The Girl With All The Gifts – M. R. Carey

TGWATG

The major problem for The Girl with All the Gifts (2014) is that the video game The Last of Us (2013) had the same idea, but did it much, much better.

Here’s the premise for TGWATG:

A strain of mutated cordyceps fungus infects humans. Those infected become zombie-like, and transmit the infection to others through bites. As the infection progresses, fungal growths protrude from the victims until, after many years, their bodies are completely over-taken and they become immobile clumps of gross mushroom stuff. The initial outbreak spreads very quickly, society collapses, small pockets of survivors yadda yadda yadda.

Twenty years later, a young girl is discovered to be infected-but-kinda-immune. A group of adults must escort her across the UK on a long, treacherous journey to a lab where a scientist wants to remove her brain in the hopes of synthesising a cure.

And here is the premise for The Last of Us:

A strain of mutated cordyceps fungus infects humans. Those infected become zombie-like, and transmit the infection to others through bites. As the infection progresses, fungal growths protrude from the victims until, after many years, their bodies are completely over-taken and they become immobile clumps of gross mushroom stuff. The initial outbreak spreads very quickly, society collapses, small pockets of survivors yadda yadda yadda.

 Twenty years later, a young girl is discovered to be bitten-but -immune. A gruff dude must escort her across America on a long, treacherous journey to a lab where some scientists want to remove her brain in the hopes of synthesising a cure.

 (Both my words)

The novel and the game were released too closely for any accusations of plagiarism to be seriously considered. Indeed, The Girl with All the Gifts even mentions the same David Attenborough “cordyceps” documentary that The Last of Us writer Neil Druckmann cites as being the inspiration behind his own story.

 TLOU

The fact that two writers had the same idea at the same time is boring. What is interesting, however, is the stylistic and qualitative difference between these two similar narratives. The Girl with All the Gifts is good, but compared with TLOU its characters are flat stereotypes (with the exception of the girl Melanie), its dialogue is stilted and exposition-heavy, its plotting is bloated with unnecessary events, and its subtextual examination of the parent-child relationship is disappointingly shallow.

I’m not going to write a long, list-like, compare-and-contrast review, (this is meant to be part of a review series on the 2015 Clarke Award, for a start), so I won’t say much more about TLOU. But the similarities are such that I felt I should mention it. The difficulty for The Girl with all the Gifts is that, to anyone who’s played The Last of Us (and the crossover of people who read Science Fiction, and people who game is a big one), it can’t be anything but second best. A lesser version of deeply-loved original.

(As an aside, I’d like to add how surprised I am that so many fellow SF critics (famous ones, good ones, too), have described this book’s fungus-zombie concept as amazingly original, with no mention whatsoever of The Last of Us and its place as a highly-praised, complex and important part of the genre zeitgeist. If anything, this reinforces my idea that genre critics who refuse to engage with video games are increasingly finding themselves with ever-widening gaps in their knowledge of the field. They might even be at risk of finding themselves left behind entirely. And here I was hoping that “video games are art” was becoming a truism.)

 ***

Taken on its own terms, The Girl with All the Gifts is perfectly fine; an action-heavy piece of commercial genre work which dabbles in some mild social and philosophical issues. The titular protagonist, Melanie, is a marvel; a super-intelligent child whose perspectives on adulthood, responsibility and love are very well done indeed. She has a voice truly her own. Melanie’s struggle between desperately wanting to stay close to those she loves, and at the same time wanting to distance herself from them (lest she infect them with the fungus-virus) result in some striking moments; the interplay of physical and emotional closeness is very good.

The other characters, however, are nowhere near as well-developed. The Girl with All the Gifts does this weird sort of flip-reverse thing, where for most of its story the major players seem to be shallow stereotypes (the brusque sergeant, the scientist who thinks of people as “specimens”, the cowardly army grunt etc.), but who by the end are revealed to have more emotional depth than you’ve been led to believe. I’m not quite sure what the point of this actually is, other than to, perhaps, generate some tensions by playing with the reader’s expectations. I’d much prefer the characters to be fully-rounded from the off.

The writing is mostly good, and especially note-worthy are the action sequences, which are fluid, well-paced and never confusing. It’s possible to race through its 460 pages very quickly. It’s ultra readable. But I wasn’t too taken by the use of the word “Hungry” for “zombie”, which I found irritatingly juvenile (this is yet another zombie story set in a universe which never seems to have had its own zombie fiction). And there are occasional discrepancies in the worldbuilding; for example, at one point we are told that:

The hungries mostly stay close to where they were first turned, or infected, or whatever you want to call it. It’s not a homing instinct

But just eleven pages later, the text decides:

Instead of just freezing in place […] some hungries have a homing instinct for a particular place.

So it’s a hit-and-miss sort of book. The ending is absolutely brilliant: shocking, complex, morally ambiguous and by far the strongest, most original part of the book. But elsewhere, too much is familiar. There are gangs of scavenging, violent survivors roaming the wastes because genre convention dictates that all post-apocalypses must be so populated. And the fact that sneaking past the zombies depends on not being smelled by them is something we’ve all seen over and over again.

Outside of its one strong character and its good ending, The Girl with All the Gifts is just a fun romp, nothing more.

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