Stephenie Meyer's bestseller The Host does for aliens what Twilight did for vampires—and soon will be in theaters nationwide.
Science fiction has long capitalized on the horror of imperialism. That's true of The War of the Worlds, in which H.G. Wells imagined Martians doing to Britain what Britain had done to its colonies. But it's perhaps even more true of the extensive body-usurpers subgenre. In films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter's The Thing, or in novels like John Christopher's The Possessors or Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, the alien others colonize our brains and our bodies, so that conquest comes not through force of arms but through insidious transformation. Cold-War paranoia about creeping Communism and internal enemies leads to a vision in which the loss of national autonomy becomes a complete loss of self.
Stephenie Meyer, best known for her tween vampire romance Twilight series, draws on this long tradition of colonizing horror in her 2008 bestselling novel The Host, whose film adaptation hits theaters at the end of this month. The story seems at first to fit all the genre tropes. An alien race of tiny silvery caterpillars crawls out of the vastnesses of space and into human brainstems. Soon they have controlled virtually everyone on the planet, with only a few desperate holdouts waiting for the alien police, called Seekers, to find and convert them.
You've seen the script no doubt. Except that you really haven't. In the first place, Meyer tells her tale from the perspective not of the last human remnants running from the nauseatingly uncanny conquerors, but rather from the perspective of one of the invaders. The narrator of the story is Wanderer, an alien who has taken over the body of an earth woman named Melanie. Melanie's consciousness is supposed to be gone, but it isn't. Instead, the host's memories are so powerful that Wanderer ends up falling in maternal love with Mel's little brother, Jamie, and in just regular love with her paramour, Jared.
Meyer, in short, shuffles genres. Instead of paranoid horror, she uses the sci-fi invasion tropes to generate relationship angst. Wanderer, impelled by Mel, claws her way back to her loved ones—and then all melodrama breaks loose. Jared doesn't trust Wanderer at first ... then he does, and Mel is jealous when he kisses her body. Then a guy named Ian falls in love with Wanderer, but how can he have her when Mel is also in the body watching? Wanda and Mel grow to love each other too, and then Wanda feels guilty for taking her body and Mel feels guilty and there are enough tears and confessions and declarations of hopeless love to fill any three daytime serials of your choice.
At 800 pages, this does, admittedly, get a bit tedious. Still, it's hard not to be impressed by bizarreness of the endeavor—who would have thought of turning The Thing into a soap opera?—as well as by the way Meyer makes that bizarreness seem natural.
Against the sci-fi tradition of difference as invaded/invader, Meyer puts forth a vision of difference as mother/child. The aliens—who call themselves "souls"—are conquerors, but they are also, for Meyer, figured as a kind of caretaker. They loathe violence; even The Brady Bunch, we learn, is too violent for them (shades of Tipper Gore.) They also have miraculous healing abilities: Every injury, every disease, can be fixed immediately and fully. Once they have taken over all the humans, there is no violence, no suffering, no infractions of the law (not even speeding)—and no money, since everyone gives freely everything that is needed to everyone else. They have transformed Earth into a perfectly safe, perfectly gentle society where all needs are met—into a fuddy-duddy womb, in other words.
Wanderer (or "Wanda" as she is eventually nicknamed) is a fuddy-duddy herself. Like the rest of her kind, she abhors all violence. Moreover, her main characteristic is an all-encompassing altriusim. Meyer links this in part to the fact that among her own species Wanda is a mother—one of the few souls who can divide into millions of new single-celled infant souls, killing herself in the process.
Whether it's a species/gender trait or a personal one, though, Wanda spends the whole book in a frenzy of self-abnegation. She drags herself across the desert, almost dying in her effort to reach Jamie and Jared, even though they're really Melanie's family, not hers. Once she finds the human colonists, she's constantly abused, and even beaten a couple of times by Jared (who of course sees her as an alien and an interloper). But she never complains, and never misses an opportunity to put herself in harms way if by doing so she can spare anyone else from death, or pain, or even inconvenience. Eventually she even tries to give up her body for Melanie—to erase herself, as she puts it. Instead of an alien invader, she comes across as an almost literal angel in the house: a soul of self-effacing domesticity too good for the coarse world around her.
Given Meyer's Mormon faith, the Christian analogy here is almost surely intentional. Wanda is the soul that enters flesh, and heals the community through her self-sacrifice. As the humans grow to know her, conqueror and conquered become a single loving community. The "host" of the title ceases to refer to a parasitic relationship, and instead becomes the word that Jeb, the human leader, uses to refer to his obligations to Wanda, his guest.
Even as the humans start to treat Wanda as one of their own, the souls in the broader society begin to see humans not as conquered spoil to be used, but as family. Souls in human bodies can have human children, and (because human emotions are so strong, according to Meyer) they end up loving those children as their own. When Wanda sees a soul mother lavishing affection on her human child, she says it is, "The only hope for survival I've ever seen in a host species." Genocide is staved off not through battle, but through domesticity, Christian sacrifice, and mother love.
The counterintuitive transformation of horror to love, male genre tropes to female genre tropes, and violence to self-abnegation—all features of Twilight as well—is no doubt a big part of the reason why Meyer's work provokes such negative reactions in so many. And the idea that it is women who must save the world by surrendering their bodies and lives to their enemies seems calculated to piss of people on every part of the ideological spectrum.
Still, Meyer has many, many fans as well, obviously—enough to greenlight a screen version of a novel that seems like it should be unfilmable, inasmuch as much of the main action takes place silently in the protagonist's head. The key to her works' popularity may be in The Host's dedication, which reads, "To my mother, Candy, who taught me that love is the best part of any story." For Meyer and her loyal readers, even a tale of conquest becomes a narrative about family. Perhaps that's naïve and sentimental. But surely there's something courageous too in looking upon the loathsome, dangerous alien, and welcoming him, or her, into your heart.