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The Girl with All the Gifts / Survivor Song

Posted on the 22 July 2020 by Cathy Leaves @cathyleaves
The Girl with All the Gifts / Survivor SongI’ve been thinking about zombie narratives and how they feel in July 2020, four months into COVID-19 and the disorienting reality of 2020. I’m living with the privilege of having none of my friends or family directly affected by a virus, and home in a part of the world where it has been under control for many weeks now, which isn’t true for Melbourne, a place that felt closer in 2019 than it does now. Regardless, the most horrible aspect of this virus, from a safe distance, are the stories about people whose loved ones are taken away to the hospital, where they cannot be visited, where they might pass away alone. This aspect of the virus – that people disappear into the unknown of the ICU and do not come back, and all the family and friends, parents, children and partners can do is wait – horrifies me to no end. Just today, there was an article in the Washington Post about three children who lost both their parents in the span of 20 days. And a few days ago, the story of a Palestinian man who climbed up the walls of a hospital so he could watch over his mother for the last days of her life perched on the ledge of her window made me pause, and consider what that kind of loss would feel like – to not only lose a person, but the ability to be with them in their last moments, not because of geographical distance, but because it is unsafe. With the confirmed case number approaching 15 million and deaths now at 615,000, it is becoming impossible to grasp what that individual misery looks like, even though it is important to remember that calling the virus “unprecedented” hides that indigenous populations have suffered unimaginably in the past from intended and unintended biological warfare that included viruses and that HIV ravaged communities and was not taken seriously because of homophobia and hatred (David France’s How to Survive a Plague has always been an essential book, not just now). 
With all of this in mind, I’m not sure why Carey’s and Tremblay’s novels feel so salient. Both are variations of the zombie theme, even though one of the main characters in Survivor Song insists that the patients suffering from the mutated rabies virus should not be dehumanised by referring to them as zombies. These novels begin at very different stages – in one, the world is already lost, in the other, the language of “overwhelmed emergency services” and a struggling infrastructure sounds a lot more similar to our current reality, and the drama is still based on an individual level, rather than a global one.  In The Girl with All the Gifts, the cause is a fungus, not a virus: the already inherently horrible (in the body horror sense) zombie-ant-fungus (you’ve read the pop science article) Ophiocordyceps unilateralis has made the jump to humanity, and turns those affected into flesh-eating monsters. We enter this world post-apocalypse, but see it through the eyes of a child who has no concept of the world before, or of pre-end-of-the-world normality. Melanie recounts a normal day in her life, which includes quiet horrors, until the reader realises that she is a test subject for a military-led attempt to find a cure for the fungus. Melanie is the last hope for humanity, a precocious, brilliant child in love with her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau, but she is was also born carrying the fungus inside of her, and is therefore, along with the other abducted children, a curiosity, because in those born with the fungal infection, humanity does not disappear entirely. The children learn, exhibit emotions. But if their carers and jailers forget to apply a cream that masks their smell, their natural instinct is to ravish. The Girl with All the Gifts begins after the ending. There are references made to the remainders of (British) humanity still existing in a place called Beacon, but the characters we follow after the army base falls to an ambush never make it there, and it remains doubtful if the place even still exists. Roving bands of uninfected individuals outside these bounds of supposed civilization are portrayed as posing just as much a threat to humanity as the fungus itself. With regards to saving humanity, or what we comprehend as civilised humanity, The Girl with All the Gifts has no hope left. With regards to a new humanity emerging, a humanity in which the fungus has formed a symbiosis with the human host and is not destructive, but points towards something new, Carey paints a more hopeful picture than could ever be imagined, contrasting a final scene – in which Miss Justineau, perhaps the last fully human person, now teaches new human students who have come willingly, and are not restrained, the stories that Melanie loved so much (the Greek myths, the ways of making sense of the world) with the dreary beginning, in which Melanie and the other children at the army base were nothing but test subjects to be cut open when their time has arrived. In many ways, these two things correspond with the two possible interpretations of the titular Pandora myth – does hope as the only thing that remains in the jar create a more hopeful, or a more hopeless world? Is hope trapped, or saved? The radical thing about The Girl with All the Gifts is that its empathy lies in a future in which humanity as we understand it has ended, and the character that we root for, and feel the most for, is the one who understands that inevitable demise and hurries it along. Melanie spends her journey from the army base to where the remaining military officer and former base commander Parks thinks he will find safety observing that humanity perhaps doesn’t deserve saving – in good part because the doctor traveling with them is so obsessed with finding a cure for what is already dead that she doesn’t hesitate to torture and kill what isn’t. Melanie learns to hate Dr Caldwell and her willingness to cut open her friends for (an ultimately doomed) science as much as she loves Miss Justineau, but as much as she loves her and begins to like Private Kieran (who meets a terrible end), she also understands that co-existence is impossible, that the fungus demands a radical new world in which only the children born with the infection can survive. The film version lacks some of the emotional resonance of the novel but succeeds fully in visualising the body horror of the fungus’ second stage of development (a VanMeerian horror, humans sprouting into trees, bearing terrible fruit, which will eventually explode into million of spores if the cataclysmic event happens). Some of the most emotionally powerful moments in the novel happen when the team realises an aspect of the fungus that has previously been overlooked: some of those infected return to normal activities, remembered traces of their humanity, which have been emptied of meaning, but trigger some kind of deeply buried understanding of who they are. A woman pushes a stroller with a dead baby inside. A man, who has been locked inside a hospital room for yours, sits on a bed and flicks through photos of his lost family. In a way, the solution to the horror of the book is the understanding at the end that radical change has to be accepted, that the only way forward lies in letting go of that which has already been lost, while hanging on (through the stories that Miss Justineau is teaching the children) to the ways in which past humanity made sense of itself. Melanie recounts having written a story for the woman she loves, a story in which she is the one who saves her, before she truly understood who she was, or that her existence would fit in more smoothly with the villain character than with that of the hero. And then she defies this realisation and becomes the saving hero regardless, preserving the only thing she cannot let go off in amber, in the hermetically sealed science vehicle that now serves as a mobile school. 
The Girl with All the Gifts / Survivor SongSurvivor Song by Paul Tremblay, an eerily timed novel, begins in the early stages of a local outbreak, one that is on the brink of overwhelming the local infrastructure, but is still far from becoming a national or even global emergency. The setting is almost hyper-local, on a stretch of road between someone’s home and two hospitals in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The mutated rabies virus that affects the infected much faster, and much more radically, than its predecessor is less infectious because it can only be transmitted through saliva – which becomes a problem once patients begin to tear into their loved ones and strangers equally, but also means that the two main characters of the novel, British ex-pat paediatrician Ramola (Rams) and her best and nine-months pregnant friend Natalie, can be in close proximity of each other even after Natalie is infected in a horrible incident at the beginning of the novel. Tremblay’s writing here is visceral, and Survivor Song reads like a re-telling of a film almost, with an incredible sense of action and movement. The first few pages of the novel set the story up the way a film would – a pregnant woman is waiting for her husband to return from a shopping trip while thinking about the outbreak and what it has done to their everyday life, the constant fear, the options to consider – and then everything breaks apart suddenly after her husband returns, carelessly leaving the gate open, allowing an infected inside their home. The husband dies, Natalie, bitten and infected, drives towards her only conceivable safe harbour, her best friend. Together, they navigate this very narrow setting – the road to one hospital, the same road, to another hospital after the first one is overrun – trying to get Natalie somewhere where she can safely give birth to her child before she “turns”. This is a road movie where the journey doesn’t take anyone very far, and yet bridges life and death. The emotional resonance comes from the love between Rams and Natalie, between Natalie and her unborn baby. The setting is Trump’s America, in which the militia uselessly roaming around to kill pets while spouting conspiracy theories about vaccines and foreign invasion is almost as dangerous as the virus itself. My favorite part of the novel is when Rams and Nat encounter teenagers Luis and Josh, who have managed to stay alive through their shared knowledge of zombie narratives. These two teenagers see themselves as the heroes of the story, because that’s how everyone comprehends their own lives – and they step up to help these two women get to where they need to be. In the process, one of them is infected, which leads them to the conclusion that within the world of Survivor Song, they are the “randos”, the characters that are just a waypost for Natalie and Rams. But Tremblay, gently and beautifully, gives them both their own side story, an ending that pays tribute to their love for each other (because one of the accomplishments here, as in Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, is that the difference between platonic and romantic love becomes an irrelevant sidenote when survival itself is at stake). Like Melanie’s devotion to Miss Justineau leads her to create a world in which her stories can touch the newly emerged humanity, Luis and Josh look after each other until the inevitable end, and Ramola stays with Natalie through a traumatic event that greys her hair. Survivor Song, as per the title, doesn’t end the world itself – in the end, the local outbreak is a glitch, something that sends Ramola and Natalie’s daughter back to England – but it does paint the picture of a world in which the trauma of radical events severely affects everyone, where diminished public resources and a fragile society without consensus about scientific truth lead to a place where individuals have to rely on their loved ones, and the empathy and goodness of strangers, to survive. Survivor Song reads less like a classic zombie story but it does feature the classic horror element of seeing someone you love turn into something else and new, something that can not be saved or salvaged. It’s a kind of ambiguous loss, one in which a loved one becomes something unrecognisable, so that the loss can never truly be dealt with – because Natalie still looks like herself but poses an existential threat to both Rams and her own child.
It’s almost like the idea of a fungus or a virus that turns humans into monsters is easier to swallow than the quiet, invisible fear of a virus that is transmitted so easily to everyone close to someone who is infected. The horror of COVID-19 is the horror of asymptomatic carriers, unknowingly putting their friends, family and strangers in danger, the horror of entire families being affected because they share living quarters. It is the emotional horror of someone being picked up and driven away and never returning. Some other aspects of this outbreak – this once in-my-lifetime, global spanning, normal-life-stopping virus – are not addressed in either of these novels, maybe because the specificity would have been hard to predict either in 2014 or in 2019, when Survivor Song must have been primarily written. Who could have imagined a world in which flying becomes something as unattainable as it must have been in the 1950s, or a world in which state borders in Australia and country borders within the European Union are closed? The rabies virus in Survivor Song affects local, suburban communities. Everything is already too late when The Girl with All the Gifts begins. The fact about COVID-19 is that it doesn’t affect everyone equally, and that isn’t even taking into account billionaires who are waiting it out on yachts. Relying on a job that allows you to work from home, and an economy that can switch from going-to-stores for essentials to having-essentials-delivered-to-the-doorstep is a privilege, and a luxury. Having paid leave, or confidence that your job will still be there if you don’t show up for work because you are showing symptoms, and want to keep others safe, is apparently a luxury, not something that we should be able to take for granted in 2020. Like the idiot militia in Survivor Song that removes government vaccination packs for wildlife but kills pets that have never left the home, stupidity rules, and it is apparently too much to expect that people who have stockpiled for a more dramatic end-of-the-world (one in which they could picture themselves becoming more, rather than less powerful) would accept that something as simple as wearing a mask can make a difference, and is more essential than dining out or going to the beach. It’s not just that science is now regarded as something that is constantly in question, that can be debated with feelings and anecdotes, it’s that we’ve spent so much time thinking that public institutions are worthless and can be sold off that there is now nothing left to fall back on. I wonder how zombie stories and plague stories will be written after this, and if anyone will capture the fact that Melbourne locked in thousands of public housing residents from one hour to the next, put them under police supervision with no fore-warning or the ability (time- or money-wise) to stock up on goods beforehand, but that passengers on cruise ships (a reminder that at an early stage in this, cruise ships were the second-worst-hit “country” of all) could deboard without any obstacles to them returning to the community and spreading the infection. I don’t think that either of these novels reflect the idea that a virus might not care much about who it infects, but that networks of privilege and poverty keep some people safer than others, and allow some people to make decisions about their lives while others are found incapable of responsible decision-making, and are being put under supervision by the very police that they have always had a historically fraught relationship with (and all of that while connections between police violence and structural racism are being widely debated, what a moment in time to rely on policing to solve a public health crisis). Maybe the horror of someone you once loved turning into a monster that wants to eat you (maybe this will be the test of true love in the future – would you let them?) is less emotionally devastating than that of school teachers writing wills before returning to class rooms because they have no economic way out of putting themselves and their families in mortal danger. 
M.R. Carey: The Girl with All the Gifts, 2014.Paul Tremblay: Survivor Song, 2020. 

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