In a future America that features flying cars and homes with literal climate control”” each household can choose its own weather””the technology people rely on the most is the Feed. Part television, part Internet, the Feed is continuously available, courtesy of a brain implant received in infancy. The Feed is communication device (chat with your friends!), entertainment (the hottest show on the Feed is a serial teen drama called “Oh? Wow! Thing!”), and perhaps most importantly, a source for all the most important news: What are all the other kids wearing, and where can I buy it? What’s the new hairstyle this hour? What’s the coolest nightclub, the hottest Moon resort, the best place to shop? What do I really want?
The Feed watches the people who watch it, recording what they buy, where they browse, whom they hang out with, and what they respond to””using it all to create consumer profiles that help marketers pinpoint their audience and stoke the ever-burning fires of consumer need. The Feed is more than just a useful tool to the people of this world””it’s vital to their way of life. The Feed is so helpful, it’s almost like it knows what the kids want even before they do.
Our narrator, Titus, and his friends never question the role of the Feed in their lives, until the day Titus meets Violet, a girl who didn’t get the Feed implant at birth. A girl who didn’t attend Schoolâ„¢, where kids are mostly taught shopping skills. A girl with thoughts of her own””thoughts about how to throw a wrench into the system of the Feed.
(NOTE:Â Here there be spoilers!Â Discussion ofÂ theÂ book, including plot points, follows; if you haven’t read the book and don’t want to know in advance what happens,Â turn back now!)Â
“We went to the Moon to have fun, but the Moon turned out to suck.” I admire a writer who can give you so much information about the story you’re getting into in such a simple opening line. Pleasure jaunts to the Moon? We must be some distance into a future that hasn’t experienced an apocalypse, since technology has continued developing enough to allow lunar tourism. Our narrator is a person of sufficient wealth and leisure that he can pop off to the moon with friends for the weekend, and callow enough to have no appreciation of it. Ah, the color, the bouquet: the grape is American Teenager; the vintage, 22nd-century? Twenty-third, perhaps?
The author sets himself an interesting challenge, addressing big ideas like literacy, stewardship of the earth, and the effects of consumerism on free will, through a narrator as verbally-impaired as Titus. It’s a challenge for the reader, as well””not only to get past all the slang and divine meaning from the half-formed thoughts, but also because everything we know of this world is mediated through Titus’ experience and interpretation of it. He’s inured the nastiness and indifferent to the wonder, but the reader gets the full effect of both. That’s a neat trick, pulled off by a talented author.
It’s to Anderson’s credit that he creates a character as sympathetic as Violet and manages to convey her intelligence and thoughtfulness through the nearly-tongueless Titus. The glimpses we get make us wish we could get him out of the way and experience her story directly. Anyone who went through high school with thinking tendencies will relate to Violet. (And if you do have such tendencies, I promise you that the moment when Titus discovers Violet can write””with a pen!””will resonate with some experience in your own past.)
The world Titus and Violet move through seems unspeakably vile to us””the meat farm, the unidentified oozing sores that become a fashion statement””but that’s because we’ve been dropped into it from our present perspective. A person doesn’t wake up one morning in a dystopia like this; such a nightmare grows up around a person, day by day, choice by choice. In proud spec-fic tradition, M.T. Anderson has taken the trends he sees in today’s society and run them forward to their absurd””but not impossible””conclusions. The real horror of this book lies not in the ways Anderson’s world is alien to ours, but in the ways it is similar.
“The real horror of this book lies not in the ways Anderson’s world is alien to ours, but in the ways it is similar.”
Kai, I couldn’t agree with you more. As you so rightly observe, this is not an impossible scenario. And some days, it just seems like the inevitable conclusion of a self-serving, consumer-based society where everything is increasingly controlled by large corporations. And Violet steals the words from my mouth when she so aptly states at one point, “The only thing worse than the thought that it may all come tumbling down is the thought that we may go on like this forever.”
I will admit a certain fondness for dystopian speculation. I’m sure that is what drew me to this book in the first place. I read Feed not long after having reread Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. Now, that’s a pretty tough act to follow. I remember hearing her say somewhere that she had written it in part as a response to George Orwell’s 1984. She also stated that she didn’t believe it a very likely future, but recently, given the current political climate, she has said that it seems a tad more realistic to her now. For myself, I sometimes worry about that type of a future. Still, the alternative dystopia presented by Anderson, one in which mind-numbing consumerism rather than religious zeal has gone overboard, seems a much more likely and, I might add, effective strategy.
Being Part of the Resistance
The central goal of Violet’s last days was to resist the feed ““ to become an uncategorizable variable in the system. She wanted to throw the corporations on their ends. Not like Titus and his friends, who all say on occasion that they want to “screw the corporations da da da.” For her it is a mission, an experiment. In the end, she was so close, but they were starting to win. Now, I feel that I am a fairly aware person and that I do my best to “resist the feed” on a pretty daily basis. I am trying to live consciously, but I will admit some days (maybe more days than even I realize) it feels like they are winning. Finishing this book always leaves me heavy. The most dangerous mistake we can make at this point is hubris ““ to think that we are not affected by the blatant and egregious attempts of corporations to control our behavior by any means possible is just plain naive.
The Languages are Dying
Just by way of a little food for thought, Kai. You refer to Titus’ language skills at a couple of points, calling him “nearly-tongueless” and “verbally-impaired.” I was a little surprised by this, because, in comparison to those around him ““ including his circle of friends and his family members ““ he alone has the capacity to understand Violet, it seemed to me, because of his grasp of language. Admittedly, I too find it pretty base and horrifying and Violet could run circles around him any day. But I also felt that since Anderson used the first-person p.o.v. so effectively, we are getting Titus’ own impressions of himself as the most obvious and he is completely dismissive (as he would want to be while trying to fit in with his friends) of his own use of language. At one point early on, Violet tells him that she picked him because he was the only one “of them” who used metaphor. Her impressions, even when watered down and filtered through Titus’ thoughts and attempts to develop his own complacency, are also tell-tale signs.
I’m thinking of several eloquent passages in the book where his description of his own feelings of emptiness and being alone touched on something deep in my own human experience. We saw this right from the beginning. When they arrived on the moon, he is contemplating how old and empty space is, how littered with trash and the cast-off remnants of life and how grateful he is to be traveling with friends for warmth and comfort. Later in the hotel room when they are trying to break into the mini bar they destroy part of it and no one can think of the word for the wheel on the bottom except Titus who comes up with “caster.” He says, “You know your break sucks when the most brag part of the night is you coming up with the word ‘caster’.”
Right from the beginning Titus recognizes that there is something smart and unusual about Violet. He is constantly worried about sounding stupid in front of her or being judged as a moron because of his friends. Stupid compared to what? Where does he get this idea from? That registers as meg (sorry, I couldn’t resist tossing in a little of the books incredibly well positioned slang) self-awareness.
One scene I think of in particular when I am considering the intelligence and sensitivity of Titus is when they are at Link’s house and he takes Violet up to the attic. He tells her about how they used to play ‘Sardines in a Closet’ (kind of an inverse hide-and-seek) and he talks about that moment when you realize everyone else has already found the hiding space and you are the only one left and you’re alone, but you aren’t because everyone is just thinking about you and you could walk around for hours alone, but not alone. His observation of little details such as the neighborhood where Violet lives with the sky that is starting to peel and his description of her in the mountain hotel room “looking what people call ‘askance’.” To me this conveys a depth that he was not very practiced in exposing and a skill for handling language which he both tried to hide and wasn’t encouraged to develop. It’s like that moment where his mother tells him he isn’t stupid, that he is just a “non-traditional” learner. Yeah! No kidding! Non-traditional in their world, but really more of a thinker than any of them put together. Ignorant, yes ““ even willfully so at times (which is maddening). And maybe even the label “verbally-impaired” is accurate and on more than one occasion he comes across as “nearly-tongueless.” Still, I didn’t want to pass by the substance of his abilities either, because for someone like him, in a different environment, it would have been a whole different experience.
That is one thing about the book that really sealed the deal for me. M.T. Anderson’s portrayal of these young adults is unapologetically realistic, but also respectful. It isn’t a censure-ridden “these kids today” look at the state of America. They are nothing more than a product of their times and environment. And yet, they really display some remarkable behavior ““ like Quendy’s admonishment of Titus once she realizes that he is starting to panic and distance himself from Violet.
The Simplification of Language
The obvious connection to “the feed” is our dependence on the Internet to get all our information, to stay connected with people, to remember things, and the list goes on. I don’t want to completely disregard technology, because while I believe all technological advances should carry big warning tags and require everyone who uses it to develop their own philosophy about its purpose in their lives, I still ultimately believe that the dangers lie in our use of it. Nevertheless, dependence on such media to remember facts, dates, history, language and any number of other things only serves to make our brains less agile. When Titus first meets Violet’s father she explains his strange speech in this way, “He says the language is dying. He thinks words are being debased. So he tries to speak in weird words and irony, so no one can simplify anything he says.”
Each time I read this book I am overcome with a need to be truly conscious of what I am saying, to take the time to really communicate. It is easy to leave off doing that when I’m with my husband or my mother or my good friends, because dammit, don’t we all know each other well enough to understand what the other person is saying without them having to say it? But that is not the point. So I find myself watching what I say very carefully. I find myself forcing my brain to find the words. Language is the original magic, and you can see at the end when Titus goes back to visit Violet, he starts with telling her stories. He can only tell them in one sentence to begin with, but you get the sense that this is the start of real change. But, even so, it is not a thrilling victory. Music does not swell and rise in a triumphal arch. The victory is small, it is personal, because that is the only type of change possible when things have gone so far afield.