You’ve Got to Read This Zombie Novel of Ideas

Reading between the lines.
July 8 2014 8:04 AM

Braaaiiins

The Girl With All the Gifts, a zombie novel of ideas.

(Continued from Page 1)

The most intriguing character is Caroline Caldwell, a researcher dedicated to finding a cure for Ophiocordyceps. Caldwell digs into the brains of Melanie’s classmates without remorse, because she sees their chatter and smiles and attempts at emotional connection as pure evolutionary chicanery—tricks the fungus plays to facilitate its spread. When a colleague balks at sawing into a child’s head, Caldwell scolds her: “Please remember, Doctor, that the subject presents as a child but is actually a fungal colony animating a child’s body. There’s no place for sentiment here.”

1407_SBR_GirlGifts-COVER

Caldwell is motivated by her desire to save humanity, of course. But there’s also a chip on her shoulder: During the start of the Breakdown, as it’s called, the country’s top scientists were sent out into infected zones in two buses kitted out with the latest in protective technology. Humanity’s hopes went with them on their field-research journey. (This is one spot where Carey chooses plot over logic. Why send all of your best men and women out into the horde?) Caldwell just missed the cut—meaning that she was the top scientist left when both vehicles vanished.

If she can’t find the answers that eluded her colleagues, she thinks, no one can. That’s quite a burden, and quite an ego. “If the road to knowledge was paved with dead children,” Carey writes of Caldwell, “she’d still walk it and absolve herself afterwards.”

Advertisement

When the military complex where Caldwell, Miss Justineau, and Melanie all live is compromised—right before Melanie’s about to lose her brain to science—the three, along with a couple of military men, must band together (with heaps of suspicion on all sides) to try to find their way to another outpost of humanity. And along the way, they discover just how clever Ophiocordyceps really is—and how long the game is it’s really playing. I don’t want to spoil anything here, but suffice it to say that the zombies are a means, not an end.

Miss Justineau and Caldwell do battle throughout the novel, with Miss Justineau’s compassion and eventual love for Melanie contrasting with Caldwell’s hunger for the girl’s brain. (Who’s the zombie again?) During one argument, Caldwell rants:

You should ask yourself … why you’re so keen on thinking of me as the enemy. If I make a vaccine, it might cure people like Melanie, who already have a partial immunity to Ophiocordyceps. It would certainly prevent thousands upon thousands of other children from ending up the way she has. Which weighs the most, Helen? Which will do the most good in the end? Your compassion, or my commitment to my work? Or could it be that you shout at me and disrespect me to stop yourself from having to ask questions like that?

The Girl With All the Gifts is crossover horror at its best: a book that can appeal to readers like me who are interested in the altered social dynamics of a collapsed society, but who are inclined to skim over lengthy descriptions of dull, gory battles. (This is a lazy reading practice that, on more than one occasion, has left me confused, only to realize that I missed the death of a main character.) There’s bloodshed and some battle, sure, but they take a back seat to mind-bending questions of research ethics in the midst of crisis, the clash of pragmatism and humanity, and the idea of individual free will.

It’s a welcome shift from the focus of many zombie stories. While the cinematic World War Z, 28 Days Later, and even The Walking Dead (remember the brief visit to the CDC?) offer glosses of science and lip service about ethics, their primary attraction is action. As is often the case with action storytelling, the moral conundrums in these tales are straightforward, dull—there’s almost always a clear right and wrong.

Carey’s complicated novel, however, makes it impossible to pick a side: Caldwell or Justineau? Melanie or humanity? Is Caldwell’s quest for answers truly scientifically pure, or is it just another example of an animal’s innate drive to protect itself from extinction? The Girl With All the Gifts turns eating brains from the usual empty-calorie snack into a full, complex, palate-challenging meal.

---

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey. Orbit.

The Girl With All the Gifts

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Doublex

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Politico Wonders Why Gabby Giffords Is So “Ruthless” on Gun Control

Behold
Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?