The Girl with All the Gifts – A Innovative Spin on the Walking-Dead Premise
The ever-increasing mediocre and trashy works on the apocalypse scenario often makes a reader to think that there can’t be any fresh approach to this scenario. The science and horror behind a post-apocalyptic scenario takes a backseat as we are plunged into a moderately engaging adventurous journey of the protagonist. And nowadays, post-apocalypse novels that could be narrated in 200 pages are often expanded into trilogies by letting in more stereotype characters and banal scenarios. Of the post-apocalypse genre, the least one that could be expected for any originality is the ‘zombie apocalypse’.
Although we had movies like “28 Days later” and books like “World War Z”, the zombie genre often remains as redundant scenario. May be because the zombies itself is a one-dimensional enemy that either lumbers or sprints to eat human flesh. To outsmart the out-numbered, unintelligent creatures, the story would show brawny humans splitting open their brains in various settings. But, what if some kind of personality could be added to these ravenous dead creatures? What if the zombies are just a crafty creation of evolution? Mike Carey’s sci-fi/horror novel “The Girl with All the Gifts” delves into such a different kind of zombie apocalypse scenario. It trickily balances the adrenaline-pumping action with thought-provoking science.
The 10 year old Melanie is our protagonist. She is growing up at an army base, a lot of miles away from Londonn and safely tucked away from the rest of world, which is now filled with brain-dead ‘hungries’. It’s been 20 years since the ‘Breakdown’ – the year in which the human turned into cannibalistic hungries. A new authoritative government, known as ‘Beacon’, has been formed in the outskirts of London to shelter the infection-free humans. Melanie and kids like her aren’t free to wander around the base. She is kept inside a cell, and every morning, after a chemical spray army men strap her into a wheel chair, gun pointed at her head, in order to take her to a class room. The neck strap doesn’t allow Melanie to turn and interact with other kids. But, her heart and mind, whenever there is a class held by Miss Justineau. A kind gaze from Helen Justineau could make Melanie’s heart reel.
Melanie is an intelligent kid, but she couldn’t figure out why Sergeant Parks hates her or why Dr. Caldwell is often taking kids to her lab, through a steel door, never bringing them back to their cell. However, we could guess what Melanie is: a thinking, speaking, and learning zombie or a hungry. The hunger-drive takes over the kids’ brain when they smell humans (which are masked by chemical sprays or by an e-blocker). At other times, the children behave like normal human beings. As, Dr. Caldwell explains in an insightful manner, it’s not a virus or bacteria that turned humans into ‘hungries’, but a mutant version of a known fungus ‘Ophiocordyceps unilateralis’.
The first wave of adult humans who contracted this dangerous, mutant fungus seems to have lost everything but their hunger for flesh. But, only these children possess some partial immunity to fungus, and so they are rounded up for experiments. While, Miss Justineau and other teachers test the kids’ behavioral skills, Dr. Caldwell splits open their brains, hoping to find some cure. But, the tranquil of the base, one day gets shattered by the ‘Junkers’ – survivalists living outside the control of ‘Beacon’. And, gradually the precocious and cheerful Melanie comes to terms with her condition.
“The Girl with All the Gifts” wades through different genres. It is a coming-of-age story, as the naive kid gathers enough experiences to become a strong-minded girl. It becomes a thought-provoking sci-fi, when it pits evolution itself against the Homo sapiens. Carey dares to spend time on the infection, its effects and humans effort to conquer it, rather than contriving a bloodbath. The horror is neatly conceived through the unpleasant, bleak scientific setting. When I heard the words like ‘Junkers’, I thought the novel is going to get into the ‘Stephen King territory’, by depicting a cruel cult leader, who leads humans to survive at all costs. But, since Carey is dead-set on who is his story’s villain, there’s none of that mundane action-filled chapters (although the gore in some chapters could make you cringe). The visual power Carey has as a comic book writer and screen-writer (he wrote for the X-Men) perfectly evident in the nail-biting sentences that end each chapters.
From start to finish, the novel has five primary characters: Melanie, Justineau, Sergeant Parks, Private Gallagher, and Doctor Caldwell. At one point, Dr. Caldwell says: “Please remember 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”. She is also hell-bent on finding the cure and to save humanity. So, it’s clear that her presence is going to threaten Melanie’s life. Initially, she is depicted as this mad scientist, who wants to prove herself to the world. But, this Caldwell character doesn’t become a stereotype as the story progresses. Despite the doctor’s cruel actions, Carey makes us feel for her towards the end. In fact, I was sometimes annoyed by Justineau’s ‘being kind’ rants. Although she is the ‘mother figure’, Carey doesn’t shy away from showing that little falseness which lies behind Justineau’s nature.
The character trajectory of Parks, the way he changes, is logically acceptable. But, what makes us invest ourselves in the story is the character of Melanie. The ending is very smart (may feel a bit rushed) and catches us off-guard. Carey leaves us to decide, whether the ending is happy or a sad one. The ending is satisfying, and more importantly stays true to its scientific roots. The characters’ initial thread bare intentions and the middle road-journey part are so straight-forward and leads to few dull moments. But, the other parts and especially the last hundred pages are electrifying.
“The Girl with All the Gifts” exceeds all the expectations a reader would have regarding a zombie apocalypse novel. It’s unsettling as well as poignant.