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

TODAY IN SLATE

The Slatest

Ben Bradlee Dead at 93

The legendary Washington Post editor presided over the paper’s Watergate coverage.

This Scene From All The President’s Men Captures Ben Bradlee’s Genius

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.