I recently finished reading Feed, a dystopian young adult novel which reads as a great indictment of modern society and the trends which society seems to be following. I’ve been reading an assortment of young adult literature lately (you can see a few examples in the current sidebar, I believe), because I like young adult books, and I think it’s interesting to see what kind of material is being covered in them. Oddly enough, I think that trendy and popular young adult literature is sometimes more insightful than trendy adult literature, and some very interesting themes are getting explored in YA novels like Speak, The Hunger Games, and The Book of Lost Things.
In Feed, our characters inhabit a future in which people have the option of loading their brains with a “feed,” which is essentially a personal computer in the mind. People can communicate directly with each other through their feeds, use their feeds to look up information, and they of course receive a barrage of information from advertisements to breaking news through their feeds. As the book unfolds, we learn that the contents of feeds and the news is tightly controlled: the companies which administer feeds sell user data to advertisers, for example, and it’s very difficult to get balanced news because news is deliberately blacked out or blocked.
Initially, we assume that everyone has a feed. However, we learn that there are actually a lot of class issues bound up in having feeds. Our main character learns that about a quarter of the population doesn’t have a feed because they can’t afford it, and a character who got a feed later in life discusses the experience of discrimination when he didn’t have one as a young man, and his eventual decision to get a feed implanted. The feed also, it turns out, becomes interconnected with the body’s systems, which means that when the feed malfunctions, it can be fatal.
This sets the stage for a character who is given a feed later than other people, who starts to experience malfunctions in her feed, and who eventually dies because the feed is so damaged. She also dies because when she appeals for customer support and asks for help, her request is turned down. Because she hasn’t bought enough, so the company doesn’t see fixing her as a productive investment.
The book brings up a lot of issues, like the fundamental disconnect which technology is creating, even as it seems to interconnect us more and more. In a scene where the feeds of several characters are temporarily disconnected due to a hacking, we also see the restlessness which people experience when they have been exposed to technology for their entire lives and that technology is taken away, even temporarily. Eventually, our characters start to enjoy themselves after several days of isolation, but when their feeds are turned back on, they eagerly leap back into their old lives, except for our main character, of course, who begins to question the role of the feed in his life.
One of the issues which danced at the edge of the story was environmental destruction. The Earth is literally paved solid with people, with communities actually being built in layers because there’s no more room on the surface. Nothing lives but what is planted, one of the characters points out, and the oceans are so sick and filled with pollution that people wear hazmat suits at the beach to protect themselves from the water. People wax nostalgic for wild animals, and humans have effectively colonized and destroyed the entire solar system; our characters travel to locations like the Moon and find them boring and dull, just like the Earth which an exploding human population has created. In a truly depressing scene, the main character and his love interest go to a “farm” where they encounter fields of veal which is being bioengineered, and they talk about this experience as though they are enjoying the real natural world, and life on a real farm.
We also get bits and pieces of news which suggest that Americans, in particular, are responsible for much of the destruction as a result of their lifestyles, and that corporations have come to dominate the world so thoroughly that there’s almost no real government. There are rumblings along the edges of the story which suggest that other world actors may be taking steps to deal with the out of control situation in the United States, even as we watch our characters struggle with the world theyare living in. It mirrors the ever-rising resource inequality worldwide, with the United States using a highly disproportionate share of global resources.
All in all, it makes for grim reading. The point of a dystopian novel is to paint a horrific image of the future as a cautionary tale. Feed definitely accomplishes that. And that’s why you should read it, if you haven’t already.