I have the world’s strangest relationship with the writing of Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire. I’ve read at least one book in every single series she’s published and had a “meh” response to all of them.
The exception is the Newsflesh trilogy, which I love with the force of a thousand suns. I’ve wanted to read all the short stories set in the Newsflesh universe for ages but haven’t been able to obtain many of them for several reasons. Having all of them here in one book is a joy—I was able to fully dive back into this universe and its characters that I love so much
EVEN WHEN THEY DO THINGS THAT MAKE ME WANT TO BLOW THE UNIVERSE UP. (Hi, I have issues with the second half of Blackout. We don’t talk about that, save that it is 100 percent personal.)
Rise is the first book to collect all of Mira Grant’s previously published short fiction set in the Newsflesh universe—five novellas, one short story—as well as two brand-new pieces. And even with my baggage, reading Rise felt like coming home. A murderous home populated by zombies and mad scientists and even madder assassins and insane, scientifically-impossible bloggers and regular, everyday people pushed to their absolute limits on the brink of destruction—and all of them are what makes it home.
“Countdown”: The only piece I read prior to reading Rise, “Countdown” is the story where it all begins—the story of Dr. Amberlee creating a miraculous cure for cancer and Dr. Kellis on the brink of eradicating the common cold, and the many, many unfortunate turns that brought their two cures into collision, from which point they mutated into the zombie virus that brought about the Rising. It’s a poignant tale of a seemingly inevitable but entirely preventable catastrophe, the calm before the storm before everything happens all at once and everyone experiences the dawning, paralyzing realization that the world as people know it has ceased to exist.
“Everglades”: A very short but punchy story set in the midst of the Rising about the people who don’t survive the Rising, not because they’re turned into zombies but because they make the decision to not be a part of this new, terrifying world. One of the consistent themes of the Newsflesh universe is humans coexisting, or not, with nature. If nature now includes zombies—if zombies are nature—humanity is now true prey for the first time in its existence.
“San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats”: I had thought this story of the Rising amidst the very last San Diego Comic-Con would take place in the actual middle of the con, so the fact that the story happens entirely on the day before the con proper, on Preview Night, was a bit disappointing. Aside from this niggle, it was a fun (if that’s the right word), action-packed story of zombies breaking into and infecting an entire mass of people in a building with zero cell reception and spotty wi-fi. It’s told partially as an interview from the perspective of the last known survivor and in media res from con attendees, celebrities, and the California Browncoats themselves, and the structure does a great job juxtaposing how much people did not know about the specifics of how the zombie virus worked versus all the knowledge and behaviors and necessities that are now a way of life thirty years later.
“How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea”: My least favorite story of the bunch, this one is more of a travelogue than an actual story, since not much actually happens. Set slightly after the end of Blackout, Mahir of “After the End Times” travels to Australia to meet up with some of his Australian Newsie and Irwin counterparts, and in doing so gets more than he bargained for on how Australia, unlike the rest of the world, coexists alongside zombies in favor of conserving what’s left of Australia’s native plant and animal species. In addition to being the most lighthearted story of the collection, it sets up some interesting comparisons with the United States and England’s status quos of living in a state of fear and isolation versus Australia’s “live and let live” attitude towards their new, flesh-eating neighbors. It’s another exploration of of zombies as nature and how people might work with rather than against it, and also how nature is constantly evolving and self-correcting for all the wild changes thrown at it—even zombies.
“How the Dead Came to Show and Tell”: Ouch ouch ouch. The brutal, bloody story of what happens when a zombie outbreak occurs in an elementary school and a first-grade teacher is tasked with getting all of her students to safety when the entire building is locked down and the classrooms and hallways are filled with turned teachers and children. (Fun fact: some of her students aren’t capable of becoming zombies because they’re not yet over the 40-pound threshold, while others are. It adds a whole new level of “oh my fucking god” to the story.) Also another exploration of the United States’ constant state-of-fear mentality, especially with regards to children and education, and teachers’ desires to teach their charges to not fear the world while having to do horrible things to protect them when the outside world breaks in. It’s security theater taken to an extreme degree, ostensibly to protect both students and teachers, and then failing entirely when the students and teachers need it most. This isn’t a story about politics and the monetization of fear and death for power and profit, but they overwhelmingly inform the outcome in hard-hitting ways.
“Please Do Not Taunt the Octopus”: Dr. Shannon Abbey, professional mad scientist, is one of the best characters in the Newsflesh universe, and so of course she steals the show in this novella set within her new lab headquarters and dealing with the unexpected arrival of the off-kilter, uber-assassin Foxy (last seen in Blackout), along with an incoming invasion of criminals who intend to steal Dr. Abbey’s lab.
Starting with this novella and continuing to the end of the collection, a running theme is the aftermath of trauma and recovery (or lack thereof). In order to stay alive, functional, and varying degrees of sane, people learn to cope with their new reality as it is, they burn down their old selves and create new identities better suited to this new reality, or they reinvent their reality, because to live in the real one hurts too much to keep going. Foxy and Dr. Abbey are two people dealing with their own traumas in their respective fashions, be it through astronomical amounts of drugs or a single-minded devotion to curing the world. And Dr. Abbey, because she is a mad scientist and, most importantly, a doctor, will do her best to make a new world out of this current, fucked-up zombie world, where Foxy doesn’t have to be the person she became because to be her old person was far, far worse.
“All the Pretty Horses”: Ouch ouch ouch OUCH. Remember what I said about dealing with remaking the world you live in to cope with trauma? This is the story of Stacy and Michael Mason, post-Rising and the death of their biological, six-year-old son Philip (who Stacy shot after he turned into a zombie), and how they turned into the famed bloggers and callous, selfish ratings-grabbers George and Shaun call Mom and Dad.
To help a barely functional Stacy recover from murdering her son (at least this is how she sees it), Michael coaxes his wife to tag along on clean-up missions and document the experiences. What starts out as a means of recuperation turns into vital life support for Stacy, who uses the rising ratings and people’s gratitude to create a new life for herself as a savior and expert of the post-Rising world rather than a child murderer. All Michael wants is for Stacy to be happy, and he’ll commit alongside her to their new personas, to give Stacy the validation she needs to keep living. All it takes to really understand George’s single-minded dedication to the truth in journalism is to read this story and how Stacy and Michael Mason subverted the truth to ostensibly present it while using to bolster a private fantasy. It’s understandable, and it’s terrible.
“Coming to you Live”: “This is what you asked for.” For me, it’s not, and in order to read this I had to set aside the reasons why I quit reading Blackout. Still even with my mishegoss, I enjoyed hanging out with George and Shaun again, because at the end of the day they are the epitome of my are my “I will kill the entire world for you” relationship kink, and I love them. Again, lots of processing the trauma and scars Feed, Deadline, and Blackout left them with, and taking some of their first, real steps to deciding to recover. It’s also an actual, touchy-feely story of friends coming together to support and reconnect and acknowledge the past and figure what steps to take for the future. I won’t say anything about the actual plot because hey, why not leave some things a mystery? But it’s good.
At the end of the day, I love the stories of Rise for the same reason I love Ann Leckie and Tamora Pierce’s books and hell, even Davies-era Dr. Who—every person is worth remembering and treating respect because they are a person, and because they all have their own stories and backgrounds and foibles and weird traits. No one is too ordinary to be written about, no person unimportant. Rise is all the stronger for its many voices and stories of the ordinary and the unremarkable, because the Rising isn’t an event, but a story of the masses. The old world has ended, and the survivors and their descendants are still here, living in this new world, and fighting and surviving and dying to stay in it.
When will you rise?