Thursday, 17 July 2014

M.R. Carey: The Girl with all the Gifts

This book is going to make a pretty good movie. Which is not my backhanded way of saying that it’s not much of a book. It’s a pretty good book in its own right, it’s just that it’s paced and constructed and populated in a way which will make it easy to film. It has only a handful of characters to keep track of, and they’ve all clearly defined as much by their roles as their personalities (so, tough luck on that one guy who might as well be wearing a red shirt under his uniform khakis). There’s a bunch of situations which lend themselves to filming, and it’s got a solid plot that moves to a dramatically satisfying punchline. Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro ought to check it out; this book gets in and does its job quickly and elegantly, packing a lot more interest into a single volume than the whole of the Strain trilogy. And it’s well written; not great art, but the prose either lands or at least stays out of the way.

It’s a book about zombies, where the most sympathetic character is a zombie. Zombies aren’t a new idea; for all I know, making the best character a zombie isn’t new either. New, of course, is not what matters. What matters is getting it right. With zombies, one of two things is going to happen; either the zombies are going to get whacked, or the humans are going to get wiped out to the last man. There’s not much subtlety to the drama. Carey’s come up with a nice way to change the stakes, because with his likeable zombie schoolgirl, no matter who gets wiped out, it’s going to be a little bit heartbreaking. There’s a bigger picture in play in the book’s plot, but for most of the narrative all that really matters is that sense of foreboding; some of these people are not going to make it. Maybe none of them are going to make it. It’s another one of those books I read in snatches, as though I was walking into water that was getting colder and deeper, and had to stop to get used to the temperature before stepping a little further.

Because Carey gets you invested. Melanie the zombie schoolgirl hooked me early, and the humans trying to figure her out are believably flawed and muddled; you don’t want them to axe Melanie, but you don’t want them to get hurt either. They’re doing their best in a horrible world.

And the zombie world is an interesting one; Carey’s come up with a new twist on where zombies come from. There’s a fungus in the tropics which can infest ants and rewire their nervous systems to make them climb as high as possible on trees, where they freeze up and provide the fungus with sustenance until it’s ready to explode and spread its spores to the wind and all the other ants who’ll pick it up as it drifts to earth. In Carey’s world, that fungus has spread to people, and rewired them to eat each other. And we parachute into it years on as the survivors try to figure out how to kill the fungus before it kills them. The book’s got one job to do and it’s not going to mess around with big buildups and origin stories; it’s taken just the slice through this new world that it needs for its story, and trusts the reader to figure out the rest. And it’s going to be a pretty good movie, when they’ve found a new Chloe Moretz to play Melanie and the assembled might of Hollywood’s middle aged actresses have finished killing each other for the two human female roles.

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