Brave new world

Brave new world

The dystopian world in ‘The Girl With All The Gifts’ will nibble on your mind with fresh ideas of zombie evolution, making it stuff for nerves of steel, writes Prema Nandakumar. 

It is increasingly a confusing scenario for fiction. Which novel or author shall I choose, I wonder, standing in the airport bookstore. And for every novel — romance, crime, psychological, music-oriented, art-oriented, anthropological — there are five variants at least! It is not different from choosing a new car that comes in several combinations of Petrol-CNG, petrol-LPG, IPG-CNG and other alphanumeric variations, including a political approach criss-crossing the terrorist approach.

Nowadays you need something special to keep your nerves calm when you emplane and this title is just that, The Girl with all the Gifts. Aha, Malala-inspired, I tell myself with a sense of pride about the rising woman power at the global level. For we have a girl child on the cover stretching her hands as a bird ready to fly.

But just you wait. This is no dish of hors d’oeuvre.

When I open the book, I realise this is stuff for nerves of steel that drive sturdy rangers and snowmobiles. Remember, you will be reading about the ‘hungries’. Well, “if they get your scent, they’ll follow you for a hundred miles, and when they catch you, they’ll eat you.” Those who have loved their Shakespeare, Milton and Rajagopalachari for their sheer English style and diction may have to keep their eyelids fluttering all the time with a rudely delectable feast of action and verbiage. “Frigging”, for instance, is a favourite term that comes in many combinations. Sure, Carey has no scripture-spouting mouth.

So, what will the world be if one part of the civilised human community becomes flesh-devouring cannibals? Is this part of an inevitable evolutionary process? We are now in our world after it has fallen apart and human ingenuity tries various ways of protecting the body from the bite of the hungries. 

We get to have a hungrie, Melanie herself, feeding on a young gunner. “Now she bites and tears and chews and swallows, the sensations filling her and battering her like the torrent of a waterfall pouring into a cup held right under it.” Let us not be in a hurry to start retching; here is plenty more to come and the arena of all this horrific stuff happens to be the big question: does the human being become inhuman when he becomes a scientist?

Melanie is “the nightmare-that-walks-like-a-girl” who is sought after for experiments by Caroline Caldwell. The doctor wants a serum to cure ophiocordyceps in humans, as there has been an outbreak, with few healthy human beings left to continue the race. The parasitism of this fungus has been noticed so far only in ants, and Carey brings the entire transformation (weird evolution!) to the human family.

 In the process, it is a movement from Satan in Paradise Lost to the Frankenstein idea to the world of zombies and now to hungries. Watch the human beings in bunkers in their last-ditch battle against the hungries and you will know what it is to read a horror tale. And why does Caldwell want Melanie, who has all the gifts? Because her brain may hold the clue, and not the brains of other infected children who are now just zombies. There’s plenty of fictive science to satisfy our voyeurism:

“I already told you that the sporangia contained the spores of the hungry pathogen. But you don’t seem to have taken in what that means. In its immature, asexual form, Ophiocordceps toppled our global civilisation in the space of three years. The only reason it didn’t achieve global pandemic status at once, the only reason any pockets of uninfected humans were able to survive was because the immature organism can only propagate — neotenously — in biofluid.” This surely gets us scurrying to the library for books on fungi to help us understand why Caldwell says that “what’s left of Humanity 1.0 will close up shop within a month of one of these pods opening.” Poised between this research and coming to terms with Carey’s brew, we start worrying: Now that the human smell is emanating from Park and Justineau, how are they to save themselves from the unmuzzled Melanie? Would Melanie change back to normalcy? That is going to be our cliffhanger.

Melanie has breakfasted off a feral cat though it has not tasted “half as nice as the two men she ate back at the base.” She wanders around in the dead city and by accident watches a dozen characters in a room. Were they junkers? 

Dystopias have never a conclusion, for this is how bestsellers are made. No doubt The Girl With All The Gifts is a terrific timepass for some. But not a birthday present for the queasy hearted.

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