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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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

The Girl With All the Gifts
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