by Stephenie Meyers (Little, Brown, 2008). 617 pp.
WARNING: major spoilers
Stephenie Meyerâ€™s foray into science fiction is a well-deserved best seller, and a great piece of Mormon literature. The romantic interaction between Bella and Edward and Jacobâ€”wait, I mean between Jared and Melanie/Wanderer and Ianâ€”uh, hold on a second…
The first thing that readers of the Twilight series will notice is a similarity in characters, conflicts, and situation, although in some new configurations. Like the vampires in Twilight, the alien invaders in The Host are parasites who turn normal people into something different. The fundamental conflict in both works involves love between what should be (im)mortal enemies, and the romantic relationships raise questions about the roles that (vampire) bodies and (alien parasitic) minds play in romance and personal identity. Pointing out the similarities is not meant as a criticism; these are interesting themes, and Meyers, like a lot of writers, gets good mileage out of exploring variations on them.
It does open up some possibilities for comparison and speculation, however. The Host is a complete book (although I wouldnâ€™t mind a sequel) that corresponds to an unfinished series whose last installment arrives in a few weeks. Does The Host give away any clues about how the Twilight series will end? I suspect it does. The Host concludes by reconciling the apparently irreconcilable, with Jared and Melanie together again and Ian and Wanderer together at last, and I expect that the Twilight series will end similarly: Bella and Edward will find a way to be together (my guess is that she bites him, and returns him to human form), while overgrown kid brother Jacob will imprint on the she-wolf of his dreams.
But The Host can stand on its own without reference to Twilight. As Iâ€™ve written before, Stephenie Meyer has a phenomenal talent for writing opening chapters that keep you reading just a little more, just one more chapter, just a few more pages… In Twilight and here again in The Host, freed from the constraints of writing a series, â€œjust a little bit moreâ€ lands you a couple hundred pages into the book, even if sci-fi-romance isnâ€™t your genre. Writers, Mormon or otherwise, should watch Stephenie Meyer closely to see how she does it.
Although itâ€™s an international bestseller, The Host is also a very Mormon book. Metaphysically-minded Mormons will find an opportunity to reflect on the inseparability of human identities and human bodies. At a more fundamental level, there may be something essentially Mormon in retelling Invasion of the Body Snatchers as an interspecies romance from the perspective of a body snatcher. The usual sci-fi approach, and a book thatâ€™s been written many times before, would tell how humanity threw off its alien puppet masters, but The Host is not about purification through violence. Thereâ€™s a silly and vacuous criticism that says Mormon writers canâ€™t write about evil, but there is no art in repeating tired tropes of monstrous horrors. The truth is that evil always has a human face, and that obscuring the humanness of evil is itself evil. The alien parasites in The Host are gentle beings of pure light and good intention who nonetheless commit genocide on a planetary scale many times over. The Host succeeds in showing that human actions are both noble, and as monstrous as the parasitesâ€™. Jesus and Satan are brothers, and there by grace, or but for grace, go I.
The Host does not have any overt Mormon themes or characters, although Jared (cough, cough), who has qualms about the last man and woman on Earth going too far too fast, seems likely to have served a mission at some point. The novelâ€™s setting, on the other hand, is thoroughly Mormon. The refuge of the remaining uninfected humans is a self-sufficient outpost somewhere in the West, a long way off the interstate. This is not a place where many Mormons live today, but itâ€™s firmly anchored in our experience and our culture. Despite more than a century of urbanization and Mormon out-migration from Utah, many of us grew up with occasional visits or annual pilgrimages to the old family ranch or grandpaâ€™s farm, some self-contained place off in the desert or up the valley, far from the interstate or blacktop of any kind, that actually might go unnoticed if aliens invaded because often enough that was precisely what it has already done, a hundred years ago. The place off in the desert that the authorities canâ€™t find is an entirely appropriate setting for a novel about men and women pairing off in unequal number (of minds and bodies), with a resolution consisting in equal parts of monogamy restored and tolerance for alternative arrangements.