M.R. Carey is a pen name for an established British writer of prose fiction and comic books. He has written for both DC and Marvel, including critically acclaimed runs on X-Men and Fantastic Four, Marvel’s flagship superhero titles. His creator-owned books regularly appear in the New York Times graphic fiction bestseller list. He also has several previous novels and one Hollywood movie screenplay to his credit. His latest novel, The Girl with all the Gifts, is out now.
by M.R. Carey
I always really sucked at science at school. I was okay with the theory part, but anything resembling an experiment was sure to fall apart in my hands. My test tubes broke, my air tracks didn’t blow and my dead frog had no internal organs. None. Just a single undifferentiated squishy bit, which I drew accurately and was then handed an after-school detention for my pains.
I feel bad about that frog now. I don’t see why he should have died in the cause of my deficient education. I don’t see why any frog should. My only hope, really, is that he wasn’t a frog at all but a spy from a race of shape-shifting aliens who can mimic the outer appearance of anything but can’t disguise their undifferentiated squishy interiors, so different from the neat, purposeful organs we Terran life forms enjoy.
That’s a side issue, though. The main point is that I was really bad at science, dropped it as soon as I could and have never gone back. Oh wait, I also poisoned myself growing copper sulphate crystals. How does anyone do that? That can’t be normal, can it? If I hadn’t got out when I did I’d probably have destroyed a reasonably-sized continent by now.
But ironically, as soon as I left school, I got seriously into the writings of the American palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould had a regular column in Scientific American for many years in which he’d basically just take an amazing aspect of the natural world and preach a sermon on it, drawing some moral about scientific method, natural diversity or the workings of evolution. I couldn’t get enough of that stuff. I started to fill in some of the five-door-family-convertible-sized gaps in my knowledge.
And I discovered a new vice, which is this: After reading a Gould essay I’d often read two or three other pieces online about the same subject – the reasons why different species of zebra have different patterns of stripes; the lying stones of Würzberg; eighteenth century theories of embryogenesis – and then I’d be an instant expert on that subject. And like any instant expert, I’d feel the need to drop it into every conversation I had for the next few days. “So, eighteenth century theories of embryogenesis, eh? What a caution! Do you know they broke down into two distinct schools based on…”
Eventually I discovered what most people instinctively know, which is that a little of this stuff goes a long way. On a first date, particularly, very little indeed. It’s best not even to bring up the lying stones of Würzberg with a girlfriend or boyfriend until you’ve made your first baby together and a natural pause comes up in the conversation. Zebras are generally easier, though.
But you see (and here I’m finally getting to the point), this is one of many reasons why it’s so great to be a writer. As a writer, you can make your own opportunities. As a writer, if you wait long enough, you are pretty much sure to be asked a fatally open-ended question such as “where do you get your ideas from?”
And then you can stand up, take a declamatory stance, and say “I get the bulk of them from eighteenth century theories of embryogenesis.”
And you know what’s really cool? You won’t even be lying. Because as a writer you really are hoovering this stuff up all the time and squirreling it away in special internal organs that only writers have (I can certainly verify that frogs don’t have them, anyway) until such time as you can insinuate them into a work in progress. It’s all in a day’s work.
Take the zombies in my zombie novel, The Girl with All the Gifts. My intermittently zombie novel, I should say: I think it’s fair to point out that zombies are only part of the point of the book. It’s mainly about a particular set of relationships and a painful coming of age. But still. It’s got zombies, yo. So I needed a mechanism for how they were going to work. And for very good and sufficient reason I wanted it to be a scientific explanation with a yard or two of solid foundation under it.
In the short story from which Girl grew, I’d hinted vaguely at a virus that had created “the hungries” a generation before the story starts. But once I got to the scenes in the novel where the pathogen and its potential cure come into the foreground, it seemed pretty clear that a virus wasn’t going to hack it. It felt too much like a steal from 28 Days Later, for one thing. And for another, it just flat-out wasn’t scary.
But then I remembered one of many things I’d become an instant expert on, back in the day. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis! I won’t go over this sneaky little fungus’s life cycle here – if you’ve read the book, you’ll already know it. If you haven’t, I suggest you go here and see Cordyceps in all its glory. I’ll wait.
Hmm. I knew not all of you were going to make it back here. Should have put that link right at the end. So yeah, there it was. The nastiest organism since the alien that gave its highly catchy and not at all generic name to the movie Alien, and this time you can’t even console yourself that it’s all made up. It isn’t.
But Cordyceps – or at least Cordyceps unilateralis – is a parasite on ants. Was anyone going to buy a backstory where the evil mind-controlling fungus mutates to cross species barriers and threaten mammals? Well, when I went back to the books and the websites to refresh my instant expertise, I turned up some promising factoids. First of all, there are between 400 and 2000 species of Cordyceps, each targeting a different insect or arachnid host.
And then, somewhat closer to home, there’s Toxoplasma gondii, a parasitic protozoan that causes mice and rats to be attracted to the smell of cat urine – luring them to their doom so that the embedded parasites can be passed from their primary host to their secondary host.
And finally, paydirt. I found a whole bunch of articles claiming that human behaviour is also affected by Toxoplasma gondii. One Czech neuroscientist, Jaroslav Flegr, claims it can make infected people blind to risk so that they do stupidly dangerous things. Some studies suggest it can also influence the way we dress, the way we drive, and the way we respond to authority.
Here’s the bottom line: These parasites that can hot-wire the nervous system of an innocent host and make it do things it doesn’t want to do are not rare. They’re not even uncommon. They’re everywhere. Fungi, bacteria, protozoa, nematode worms, hairworms, flatworms, barnacles, liver flukes – they’re all guilty of the same offence, which is taking and driving away. There is a wasp, and I swear this on my mother’s grave, that has adapted its stinger into an organ for performing brain surgery on cockroaches. The stinger slides into the cockroach’s brain (which is idly thinking about garbage and Joe’s Apartment) and kills certain nerve clusters with precisely delivered packets of venom, reducing the cockroach to a robotic, docile state.
If that doesn’t depress you (maybe because you’d rather have a docile cockroach than an argumentative one), then I sincerely believe this will. Research carried out jointly by several American universities and the US Geological Survey compared the prevalence of predators and parasites in three estuaries on the Pacific coast of California. Want to know what they found?
Parasitic organisms were vastly more numerous. Of course they were. But they also outweighed the predators. Parasite biomass in these ecosystems exceeds predator biomass by a factor of 20. In other words, if you had a big set of scales and you put all the parasites in the estuary in one pan of the scales… well, frankly you’d just have to write off that set of scales and go by yourself another one.
Some theologians once asked the biologist J.B.S.Haldane what could be inferred about the mind of God from the works of His creation. Haldane said “An inordinate fondness for beetles.” In the same way, I guess we can say that God loves himself some parasites.
So that was my zombie problem solved. Now I just have to work on the insomnia.