The Girl With All the Gifts

M. R. Carey
The Girl With All the Gifts Cover

M. R. Carey - The Girl With All The Gifts (2014)


"She also knows that not all the evils that struck this land had the same cause and origin. The infection was bad. So were the things that the important-decision people did to control the infection. And so is catching little children and cutting them into pieces, even if you're doing it to try to make medicine that stops people being hungries."

'The Girl With All The Gifts' is a competent and thoroughly readable post-apocalyptic thriller, a good example of the kind of consistency that can be achieved late in a genre's run simply by cannily assembling or recombining the best ideas and tropes a subgenre has to offer. It has solid main characters that it develops thoughtfully along the way, a reasonably original concept for the lead and a powerful and even moving ending. Unfortunately, the novel fails to rise above its influences. For all that it plays with the tropes and ideas it evokes, it never quite manages to synthesise anything new or particularly striking from these component parts. Perhaps more problematic is the way the lack of balance and nuance between the characters means that the book ultimately falls short of doing justice to its big themes. Be warned, there will be spoilers from here on out.

It's impossible to talk about 'The Girl With All The Gifts' without giving away the Big Twist, which is that Melanie is a zombie, and the book is a zombie book. Melanie, the protagonist, is a ten year old girl who has spent all her living memory in an underground base, restrained to a wheelchair and locked in a cell when she's not in class. She and a bunch of other children are educated by teachers and minded by soldiers, while outside the world is overrun with hungries (what we're calling zombies this time round, not one of my favourite terms for them). The book keeps Melanie's ontological statues a secret from the reader and from Melanie herself for the initial portion of the book. This is an interesting idea, used to immediately humanise Melanie and her classmates and so to start the discussion about what it really means to be human, which is the major theme of the book. I have to say I liked this portion of the book the best by far, with Carey very effectively subverting the trope of the creepy child. Melanie is instantly likable, and the treatment she and her classmates receive from the adults tips the reader off immediately that something is very wrong. That something of course is ultimately the dehumanising treatment the zombie children are receiving at the hands of the adults at the facility who fail to see them as human. Now, none of this is particularly original. The set up and its execution echoes Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go', which unfortunately for Carey is a much better written exploration of similar ground. Science fiction in general has a long history of engaging with the Other to explore how people dehumanise those they deem less than human, and frequently does so very effectively via children, as John Wyndham does in 'The Chrysalids' and 'The Midwich Cuckoos', books whose influence is felt very strongly here. Perhaps some of the problem is Carey's lack of subtlety. The Big Twist is so heavily foreshadowed that, if you're familiar with the kind of games that genre fiction likes to play, you're unlikely to be surprised when the reveal comes. I also suspect he misses a trick by slipping out of Melanie's viewpoint into that of the teachers and the soldiers. It's possible to imagine a shorter, more intense book set entirely in the underground bunker, making the most out of Melanie's unusual perspective to create a work of Wolfean ambiguity.

However, Carey soon moves us away from the bunker. Melanie is chosen by Dr. Caldwell for vivisection - the entire point of the base is to study these sentient zombie children in the hopes of developing a cure - and avoids having her brain removed by a fortuitously timed attack on the base, which leaves Melanie, Dr. Caldwell, her favourite teacher Miss Justineau, and Sergeant Parks and Private Gallagher from the military detail guarding the base, stranded outside. The book quickly changes into a post-apocalypse survival thriller, as the mismatched group of civilians and military men must make its way through zombie-infested terrain to Beacon, where the last remnants of humanity is holed up. From here on out the book takes a disappointing nose-dive into utter predictability. Carey takes us through all the stations of the crash, running through a virtual checklist of post-apocalyptic tropes. Does the stolen car break down almost immediately? Check. Does Sergeant Park get frustrated at the civilians for not following his orders, but the civilians ultimately come to realise that under his gruff exterior he genuinely has their best interests at heart? Check. Did the government try to contain the spread of the zombie infection by using increasingly unpleasant and heavy-handed methods against its panicking population? And so on. Carey faces the problem that anyone writing a post-apocalyptic zombie thriller in the year 2014 faces, which is that this is ground that has been very well trod on. Yet one does not need to be heavily versed in the genre to be familiar with everything he wheels out here. Anyone who's read 'The Death Of Grass' by John Christopher and seen the Romero zombie films is going to recognise nearly every scene and scenario that plays out. 'The Girl With All The Gifts' doesn't do enough to distinguish itself from these predecessors. By the end of the story, the largest shadow cast over the book is Richard Matheson's 'I Am Legend', which plays exactly the same trick with humans assuming that the monsters they are fighting are, well, monsters, instead of sentient living beings who will replace them, and indeed the endings of the two books converge, to the extent that the not inconsiderable emotional impact of Carey's ending is attenuated by how similar it is.

This is a shame because there is a lot of stuff that Carey does well. Sergeant Parks' character arc may be familiar, but it is done very well here, with Parks developing into a genuinely likable and sympathetic character from his early portrayal as a vicious meathead. Both Miss Justineau and Dr. Caldwell are female characters with agency, strength and some depth. And Carey's explanation of the zombie apocalypse is very well thought out. Carey's zombies are caused by infection with a variant of the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the fungus that manipulates the brains of ants, as popularised in the David Attenborourgh documentary 'Planet Earth' and various zombie-themed Cracked articles. While post-Max Brooks and '28 Days Later' the infection model for zombies is nothing new, Carey thinks it out and its relationship to its human host, and how this allows for the zombie children like Melanie to retain control of their higher brain function unlike the first generation of zombies, in convincing biological detail. However I wonder if this isn't part of the book's problem. 'The Girl With All The Gifts' commits the very SFnal sin of explaining everything in incredible and often unnecessary detail. One of the advantages of operating in such a well-worn corner of genre is that you can actually assume that the vast majority of your readership will be familiar with at least the general shape of the story you are trying to tell; so you can show the reader the charred fields between the towns without having to explicitly point out that this was caused by the government raising the villages to try to stop the infection, say. Suggestion and insinuation, followed by leaving it to the reader's imagination, can be a more powerful technique than exposition.

However I felt the book's biggest problem is the treatment of Dr. Caldwell, and to a lesser extent Miss Justineau. Dr. Caldwell represents science untethered from its moral and ethical responsibilities. Whereas Melanie is a person who happens to look like a monster, Dr. Caldwell is a person who happens to be a monster. She is the kind of person who is totally happy to remove a child's brain without anesthetic. Dr. Caldwell's brutal experiments recall the worst technological horrors of the 20th century. For the book to succeed, it's vital that she works as a character. However she is easily the least convincing character in the book. Carey tries to set up Caldwell in opposition to Justineau, with Caldwell claiming that her research will save lives, whereas Justineau's kindness to the children won't help anyone in the long run. However not even Caldwell believes this; her characterisation is ultimately that of a sociopath. She is not remotely interested in saving people, she is only interested in solving the intellectual puzzle that the zombies pose for her. You suspect she'd happily vivisect her own mother if it brought her closer to the truth. This renders her argument and any counterbalance she's narratively meant to be against Justineau entirely moot. The thing is, history has taught us that there are people who would do such unethical experiments, and whilst a good many of them may well have been shrieking psychopaths, a good many of them probably weren't. 'The Girl With All The Gifts' misses a chance to explore the banality of evil; the SS officer who goes home and has dinner with his family. Additionally, Dr. Caldwell's failure as a narrative counterbalance to Miss Justineau winds up having a negative impact on Miss Justineau's characterisation. Without a well-developed opposite to bounce off, in order to stop her from coming off as too perfect Carey decides to give her a back-story in which she accidentally ran over a kid and never reported it, getting away with it because society collapsed straight afterwards. It's a tin-eared decision that would probably have been avoided if Dr. Caldwell was a deep enough character to be able to make Miss Justineau reflect on her own complicity in Dr. Caldwell's programme.