The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey was one of those books that had blipped on my radar as something people were raving about, and, in my usual contrary way, immediately made me averse to actually getting it myself. A kind friend then gave it to me for Christmas so I could see what all the fuss was about. (Here be spoilers, don’t say I didn’t warn you).
I can’t see what all the fuss was about (this is, of course, a perennial problem with something that has been hyped: seldom does it live up to a heavy weight of expectation). Don’t get me wrong, it was entertaining, perfectly readable, had engaging characters (somewhat) and a fast-moving plot (such as there was of the plot). One of those books that’s fine to read on an aeroplane. But I was distinctly underwhelmed. I was also, to begin with, distinctly annoyed. And why? Zombies, that’s why.
Bloody zombies again. I was about to say that somebody needs to explain to me the zombie obsession at the moment, but, actually, they don’t. I’m not interested. I don’t care. I hate zombies. And not because they want to eat my brains. I hate them because they’re boring and ridiculous and most of all because they have been done to death. (No, I’m not apologising for that pun either).
To begin with, the story seems to be aiming for an air of Never Let Me Go: mysterious children in a mysterious school, shielded from the outside, a standout teacher who cares more than she should, and an air of ominous tragedy hanging over them as they disappear one by one. This air isn’t maintained for any length of time however, which is a shame; almost from the start, with reference to the soldiers trying to avoid being bitten, and “hungries” outside, it’s clear we’re talking about zombies. At which point, my heart sank a little. The action then moves swiftly to a very standard escape-and-pursuit adventure (standard zombies) in a post-zombie-apocalypse England.
I think part of what’s supposed to distinguish this zombie tale from others is a concerted effort to make up a “sciency” explanation for it all, and M.R. Carey does deserve some marks for effort and background research. He evidently watched that Attenborough nature documentary that first featured the Cordyceps fungus infecting some poor ant and, like the rest of us, thought, “Eek! What if that could infect humans?”
To his credit, he was the one who took the idea and ran with it. He does try, but there are egregious errors in the science; aspects of the lifecyle don’t make sense, being, as they are, a mismatch of different life history strategies (why make infected humans chase around trying to bite and infect others, yet also have this fire-triggered spore release cycle? And the second generation effect seen in Melanie – how is that supposed to work?). Of course, there are major credibility issues with humans with seriously degraded muscle tissue being able to move at all, but that’s a zombie problem, not a Cordyceps one. Probably this is why the whole construction creaks somewhat: it’s hard to shoehorn something so fundamentally unscientific into real science.
There are also minor irritations in his descriptions of scientist Caroline Caldwell’s labwork: he goes to great effort to describe microtomes, vital dyes, electron microscopes, etc – but utterly neglects sample preparation. Folks, you are not going to be able to slice a fresh brain with a microtome. You will, at best, have to freeze it (and I’m talking -80C, not the ice box) and slice it frozen. It’s too sticky. It’ll just squidge everywhere. Squidge is the technical word, by the way. Also, the samples in an EM microscope are in a vacuum. Cells explode in a vacuum. There’s extensive preparation involved and you have to be aware that what you’re looking at can be very artefactual. Samples for most microscopy work will have to undergo substantial “fixing” to stop the proteins degrading. Histologists everywhere are howling. As I say, these are irritations, but if you’re going to describe real science, you have to do it properly, because somebody is going to notice. Get it right, or leave it out.
I think the other aspect in which it is supposed to be different is that the main protagonist is a zombie, and a sympathetic one, at that, but this is becoming something of a characteristic for the whole “monsters” genre, so it’s not that fresh: we’ve had sympathetic vampires, werewolves, ghosts…and probably other sympathetic zombies that I’ve refused to look at. Of course, to do this, Carey has to make Melanie and the other children self-aware, self-controlled (up to a point) and intelligent. So not really like zombies at all. There are nice touches; Melanie’s growing self-awareness of what she is, and the bits involving vivisecting the children’s brains sets up a squeamish conflict in the reader, but the good bits are too few and far between.
Given the initial setup, and the title, I did wonder if the ending would involve Melanie actually being some sort of sacrifice to science to save the world. I’m not sure if I would have preferred that; I didn’t find her a hugely sympathetic character, to be honest; she got far too know-it-all, far too fast. Keeping more of her innocence would have been more effective. The other characters I liked well enough but were still fairly run-of-the-mill. The scientist, Caldwell, whilst not descending into cackling maniac levels of stereotype, nonetheless manages to hit one of the classic tropes: A scientist who is a woman? Gasp! She is clearly cold, not in touch with her “feminine” emotions, driven utterly by her work and inept and indeed utterly uninterested in other people. In keeping with this, it’s notable that she is the only adult character who doesn’t once think of sex, even in passing. I’m not sure if he was aiming for a Susan Calvin type persona (in which case, if TV tropes is to be believed, it is doubly amusing that Asimov apparently nearly named his roboticist Caldwell). This is pure laziness, not to mention rather inaccurate. Most female scientists I know are warm, passionate and rather good with people: they have to be, because modern science is a collaborative effort, and because with the intrinsic prejudice they face, they need to be extra-good at networking and all that primate politicking we humans excel at. Making Caldwell a more rounded human being, even making her more like Miss Justineau, would I think have actually set up a more dramatic tension between these characters, to the betterment of the story.
So, in short, a science fiction novel by someone who is not usually a science fiction author; in this case, primarily a comic book author and movie scriptwriter, and it shows. It’s been optioned for a movie; I’m sure it’ll be a gripping, well-done example of the genre. But it’s still bloody zombies.