Dystopia isn’t something I worry about a whole lot, usually. I’ve read 1984 and Brave New World, and I’ve seen Demolition Man, so I figure I’ve got the basics covered. We know how society could be twisted into some nightmare version of itself if we’re not careful. The thing is, usually dystopia seems like something that’s far away, and a whole chain of bad decisions need to be made before we get there. I mean, they aren’t killing everyone over thirty or feeding us Soylent Green yet, so we’ve got some time. There’s something safe about the nightmare societies most fiction presents us with. They seem so distant, so impossible, so completely avoidable. There’s no way we’d let things get that bad. Then you come across a book like Feed, and the future it portrays doesn’t seem so impossible. In fact, you can already see it happening, in your friends, your kids… even in yourself. This is not a safe, far-off dystopia. It’s something else, something closer to home. It’s terrific and terrifying.
Feed, by author M.T. Anderson, is part dystopian cautionary tale, part teen love story, with a dash of humor and tragedy thrown in for good measure. It follows Titus and his friends-teenagers that basically grew up with the Internet in their brains through this technology called the Feed. The Feed gives them access to everything they could want to know, along with a constant stream of advertisements, which they don’t mind because the ads are tailored to their specific online profiles, and they have a way of knowing what kinds of things the kids are going to want even before they do. While vacationing on the moon (which according to Titus, “sucked”) they meet Violet, a girl who has a reason to distrust the Feed. As she and Titus fall in love, she tries to show him how to resist the Feed.
There’s a lot to enjoy about Feed. The writing itself is easy to read—almost deceptively so. There are some truly beautiful sentences in here, but it’s the story and setting that will remain with you. Anyone who spends a lot of time on the Internet will feel an eerie familiarity with the world of Feed. You get the feeling that this is where companies such as Google and Facebook might be leading us: to a world where you can be sitting right next to someone and smiling at them, while mentally chatting with someone else, or doing a bit of online shopping when the conversation gets boring. There’s no need to be smart anymore, or to think for yourself, since you have access to all the historical and scientific facts you could want. If someone mentions something you haven’t heard of, you can just do a quick search in your head and the answer is there.
The picture that slowly comes into focus is a world where people are slaves, but they like it too much to resist. They have been programmed to like it, and to look down on anyone that tries to tell them that they are puppets. What could be wrong with always being aware of what’s cool, and having non-stop access to all that awesome stuff, and being able to know whatever they want whenever they want? As it turns out, quite a lot. While Titus and his friends are caught up in trivialities, the reader gets to peek behind the curtain now and then and see how bad things really are. War and disease threaten the country, but everyone is too distracted to care. This is one of the brilliant aspects of the book: Anderson gives the audience mere glimpses into how far gone the world is, while the point-of-view character Titus is continuously distracted by the Feed.
As dark as the book can be, it is also very funny in places. There’s an amusing scene in which Titus’s friends try to take advantage of a promotion by a certain company, and don’t realize that by the end they’ve just convinced themselves to buy the product. And the way the characters make fashion statements out of a popular medical ailment is pure black comedy. The book pokes a lot of fun at the carelessness of American consumerism, then turns around and hits you with the real horror of living in a world where what you buy is your ultimate value.
Feed is a portrait of what it looks like to be conformed to the image of the world. It shows a generation of slaves that have been trained to enjoy their slavery, and refuse to humble themselves to realize that they might not have everything they need, that something precious has been lost in the constant noise of information and the way their lives have been commodified. And it shows how hard it is to resist the Feed, to try to have your mind renewed and become a person that the world no longer has any power over. (And it does not shy away from the cost of that decision.)
Content warnings: language is the big one; there’s some swearing in the book, some very brief drug use, and there’s a scene of sensuality (sort of). If it were a film, it would probably be rated PG-13.
I haven’t talked a lot about the characters in this review, partly because most of them are intentionally bland, the end result of living with the Feed all their lives. In spite of that, Titus and Violet do get to shine as young people trying to navigate a world gone terribly wrong and find one another in it. There’s a beautiful love story here, and I won’t tell you if it manages to overcome the twisted society it’s been born into, but in the end it affected me more than John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, and that book tells a story about love between terminally ill kids.
If you like dystopian, sci-fi, teen romance, or both (I’m looking at you, Hunger Games fans), you will appreciate Feed. If you spend way too much time online, and it leaves you feeling empty, you will relate to Titus’s world. And if you want to spend a couple hours terrified of what society might slowly be turning into, and what it’s doing to us as human beings, this book will make you want to resist the steady stream of messages the world is sending you.
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