Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Host (book) by Stephenie Meyer

After the horrible experience that was Breaking Dawn (see my post here), I was hesitant about reading this book. I finally ended up bumping it up to the top of my list of things to catalog because it's so freaking thick - at the moment, as far behind as I am on my cataloging, thick books are appealing. So, after I cataloged it, I figured I might as well read it. Surprisingly, I liked it. Meyer's writing style, which seemed unnatural in a first person book written from the perspective of a teenage girl, fit well in a first person novel written from the perspective of an alien. That's not to say I didn't have some gripes about the book - more on that in my commentary section.

Now for the synopsis. I don't reveal everything in the book, since that would take forever, but I do give away the ending. You have been warned.

Synopsis:

Humanity has been almost completely taken over by body-snatching aliens. No one noticed what was happening until it was too late. Now, the few remaining humans who haven't been taken over by the souls (what the aliens call themselves) hide, do their best to survive, and try to figure out a way to get their planet and the people they once recognized as friends and family back.

The only thing humans have on their side is that adults who resist are amazingly hard to truly take over. For this reason, souls are generally encouraged to take only young humans as hosts. However, when a human who may have information about the resistance is captured the Seekers (souls who gather up hosts and protect other souls - the only souls capable of anything even close to violence) decide that much could be learned if she were made into a host. A special soul, given the name Wanderer, is chosen to invade the human. Unlike most souls, Wanderer has never found a planet she truly felt was her home. Her experience with many different kinds of hosts might possibly make her the ideal candidate for dealing with an unruly human mind and overwhelming human emotions.

Wanderer is upset to discover that even she has problems with her human host. Amazingly, her host, Melanie, is still around, and she has no intention of telling Wanderer anything that might cause her loved ones harm. Mel can't manage to keep everything from Wanderer, but this turns out not to be too big of a problem. The constant bombardment of Mel's memories and emotions eventually causes Wanderer to care for Jamie, Mel's younger brother - and Jared, the man Mel loves. Mel's not too thrilled about the idea of Wanderer loving Jared, but, when she gets the opportunity to persuade Wanderer to go to her family without telling the Seekers what she's doing, she takes it.

Mel is overly optimistic. While she and Wanderer do manage to find Jeb (Mel's uncle), Jamie, and Jared (so many "J" names...), the reunion isn't as rosy and wonderful as she seems to have expected it to be. Jeb and the rest now live with a hidden community of humans and, although Jeb seems willing to wait and see if Wanderer is as harmless as she appears to be, the rest of the community, Jared included, isn't quite so accepting. As far as Jared is concerned, Mel is dead, and Wanderer is just a monster controlling her shell. Mel longs to convince him that she's still around and can't believe he would possibly hurt her. Although Wanderer has fallen in love with Jared via Mel's memories of him, she is less convinced that Jared will happily accept the truth, and rightfully so. Jared and others repeatedly try to harm Wanderer. For the most part, the only ones on her side are Jeb, Jamie, Doc (who was originally going to experiment on her), and Ian (who tried to kill her when he first saw her).

With the help of the few people who do seem to like her, Wanderer eventually gains the acceptance of many of the people in the community. Jared eventually believes Wanderer when she tells him that Mel is still alive, which introduces another complication. Remember, Mel's memories have caused Wanderer to fall in love with Jared. Jared loves Mel, and Mel loves Jared, but Jared can't kiss Mel's body without Mel getting upset, because Wanderer enjoys the kiss too and Mel doesn't want Jared kissing Wanderer. As if things aren't complicated enough, Ian eventually falls in love with Wanderer, which again upsets Mel because she doesn't want Ian. Mel's emotions make it impossible for Wanderer to figure out how she feels about Ian. There's no way either Mel or Wanderer will end up with anyone as long as they both share the same body, which Wanderer, by the way, still completely controls.

Although many people in the community have come to like Wanderer somewhat, and although many people enjoy listening to her stories about other worlds (when those stories don't remind them of the plight of their own people), hardly anyone really trusts Wanderer not to betray them if given the chance. When Jamie gets sick, Wanderer knows she could get him medicine that could help make him better, but no one wants to risk letting her go back to her own people. Jared sneaks Wanderer out, the raid is a success, and Jamie gets better. Suddenly, everyone realizes they've got a golden goose - all they have to do is send Wanderer out, and they can have all the medicine and food they need. Constantly taking from her people without giving anything back makes Wanderer feel a bit guilty, but she's happy to be of some use to the community.

Unfortunately, the Seeker originally tasked with collecting whatever information Wanderer managed to get from her host has not given up looking for her and kills a member of the community. Wanderer doesn't want the Seeker to be killed, but she doesn't want to put the community at risk either, so she comes up with a plan. She tells Doc that she'll show him how to remove a soul from its host, but only if he promises her a few things first. First, no soul that is removed must ever be killed. Instead, they must put the souls into cold-storage tanks and arrange for them to be sent to one of the other planets the souls have colonized. Second, Wanderer must be removed from her host. Third, when Wanderer is removed, she doesn't want to be placed into a new host. Wanderer would rather die than continue to live as a parasite.

The last request is the hardest for Doc to agree to, but he really wants to learn how to remove the souls, so he does. Wanderer won't let him tell anyone else what he's agreed to, but people find out anyway. Jared doesn't seem to mind too much (except when he does, although I'm still not sure that his sadness was genuine), but Ian is deeply upset. In the end, Wanderer sneaks off and has Doc perform the procedure.

Except, of course, it's not the end. It turns out there's a little loophole that will allow Wanderer to continue to live without having to be a parasite in an unwilling host. Doc and the others discover that not every human who is freed from being a host can fully recover - some of them have been hosts too long or were unable to mentally fight back the way Mel did. After Doc removes the soul from one such body, Wanderer is given that body. Although she's upset at first, the soul who originally had that body will be safely sent to another world, the body itself would be an empty shell without her in it, and everyone seems happy to have her back. Without Mel's emotions to confuse things, Wanderer happily begins her new life with Ian. When members of the community run into another group of free humans, she also discovers that she's not the only soul who has chosen to side with the humans.

Commentary:

Despite its length (slightly over 600 pages), I read this book in two and a half days, which is a good general indication that I enjoyed it. I'm not sure how well all the alien worlds Meyer writes about would hold up to scientific examination, by they are at least fun to read about. The love story (stories?) is a bit awkward but also interesting. Meyer does an excellent job of making Wanderer and other souls sympathetic, which has the unfortunate side effect of making humans seem like violent, nearly irredeemable monsters. True, the human hosts are taken unwillingly, but I couldn't help but think that the souls were doing a better job with their human bodies than humans themselves do. One of the ways humans finally noticed they'd been invaded: lots of humans suddenly became kinder. Pedophiles, drug dealers, and others who harmed people and broke the law began turning themselves in. Oh, the horror.

Overall, I actually found myself liking the aliens more than the humans. When Mel turned up among the souls, they chased after her so that she could be implanted with a soul. She was badly hurt, but only because she tried to kill herself in an attempt to avoid getting taken over. The souls healed her body, implanted Wanderer into her, and sent Wanderer off to her new job (as a teacher of soul history) and new life in the nearly perfect human world - no one ever has to pay for anything, all injuries can be healed, all illnesses can be cured, everyone trusts each other, no one lies if they can help it, and the only negative emotions anyone feels come from their human hosts.

Aside from the Seekers, souls aren't capable of violence, and even most of the Seekers would probably prefer not to hurt anyone. The souls really have more to fear from humans. When Wanderer turns up among the human community, they, for the most part, try to hurt her. They make their hatred of her clear and, even though she has never once lifted a hand even to defend herself, they fear her. I can understand their fear that she might tell the Seekers about them - after the way they treated her, it was crazy of her not to want to. However, you'd think they'd eventually realize that, on an individual, physical level, they have nothing to fear from her, that all the violence in their interactions with her comes solely from themselves.

Well, enough about that - time to write about those gripes I mentioned at the beginning of this post. In short, they are the book's length, the ending, the way Meyer writes about love, and the whole "humans are so unique" thing.

The Length: Meyer's editor seems to be afraid to force her to tighten up her word count, since book length has been a frequent problem for her. No, I don't think the only good book is a short book - I like plenty of long books. However, I believe that there should be a purpose to all those words. As I read The Host, I found myself thinking that, although I was mostly enjoying myself and certainly making good time reading the book (the check out period of this book was only a week, so I had to finish it quickly regardless), the book didn't really need to be this long. There are many, many pages spent on Mel longing for Jared, Wanderer lamenting how much she is hated, and Wanderer trying to win people's trust like an eager puppy. A better writer, or better editor, could have condensed all these things and more without, I think, the quality of the book suffering. Heck, it might even have become better, and maybe I wouldn't have wanted to smack Mel so much.

The Ending: Usually, when someone complains about a book or movie's happy ending, I'm the one wondering what's wrong with that person. I don't like it when my entertainment depresses me, so I tend to like happy endings. I liked Wanderer a lot and was happy that things turned out well for her, but Meyer's determination to make this a happy ending for everyone, absolutely everyone, was difficult for even me to swallow. Wanderer lives, and humankind will eventually be freed from its alien invasion (one person at a time, but I suppose Doc could teach others how to do it). The alien invaders, who aren't actually all that bad, won't be killed. The truly nice souls, the ones willing to do just about anything for their human friends, will be able to stick around, inhabiting mindless bodies. Ian's brother magically becomes a decent guy. Everybody's happy. Well, everyone except the beings the souls use as hosts on other planets, but who cares about a bunch of non-humanoid aliens? The humans are saved!

To my mind, it's a happy ending that's only happy because Meyer allows her characters to just forget all the things that can't be fixed. The souls will continue to take over hosts, because that's what they must do to survive, and the humans (or, at least, Wanderer's humans) won't be killing the souls they remove. What about the souls who lovingly care for their unimplanted human children? Will they remove the souls from those human bodies, even though those souls would then have to leave behind the children they've grown to love?

I can imagine Wanderer and Ian eventually having children, but they would be human children only. I'm sure Wanderer would continue to hate what she is too much to spawn millions of little host-needing parasites. From a soul perspective, this is kind of sad. Wanderer may have found herself some friends and someone to love, but she can only keep all of that if she doesn't let herself truly be what she is. When Wanderer's host is ready to die of old age, I suspect she'll just let herself die. It probably won't even occur to her to have children the way souls do.

Love in Meyer's Books: I suppose I could just write about love in The Host, but what I have to say really applies to all of Meyer's books. Love, in Meyer's worlds, has a tendency to be disturbingly masochistic. In Meyer's Twilight books, Bella and Edward would just die without each other - in fact, when Edward thinks Bella is dead, he tries to commit suicide. Bella realizes that Edward craves her blood and could possibly kill her at any moment, but she loves him unconditionally (I guess having surivival insticts would make her love less pure?) and doesn't care. Plus, she'd love it if he would turn her into a vampire - who cares about the friends and family she'd have to leave behind, after all?

The Host has similar problems, plus some readers may take issue with Meyer's love of large physical age gaps. Mel is 17 when she meets 26-year-old Jared - he kisses her the first time they meet, but, because of her age, refuses to have sex with her. How gentlemanly! (You can't see me, but I'm rolling my eyes.) When Wanderer is put into her final human body, she lies about its age (almost 17), so that Ian won't go all gentlemanly on her. That one threw me a little because, it seemed somewhat unnecessary. After all, while Wanderer new body may be disturbingly child-like (she looks smaller and younger than her actual physical age of 16-nearly-17), Wanderer herself is a few thousand years old. I can't help but wonder what Meyer was trying to do. Why not make Wanderer's new body a sweet-looking, cute, petite 20-year-old or something?

Ok, I got a little sidetracked there. Back to what I really wanted to write about - love in The Host. Mel loves Jared, so much so that she can't possibly believe he would hurt her when she comes back to him implanted with Wanderer. She doesn't think she could have harmed him if he had been in the same situation - her love would be too great!! Oh, I swoon. Ahem. Well, as far as Jared not harming her is concerned, Mel is so very, very wrong. Jared wants to kill her. He tries to kill her. Several times. The only reason he stops is because it upsets Jamie so much. Mel wants to throw herself at Jared even though it's practically guaranteed that he would break her face if she tried it.

Apparently, only one person in Mel's body can have survival instincts at a time. When crazy Mel wants to throw herself at Jared, sane Wanderer holds them both back and tells Mel to get a grip. When Wanderer starts to love everyone so much that she begins to hate her existence as a parasite, Mel tries to stop her from having herself removed and allowed to die. Again, a character's love is so great that she is prompted to express it in ways that cause her pain/death - at least in Wanderer's case, one could see her actions as part of her species makeup, since soul Mothers must give up their lives for their children to live. Both characters lose there sanity where Jamie is concerned, although I found this much easier to swallow. Mel and Wanderer both viewed themselves as something like Jamie's mother, and mothers will sometimes do crazy things to protect their young. I can buy that and even be ok with it. Plus, Jamie never once tried to kill Mel/Wanderer. I still can't believe Mel was hardly even phased by Jared's reaction to her. The more I think about it, the more I hate Jared. Or maybe Mel. Or both of them. Ian, at least, only tried to kill Wanderer when they first met - perfectly understandable, since she was the enemy and he had never known Mel pre-implantation. I also appreciated that he didn't like how willing Wanderer was to harm herself and overlook her own needs/wants in order to help others. That gives him several points over Jared.

"Humans Are Unique": This cropped up a lot at the beginning of the book, and it annoyed me. Wanderer had been implanted in 7 or 8 extremely diverse hosts prior to being implanted in Mel. Readers are told that humans are so very unique. Their emotions are stronger, more erratic, and harder to control than the emotions of any other beings the souls have used as hosts before. One thing Wanderer notes is that Mel is her first host to have a sense of smell.

Saying "humans are unique" makes me think to much of all those sci-fi shows in which some alien, in a tone filled with awe and/or respect, notes that some "uniquely human" characteristic makes humans one of the strongest/most frightening/most whatever species he/she/it has ever encountered. Even shows I love, like Babylon 5, have engaged in that sort of thing. I really dislike it, because it implies that humans are special. Why do we have to be special?

It helped, I guess, that Wanderer loved the characteristics of some of her other hosts' bodies almost as much as the emotions she gets when she's in a human body, but I still could have done with a little less focusing on the ways humans are different from any other host she's known. Aside from the bit where Wanderer talks about previous hosts that are most physiologically similar to humans, Meyer writes very little about the similarities between humans and other hosts Wanderer has been in.

Well, I should wrap this up. Again, I liked this book. If the Wikipedia article I read is correct, there will be a second book (unless of course Meyer decides not to publish it, just as she decided to "indefinitely delay" her leaked book), and possibly even a third. Personally, I think The Host stands well enough on its own. I'll read the sequel, when and if it comes out, but I do hope it's not just an attempt to milk another potential cash cow.

By the way, try reading the blurbs on the book jacket. Meyer is called "a hybrid combination of Stephen King and Isaac Asimov" (by author Ridley Pearson). Umm... I wonder if Stephen King read that - it reminded me of his "Meyer can't write" comment. Maybe the blurb was set up to mess with him. Also, just in general, the blurbs are kind of funny. I mean, they practically glow. It's like a madlib of fawning.

I consider my first two read-alikes to be good matches for this book - my third and fourth are a stretch. I know I've read something at some point in which two minds lived in one body. It would probably make a better read-alike, but I can't remember it, and Amazon, Google, Fiction_L's archives, and NoveList haven't been able to help me figure out the title. Well, if I think of it, I can just tack it onto the end.

Read-alikes:
  • Uglies (book) by Scott Westerfeld - This young adult science fiction novel takes place in a future where, at age 16, "uglies," teens who haven't had any cosmetic surgery yet, are put through a major surgical procedure that turns them into "pretties," gorgeous, placid, fun-loving, bubble heads. Tally Youngblood is an Ugly who wants nothing more than to become a Pretty, but things become complicated when she is asked to betray a friend who has decided to leave the city and remain an Ugly. This is the first book in the series - next are Pretties, Specials, and Extras (the only book not featuring Tally as a main character). Those who'd like another book with action, a bit of romance, and a group of rebels might want to try this. There's something about The Host's style that reminds me of this one, too.
  • Blood and Chocolate (book) by Annette Curtis Klause - Vivian is a werewolf, part of a small community of werewolves living in secret among humans. Vivian's father, the pack leader, was killed when the pack was driven out of its previous home, and all that remains is for a new leader to be chosen before the pack can move to a more permanent home. In the meantime, Vivian doesn't really feel at home with anyone in the pack. She begins dating a human, but how long will their relationship last if she tells him what she is? Even worse, people have been getting killed and Vivian can't be certain she wasn't responsible. Again, something about The Host's style made me think of this one. Like Wanderer, Vivian has to somehow figure out how to fit what she is in with her new human relationships. I prefer this book's resolution to The Host's.
  • I Am Legend (book) by Richard Matheson - A terrible plague of some kind has turned almost all of humanity (and many animals) into blood-thirsty creatures of the night. Robert Neville, who is immune to the disease, appears to be the only remaining uninfected human, although he is hopeful that there are others like him out there and that he can find a cure for the disease. As in The Host, humankind is on the brink of being completely taken over. To say too much would be to give things away, but Matheson, like Meyer, also blurs the lines between the "good guys" and "bad guys." The style isn't much like The Host, and the tone is bleaker. This book has been made into a movie featuring Will Smith - the movie is, not unexpectedly, pretty different from the book, although it keeps the basic premise. Personally, I enjoyed the book more.
  • Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (anime movie) - In the future, almost everyone has been cyberized. Batou, a police officer who is practially a cyborg, and his new partner Togusa, who is mostly human, investigate murders committed by prototype "sexaroids," female robots created for sex. This movie probably won't make complete sense unless you've seen the first movie. Actually, it might not make complete sense even then. Still, it's great eye candy, and it has an interesting way of looking at dolls versus humans. It's not much like The Host in tone or style, but those who'd like something in which a human and something non-human (in this case, dolls/robots) don't exactly live comfortably together might want to try this.

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