The Feed, Nick Clark Windo’s brilliantly-chilling debut novel, is predicated on a simply though wholly terrifying idea – what if all knowledge, every last skerrick of understanding and know-how, every warm-and-fuzzy memory and emotional connection suddenly ceased to exist?
What then? What would we do? How would we survive? And perhaps most importantly of all in this Oprah-Tony Robbins hyper-self-actualised age, who would we become?
It’s a thought-provoking idea, one we can still entertain an answer to in our relatively-unconnected world, but in The Feed‘s non-specific but highly-advanced future where humanity is hardwired via connections in their brain to everyone else, and knowledge is a resource we access, not something we possess within ourselves, it is quite simply a matter of life-and-death when what can only be described as the internet on steroids suddenly ceases to exist, taking civilisation down with it.
Right now, of course, many of us, even those of passionately addicted to Twitter and the like, would possibly welcome a little down time from the omnipresent lure of social media – although the panic and outrage when these platforms do go down might suggest otherwise – but for the people of The Feed, people like English couple Tom and Kate, it’s far from an academic proposition when the interconnectivity of the human race no longer exists.
“I close my eyes and my memories of the Feed’s phantom images score the darkness like neon and starlight, an internal global cityscape where everyone lives close by. So beautiful. So inevitable. So comfortable … The world is quiet … I have no idea what the menu is and we can’t get the waiter’s attention. It’s like we don’t exist. We’re here, cocooned in slow-moving silence as everyone around us communicates, eats and laughs, and it’s like—” (P. 4)
Tom is a man passionately committed to “going slow”, the idea that you unplug from the Feed, where every last moment of human interaction takes place, and have conversations in the real world, a place where books are no longer printed, classes are no longer attended and no one talks out loud.
Aside from Tom, who has his own familial reasons for resistance and Kate, a rebel in some form too though one increasingly subsumed into the very apparatus she claims to stand apart from, a position that forms the very basis of her activities on the Feed, no one else wants to be part from all the knowledge, all those emotions, all those memories … until there is no choice it is all gone, and bereft of everything they have come to depend on, humanity descends into near-barbaric wildness, or just as deadly, flails around, stripped of the ability without omnipresent manuals and guides and the likes, to save themselves.
The descent into anarchy is swift, sure and certain and without Kate’s aunt’s farm as a refuge, which they share with some other people like resistors Jane and Graham, all of whom fight hard to glean whatever knowledge they can from the fading glimmers and shimmers of the Feed echoes, and their daughter Bea to live for, it’s highly likely they too would join the dead or drugged-up scions of humanity stumbling through a world stripped back to the very basics of being.
What gives The Feed a wholly distinctive voice in the crowded field of apocalyptic literature is the way Windo focuses on the way identity is often shaped by what we know and how that affects the way we interact with others.
With memories often lost to the same Feed-less void into which the near sum total of humanity culture and learning has tumbled without warning, people are adrift, often unsure of who they full are anymore with uncomfortable holes punched in their recollections of life before the collapse with partners, friends and family (those that survived anyway; the death toll, as you might imagine, is considerable).
This focus on identity is brought into even sharper relief with a recurring threat looming in the former of nocturnal takeovers of people’s consciousness by forces unknown and unseen who replace the former occupant of the body with personalities that appear, on the surface at least, to be homicidally-inclined.
These takeovers, which force people to sleep in shifts to keep watch on their companions for signs of being “taken”, not only brought about the downfall of civilisation and the Feed which supported it, but create a culture of fear and paranoia post-collapse which hamper the vital business of staying alive.
“But she knows he abandoned her. She knows he separated them. She knows that’s not how he should behave. Is it really him? Her finger tightens around the trigger, but the man wrenches the rifle away and brings it up to bear, elbowing her aside. The gun recoils and he squints back through the scope and fire three more rounds, each shot compacting Kate’s ears.” (P. 133)
The genius of Windo’s writing is that while he vividly gives a sense of what apocalyptic Britain is like, his focus is primarily on how the end of the world, and the loss of almost everything that made it, affects the people left alive, especially in light of the fact that who they are could be overwritten at any moment without them knowing.
The explanation for this all-too-real identity theft is enormously clever and suitably sobering and nuanced, eschewing the usual melodramatic overtones you might expect for a layered, emotionally-resonant outcome where the perpetrators are not cardboard cutout villains.
Or in some cases, villains at all.
If you like apocalyptic fiction that goes beyond the schlock value of death, destruction and endless decline, and actually says something meaningful and thoughtful about what it means to be human when everything that once underpinned that humanity is gone, and when there is an ever-present threat that your very sense of self could taken from you, you will be utterly beguiled by The Feed, a novel that takes the time to explore very real, pertinent issues in the midst of an engrossing narrative that will have you turning pages faster than the Feed once fed a now ferociously-marooned humanity.