No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, August 01, 2008

#32: The Host -- Stephenie Meyer

That's how we realised you were here, you know. When the evening news was nothing but inspiring human-interest stories, when pedophiles and junkies were lining up at the hospitals to turn themselves in, when everything morphed into Mayberry, that's when you tipped your hand (p. 106)

Meyer, author of the successful teen vampire romance series 'Twilight', turns her hand to SF for a mature audience -- though The Host will almost certainly appeal to a teenage reader as much as to an adult.

The Host (which could be summed up as Invasion of the Body-Snatchers from a body-snatcher's point of view) is set in the near future, some time after the discovery of Earth by souls. Souls are small, silvery creatures with a thousand hair-fine limbs or tendrils, who can be transplanted from body to body, taking control and experiencing the host's sensorium. Most humans on Earth have been 'civilised' by the pacific souls, who are horrified by the violence and hatred endemic in human society. A few bastions of free-living humans survive, but they are hunted down by Seekers.

The Host is the tale of Wanderer, who comes to Earth after the colonisation and is inserted into the body of Melanie, a young woman who was a member of the human resistance, and who suffered appalling injuries while seeking her cousin. Melanie isn't dead, though, and she's terribly strong: her thoughts and emotions keep surfacing, until the Wanderer fears for her own sanity, her integrity, her self. She leaves her job as a teacher and heads into the desert, hoping to discover the fate of those Melanie loved, and thus give Melanie some closure.

Despite Wanderer's long experience -- she's thousands of years old, and has inhabited bodies on seven planets, including a sentient form of seaweed and a bat-like creature that sang -- she's never encountered anything, anyone, like Melanie. Human emotions are much stronger and more varied than those of other host species. And she comes to know Melanie more intimately than anyone, anybody, else ever could.

Meyer examines the philosophy, psychology and biology of self. Is sexual attraction a product of body or of mind? What about familial affection? What about violence, and violent impulses? Can one separate oneself from one's body's wants and needs? What does it mean to take a life? Is the host/soul transaction theft, murder, rape? What does it mean to belong? Can one learn to be selfish, or to be selfless? What happens when 'I' becomes 'we'?

Early in the novel I wondered if Meyer was creating a parable about mental illness. There's a Comforter who feels like a therapist: "Get involved with life rather than with her," she advises Wanderer. "You're struggling so hard with your problem that it's all you can concentrate on." The difference, of course, is that there really are two people, two individuals, in the body that was once Melanie's: as the novel progresses, Melanie emerges as a person in her own right -- rather abrasive, angry, scared, desperately searching for the people she loved -- and because we see her through alien eyes, we also see the alien. Wanderer, too, is afraid and lonely, and finds herself in the midst of humanity at its worst -- and its best. Drawing on her past experience, her other lives, Wanderer sees more than Melanie might.

There are elements of The Host that remind me of YA literature: youthful good-looking protagonists, a strong romantic thread, and an ending that ... well, there are two endings, and I was surprised (and a little disappointed) by the second, which modifies and resolves the first. The Host is a gripping read, well-paced and emotionally engaging, and there are moments of lyricism and astute observations which flesh out an occasionally soft-focus sfnal setting.

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