World building is the stuff of science fiction and fantasy, and to a lesser extent, alternative history. What would Europe look like if Hitler had prevailed? You’ve got to really sit down and think that one through, as was the case with Harris’s Fatherland. (A novel that held up really well to a second reading some years later.)
Writers who stand out for their world building skills are often very successful. The most recent obvious example is the Harry Potter universe, but there are many others. For example, Discworld, which is much larger and more complex than the magical version of England. From Wikipedia this one paragraph overview of Terry Pratchett’s monumental universe:
Discworld is a comedic fantasy book series by the British author Terry Pratchett, set on the Discworld, a flat world balanced on the backs of four elephants which, in turn, stand on the back of a giant turtle, Great A’Tuin. The books frequently parody, or at least take inspiration from, J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft and William Shakespeare, as well as mythology, folklore and fairy tales, often using them for satirical parallels with current cultural, technological and scientific issues….Since the first novel, The Colour of Magic (1983), the series has expanded, spawning several related books and maps, four short stories, cartoons, theatre adaptations, computer games, and music inspired by the series.
Okay. Now that I’ve reminded myself of the nature of world building, let me give you some thoughts on The Host.
Meyer doesn’t so much build a world as she rebuilds our world. The novel starts some years after all of human kind has been subjugated by parasitic aliens. Small creatures like bits of silver ribbon which are introduced to a human brain through a slit iin the nape. Then the creature (they call themselves Souls, the humans call them Bugs or Parasites or worse) binds itself to dozens of points in the brain, effectively taking over the memory, skill set, language and consciousness of the human.
This is a species that invades and takes over like this again and again, planet after planet. There have been many before Earth, some of which we hear about. This novel, however is mostly about one host — Melanie — who escapes and evades capture for many years, running with her younger brother and another human male. The seekers (those aliens who are reponsible for running down reluctant humans) finally grab her and as the story opens she’s on an operating table, unconscious, and a Healer is about to introduce her to Wanderer, her new and unwelcome tenant.
If you remember what the Stockholm syndrome is — how a kidnapped person will start to identify with the kidnappers and eventually go over to join the kidnapper’s side — you’ll get the premise for this novel, except in this case it’s reverse Stockholm. For the first time after many many lifetimes on other planets, the Wanderer takes over a body and finds that the consciousness of the original owner isn’t so easily squashed. And, gradually, she begins to ask herself if that’s not a reasonable thing.
Humans, you won’t be surprised to hear, are a difficult bunch. We don’t give easily. We fight and continue fighting. There are pockets of humans hiding in remote areas, and then there are humans who have been turned into hosts, but refuse to vacate. These stubborn types are the minority — only a few humans are strong enough to prevail; the rest gradually give way to the invader and disappear. Melanie is very strong and very stubborn.
The Wanderer is unsettled by Melanie hanging around, because Melanie doesn’t mince words. She is constantly battering at the Wanderer, pointing out things the Wanderer would rather not think about. For example how can they call themselves non-violent? Maybe they don’t use weapons in our sense of the word, but they wipe out entire populations. Is that not the very essence of violence?
Eventually Melanie and Wanderer go off the grid to find Melanie’s brother, and they end up in a community of humans struggling to survive in a warren of caves. Melanie’s brother and her lover are there, as are her uncle Jeb (one of the more entertaining characters). The humans generally kill any parasite they come across without hesitation, but Jeb doesn’t allow that in this case. He’s got the sense that there’s something different about Melanie/Wanderer.
The bulk of the novel takes place in the caves as the humans and the Wanderer interact. There are some interesting twists and ideas, and I never lost interest in the developing tension between the Wanderer and Melanie. The resolution of various conflicts is very neat — too neat, for my tastes — but it all makes sense and fits together in the end.
This is the kind of novel I enjoy and then forget within a few months. At least, that’s what I thought. But ever since I finished it I’ve been thinking about the new world order Meyer put into place. I liked the characters well enough, but they don’t occupy me after the fact. What occupies me are dozens of questions about the Souls (or invaders, if you will). A body is taken over and the Soul goes about living a human life, because the idea, it seems, is to experience this world. Imagine the world populated by human-looking creatures who have no use for currency, who never argue or get into altercations, and who simply go about their business teaching or working in convenience stores. The need for banks and international trade is gone; so is medicine, because the invaders have got that end of things sorted out. No human body hurt by an accident or illness suffers for long; a Healer comes in and wham, you’re all fixed up. Unless you turn out to be too difficult a host, in which case you are ‘discarded.’
I would call this novel a success simply because I’m still thinking about it. There were things that irritated me, most especially the duality of the narrator. The Wanderer talks about ‘our body’ and uses the first person plural for everything ‘we could see’ ‘we were exhausted’ and so on. That did get on my nerves, but I can’t see that there would have been a way to avoid it unless the author opted for third person rather than first. I would have liked to read this in third, I think. But that’s not Meyer’s thing.
I haven’t read the Twlight series, and I doubt I will, so I can’t compare this to that. On its own merits I think it’s worth a read if you generally like sci-fi scenarios.