Zombies and Humans: An Examination of Two Recent Novels, part two

May 9, 2014 at 12:20 am 3 comments

girl with all the gifts(This is part two of a series on how zombie stories show us what it means to be human, using Parasite by Mia Grant and a special extended preview of The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey. Part one can be found here. Also, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS.)

It seems pretty clear that both Sal and Melanie are “people.” Sure, Melanie struggles against her destructive nature, the side of her that is an uncontrollable animal that wants to feast on human flesh, but who doesn’t struggle against unwanted urges from time to time, even if it’s as simple as resisting a third slice of chocolate cake? And Sal is undetectable from a human being in terms of cognitive function and non-cognitive qualities such as emotion, empathy, and love (she loves her dog, for example, and her family), even though her entire brain is wrapped in a tapeworm.

Since the only things both the beings called Melanie and Sal would seem to have in common with humans is a human body, this seems to suggest that if any being had access to the infrastructure of the human brain, we would quickly see that they are “people” as well. On one level, it’s a pretty biology-based concept of humanity — that if any being had the correct physiology, it would become something we recognize as a person.

But on another level, that’s not at all true. While Sal and Melanie are “people,” and while some of Melanie’s classmates and Sal’s tapeworm friends seem to be “people” as well, they sort of vary on the spectrum of personhood. Sal has a clear ethical code and a grasp of social norms, even if she doesn’t remember what they are, while one of her tapeworm friends is pretty bipolar and switches back and forth from caring to sociopathic. The explanation is that Sal’s friend’s body was more degraded to begin with; the worm has to deal with the limitations of a damaged brain. And while Melanie can love and think and aspire to better things, the scientists she encounters know that she is special, that not all of her classmates can do that.

So the only conclusion we can reach is that Sal and Melanie are “human’” in a sense that they are recognizable as spiritual or psychological kin to other humans. They can interact with other humans in a recognizable way; they speak the language, if you will. They fall in love; we can empathize with them, and they are not intentionally destructive.

But that leaves us with an enormous existential dilemma — if other beings, given proper infrastructure, can be human (or very close), how should we interact with other beings? Can we justify, oh, eating pigs or stomping on earthworms, if we knew that their minds, if not their bodies, have the capability of speech and emotion?

This is a huge, immensely important problem, one that threatens how humans like to think of themselves, even in the real world. And it begs another question — how do you gauge that potential?

And what about the other beings that are not recognizably human? For one thing, what is keeping them from taking advantage of the infrastructure offered by the human brain that these other beings have? In Parasite, it’s because the lifeform isn’t as advanced and does not contain human DNA (one assumes), though maybe it could eventually mutate and evolve and become human-like. Clearly these beings don’t have shared ethics yet, since the tapeworms only seem to take over brain-dead people and the other things take over anyone at any time.

But could they be people? Do they have a right to life like anything else? We can argue that destructive lifeforms can be destroyed once they threaten others, though that’s not in keeping with the rules of nature (see: wolves and elk, birds and worms, humans and pretty much everything else). This is another gaping ethical dilemma that neither of these works have answered yet.

Clearly, I’m only skimming the surface here, and there are a lot of political and social theories behind zombies and what they represent — lack of control, for one thing, a fear of being “taken over” that dates back to tales about demon possession and which is repeated throughout lore up to and including the Borg in the Star Trek franchise, which is another comment on technology and humanity.

But the big question asked — and not exactly answered as yet — in these two novels is, “What is humanity?” And it’s being asked in a way that is so different from all other supernatural stories — we sort of take for granted that werewolves and vampires are human, if eccentric. After all, they were human and still are, just with bits added. Here, there are humans to start, but with pieces missing, one assumes, and with other pieces added. I suppose that if we knew what those pieces were, we’d be one step closer to solving the puzzle.


Entry filed under: Horror. Tags: , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  May 9, 2014 at 11:04 am

    Great series of posts! Zombies are particularly interesting to consider, as we kind of already discussed, since the very essence of humanity (the soul or the brain or the heart, however you want to think about it) is the very pieces that they are missing. Sorry if I missed this, but do either of these novels ever explain why their protagonists are different? In other words, what makes them rise above being a zombie and aspire to humanity?

    • 2. Kate  |  May 9, 2014 at 11:20 am

      Not yet! It’s kind of hard, as Parasite is part of a series and The Girl with All the Gifts is only an extended preview…but I believe the secret in Sal’s case lies in the advanced, i.e., containing human DNA, tapeworm she has. Not sure all tapeworms have that proportion — and the other parasites that result in more “zombie-like” people do not have that level of human DNA, either. So again, we return to a biological argument!

  • 3. On story overload | Literary Transgressions  |  September 29, 2015 at 12:09 am

    […] when I’m having trouble sleeping. But my other books are Wolf’s Blood by Jane Lindskold and The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey, both of which involve mysterious and devastating diseases with relatively unknown origins and both […]


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