The Girl with all the Gifts
Like most of the population, I am kind of obsessed with zombies right now. They are EVERYWHERE, in YA novels, adult novels, and graphic novels, they’re in movies and television programs, they’re in games like Humans vs. Zombies, and they’re in merchandise ranging from Halloween costumes to phone covers to dog toys.
I just can’t get enough of ‘em!
So I was overjoyed to discover this gem of a zombie novel by M. R. Carey, The Girl With All the Gifts. My interest was piqued because this didn’t look like a typical undead-biting-and-infecting sort of scenario, although I would have been happy with that. Here, the main character IS a zombie, and not your run-of-the-mill slavering shambling zombie, either. Melanie is a zombie with a conscience. She does not act instinctually, unless, of course, the smell of humans becomes too overwhelming.
The story opens about twenty years after the initial outbreak of the plague, where most of the population has either been infected and turned into zombies or else has become zombie food. In an armed compound, a group of children is kept in cells, only taken out under extreme restraints for classes. It is not first obvious why these children are only fed grubs once a week and are strapped and restrained when they are not in their cells. We discover what they are along with Melanie, who has no idea what she is; she knows about zombies, but only as the “hungries” who eat the people who live outside the compound where she and her cellmates, the teachers, the sergeants, and the scientists live.
Most zombie scenarios involve some kind of virus infecting the population, spreading through bites or transmission of bodily fluids. People become zombies or they escape them by killing them, but essentially you’re either a human or you’re a zombie.
In The Girl With All the Gifts, there is an elegant twist to this: the infection is a fungal parasite that has jumped from a variety of ants to humans. Fungi are SO COOL! And so underrated! And the really cool thing about fungi is that an individual species of fungus has more than one form, an immature asexual form or a mature sexual form. The asexual fungi just consume what they need to, absorbing nutrients and growing by adding more cells called hyphae, eventually becoming a tangle of hyphae known as a mycelium. Often you don’t even see any of this, as it is underground or in a plant or sometimes, in a living organism. What you do see occasionally is the sexual form of the fungus prior to producing spores, which can then spread in the air. Think of a puffball when you stomp on it to produce a greenish brown cloud – the spores (so much fun, by the way) – or a mushroom that you can turn over to see the gills, which release spores when it is mature.
So can you see where I am going with all this? Most of the zombies are the first generation of zombies that the fungal parasite has infected. They are just the hosts that are incubating the asexual form of the fungus; eventually it will reproduce sexually, growing the fruiting bodies that can produce spores. This process is described in deliciously gory detail. So Excellent!
Melanie, and the others like her, is a second generation of zombies, or “new people”, who appear to have been infected with the original fungal parasite in utero, most likely eating their way out of their mothers. Yummy yummy! Melanie is able to control her baser instincts but it is not easy. She has bonded with her teacher and a sergeant at the base, and they must struggle to survive so that the “new people” can be taught all of human knowledge.
Remember, we are always only ever one generation away from extinction.