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by MT Anderson

(Walker Books, £4.99, 313 pages, paperback, published 2003.)

cover scanThe Feed: a constant flow of information, advice, advertorial, and plain urging to buy, buy, buy. It's the Internet and the Shopping Channel plugged into your head, so that you never really have to think for yourself (because the Feed will prompt you, fill any gaps, find information for you, suggest that you might want to buy the latest trainers jackets cars whatever).

We've all been here before, of course -- we've even had the cyberpunk label for it for the last twenty years -- but MT Anderson brings his own up-to-the-minute take to the sub-genre. There are some lovely touches here, as the Feed provides a constant backdrop to everything young Titus does, advising him, nudging him, encouraging him to consume in this ultra-consumerist future. There's the way the Feed keeps you up to date: you go to a party and the Feed fills you in on all the good bits you've missed, while at that party everyone's in their own little Feed-mediated bubble: no need for actual music, because everyone can have their own music in their head -- the novelty of having real music, where everyone hears the same thing at the same time is striking. The Feed speeds everything up: as communication is instant, and you never have to miss anything, so trends come and go in the blink of an eye -- part way through one party two of the girls go off to the bathroom "because hairstyles had changed". And Titus's kid brother, nicknamed Smell Factor, demonstrates how stroppy brats can subvert even the most controlling of technologies, playing his games and movies unshielded so that anyone nearby is subjected to fragments of interference and intrusion from whatever is entertaining him at that time.

Feed is narrated in a slangy first-person voice that can be hard to get into and sometimes just doesn't quite ring true, but for the most part this adds to the overall effect:

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.

So Titus and his friends go to the moon for a bit of fun. And then he sees Violet and immediately he recognises that there's something different about her, something that sets her apart from the crowd. Soon she's tagging along with them, and so she is with Titus when the group fall victim to a terrorist act in a nightclub that renders their feeds useless and in need of major repair work. This binds Titus and Violet in a relationship that becomes claustrophobic and Titus gets increasingly out of his depth as he struggles to handle the far greater impact this incident has on Violet than it does on him.

Feed treads a very fine line between triumph and failure in the way Anderson has chosen to tackle this personally-invasive 1984-ish future. The small group of central characters -- other than Violet -- are pretty much unquestioning in their acceptance of, and reliance on, the Feed. This is the point. But sometimes the way they parrot the PR is just too glib:

When no one was going to pay for the public schools anymore and they were all like filled with guns and drugs and English teachers who were really pimps and stuff, some of the big media congloms got together and gave all this money and bought the schools so that all of them could have computers and pizza for lunch and stuff, which they gave for free, and now we do stuff in classes about how to work technology and how to find bargains and what's the best way to get a job and how to decorate our bedroom.

Any spark of teenage rebellion has been snuffed out by the Feed, which is a valid enough premise. But when we have a novel whose protagonists just drift along unquestioningly, it becomes very hard to really care. There's a lot of mystery in this novel: when and how they will learn that the feed is a Bad Thing, what really happened when they were hacked in the nightclub incident, the odd lesions that are affecting more and more people, whether events in the rest of the world (only ever touched on in news reports) will intrude. But Titus finds it hard to think about these things, let alone to actually care. And so, too, does the reader. The successful portrayal of Titus as a kind of Everyman of this apathetic, ad-washed future can only contribute to the reader's growing antipathy as the story progresses...

It's this fine line between success and failure that marks Feed -- a young adult novel that should certainly be read by old adults -- as worthy of serious attention. It may not, entirely, work, but it's an intriguing demonstration of the delicate balance between creating a credible protagonist who doesn't care and creating a story where the reader really should care.

Review by Nick Gifford.

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