The Host by Stephenie Meyer
Published by Sphere / Little Brown, May 2008
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
Pottering around the SFFWorld forums, as I do, it has been noticeable that, amongst a certain group of our members, a name creating great excitement of late has been Stephenie Meyer. A mention of her vamphyrric Twilight book series (currently being filmed, due December) causes great commotion, and amongst young teens in particular there is a great anticipation for the fourth novel, Breaking Dawn (due August.)
The Host, however, is a subtler thing. It is Stephenie’s first adult, as opposed to young-adult, novel.
At first glance the book’s overriding theme is not a particularly original SF idea, though perhaps one that is different from much at the moment. With echoes of Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and I Will Fear No Evil, or John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, (not to mention TV like The Invaders or Invasion) the tale here tells of a future Earth where humans are in thrall to souls, a centipede-like alien species that lives in symbiosis with a living human’s body. The benefit to this relationship for the humans is better health (including a cure for cancer) and an end to war in a paradisiacal environment. The downside is that, in order to survive, the soul must erase the personality of the human host.
The main character of the book is Melanie Stryder, who, at the start of the book is captured by the Seekers and implanted with Wanderer. Wanderer is an ancient soul, has been around the galaxy a while, and regarded by her species as a bit of a legend. However, Melanie is one of the last humans to be subverted, an outcast-rebel whose basic desire for survival has kept her alive.
A combination of the two, then, is clearly going to be a battle of wills. What surprises Wanderer is that Melanie refuses to be subsumed by her presence, managing instead to co-exist in the same body. Wanderer is enthralled by the passion and the emotion of Melanie’s personality, and so agrees to this co-existence, actually using Melanie’s feelings and memories to gain a greater experience of human life. This involves Jared, an old lover who still lives free, but in hiding. Melanie/Wanderer (soon to be Wanda) go in search of Jared and Melanie’s younger brother Jamie. They are captured by humans in hiding, and…. well, to tell the rest would spoil things.
I must admit, that on finishing this hefty book, I’m not quite sure what it is trying to achieve. It is entertaining, and unashamedly romantic, not a bad thing when done well. It is a very emotional novel, with lots of swooning, longing, and floods of emotions hurtling around the host body. I am sure there may be something to say here of a subtext, of a novel dealing with the subjugation of others through another intelligence. The book could be seen as a celebration of love, human experience and pleasure as seen through the filter of an outsider, or even (with touches of Zenna Henderson) a plea for the acceptance and tolerance of outsiders.
As such, does it, like many good SF books, act as a mirror to the human condition, highlighting basic human fundamentals? Well, yes, but not particularly deeply. There are perhaps themes here that readers of The Handmaid’s Tale may recognise, and perhaps like Atwood’s tale, The Host could perhaps be seen as an SF book for those not accustomed to SF, without too much of the generic genre structures (spaceships etc) some expect.
The narrative is straightforward and the plot perhaps a little predictable. However, I rather imagine that I am not the mainstay audience for this book. IF I was pushed to use a stereotype, I suspect that those who’ve read the Twilight series and are now looking for something longer, a little deeper and a little more complex (but not too deep nor too complex) and not too SF, would enjoy this one. This is not Twilight, but the growth of a writer. To my mind, think Anne McCaffrey, or perhaps JK Rowling but with her first adult novel, and you’ve about got it.
In summary, like JK and the Fantasy genre, Stephenie may know little of the SF genre culture, but despite this, she has managed to write an effective novel for those with little experience of the genre. Stephenie has ability, clearly knows what she wants to write and perhaps who might like to read it. And with that in mind, (or someone else’s!) this book is secured of a profitable future.
Mark Yon/ Hobbit, April 2008.