You’ve Got to Read This Zombie Novel of Ideas

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


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.”


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.”


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. 



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM Going Private To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
The Eye
Oct. 1 2014 9:26 AM These Lego Masterpieces Capture the Fear and Humor of the “Dark” Side
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 8:46 AM The Vintage eBay Find I Wore to My Sentencing
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 7:30 AM Say Hello to Our Quasi-Moon, 2014 OL339
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.