson the chance to begin to grind in his real purpose for the book: a cry against consumerism. When their feeds are restored, Violet realizes that the feed is really just big business’s way of getting them to buy stuff, an elaborate marketing tool. While the idea that the internet is being used to homogenize the public in order to make them easier to market to is an alarming one, it also isn’t terribly original. Anderson does a good job getting his message across, but only Violet emerges as a more than one-dimensional character.

Anderson puts the world of Feed in greater context by references to the hatred of the rest of the world toward America because of its consuming ways. The planet is a ecological nightmare, with trees being cut down to make way for air factories, and people including our characters getting lesions that are suggested to be from radiation poisoning. Again, not terribly original.

Chapters often end with a sort of blast from the feed represented with text to try to create reader/character identification by allowing one to experience what it must be like. However, the text presented is so unlike the feed as described that such identification is nearly impossible.

Anderson’s novel isn’t necessarily bad, it just is sadly predictable. This may be a prime example to refute my original thesis that there was little to distinguish young adult books from those intended for an adult audience; there’s just no way that a book with such a narrow and transparent agenda would have received the same accolades had it been marketed to a broader audience.

2 comments:

Stevil2001 said...

I won't disagree that there are some predictable/heavy-handed aspects to the book. Violet's physical illness being cause by the feed, I thought, was a little excessive-- not only was the feed dangerous because of the way it was reshaping society, but it made you physically ill, too! How is that a social criticism? It sort of works, in that she could be treated for the illness, but the corporations won't help her because she's not a good consumer, but it seems a distraction from Anderson's main point.

I don't think Titus is supposed to have much going for him. Violet latches onto him because he's the smartest out of his group of idiots, at a point where she wants to latch on to someone because she knows she's going to die. That's why he's so upset when he finds out she knew she was dying when the relationship started; it had nothing to do with him. I think Titus works, though, because he's not just a "teenager stereotype"; I think everyone's like that to some degree. We all remain willfully ignorant of things, of the way the world works, because we function better that way. I hate hearing about the financial crisis because it makes me feel afraid, so I just don't think about and sort of blithely hope that everything will turn out all right. Titus's society takes that to the nth degree-- there's so much triviality blotting out so much relevancy.

Why did you see the "feed text" as so different from the way the feed was depicted elsewhere in the book?

My praise of the book had nothing to do with it being exemplary for a YA novel. I genuinely thought it was the best sf novel I'd read for some time. Anderson's real skill in it, I think, is his ability to depict complex emotion. Titus and Violet falling for each other was good-- I love Violet's list of all the things she wants to do with Titus. But equally good was Titus disentanglement from Violet, the awful way he pushed himself away from her when she got to be too much for him. Moving stuff, in both directions. With this, and with Anderson's keen depiction of character and dialogue (I disagree that Titus is one-dimensional), the book rises above some of its more humdrum aspects.

Also: "You can't spell 'danger' without DNA" is just fab.

Jon Polk said...

I think Titus works, though, because he's not just a "teenager stereotype"; I think everyone's like that to some degree. We all remain willfully ignorant of things, of the way the world works, because we function better that way.

That is true, but the idea of a teenager willfully lowering himself to fit in with his peers is a worn stereotype. Just a difference of emphasis b/t us, I guess.

Why did you see the "feed text" as so different from the way the feed was depicted elsewhere in the book?

The feed was not just text, but also visual in nature. This would have been an ideal time for Anderson to include some sort of image to better demonstrate what the character is actually experiencing. Sure, he can't include audio and such, but this text is just too one-dimensional for my tastes.

not only was the feed dangerous because of the way it was reshaping society, but it made you physically ill, too! How is that a social criticism?

Exactly. It's anti-consumerism taken so far that is ceases to be relevant for the audience. And as you say, it distracts from his main point about how the 'feed' is turning people into zombies that are incredibly easy to market to by going even further and saying such corporations are heartless, evil entities. Sure there's some morally ambiguous ground there, but nothing approaching the sort of place run by a Captain Planet villain.

I never meant to imply that your praise was only due to the book's marketing as a YA novel. Instead, I was referring to the positive buzz for this book I heard elsewhere, and the National Book Award nomination.

Perhaps I am being unfair by describing Titus as one-dimensional, I'll have to think about it a little more.