Sunday, February 5, 2012

Breeding Ground by Sarah Pinborough

The disease is carried in male sperm.

We presume that Matt and Chloe are in a sexual relationship and Katie is untouched by the diesase until after she makes love to Matt. Once they have sex, she starts to change. The poison in his system begins to affect her and it's a slow descent into....

No. Matt also hooks up with Rebecca, she doesn't become infected, and they suddenly decide they're in love and their baby is going to breathe new human life into a spider-ravaged world.

Okay, scratch that.

It's about the fear of pregnancy. The creatures are birthed from women, their gestation uses a lot of squicky imagery we associate with pregnancy: there's a life growing inside me, it's making me nuts, and it will kill me once it comes out. These are powerful fears that are often difficult for a male reader to wrap my head around.

Except...not really. The creation of these creatures don't really go past the gory dynamics of their birth. Aside from a few "there's something wrong with my baby" riffs, it's not much more than a gross image. Sure, it's tapping some psychological buttons that a lot of readers are likely to have, but it doesn't seem to go beyond "everyone's freaked out about this stuff on some level, let's go with pregnant women birthing spiders." It reminds me of those jump scares in horror movies: everyone can be started by loud noises in dark rooms, but it ultimately doesn't mean much.

OOOOH! I got it! It's about gender dynamics. The creatures in the book are unquestionably human-level sentient. They have plans, they have an agenda, and they're not very nice. When the story starts, it seems like the poor beleagured menfolk are under siege. Their formerly domesticated partners have "died" metaphorically, shedding the trappings of domesticity and subservience under their male partners. The book begins with a bunch of befuddled men from different parts of society watching their patriarchal structures dissolve around them. Oooh, and here come some uninfected females! Better watch out, they might look like they're on our side now, but pretty soon they're going to become spider lesbian feminazis reading Steinem and Anais Nin and listening to Ani DiFranco while they open up vegan cafes in Boulder Colorado with their life partner Dillon...

Nope. Eventually, the males start turning into spiders. It's just a plain-old extinction event.

Time to scratch my head. Disease? Oh god, I got lumps. I'm gaining weight in weird places. I'm becoming angry. Powerful stuff, but there's not much beyond the symptoms. People get freaked out, then they die.

Hm. Is it about humanity with our backs against the wall? Could be. Those stories are popular these days. They appeal to people's hysteria and bizarre narcissism (I'm in agreement with Jon Hodgman on this one: post-apocalypse stories are ultimately wish fulfillment). Yeah, everything is fucked. Look how it all falls apart when the lights go out and spider things skitter towards us in the darkness..'s really badly thought out apocalypse. Like, really, really bad.

Okay, that's dramatic. It's a fine enough yarn. Things happen, people get eaten, it's in the British countryside so everyone calls each other "mate" and there are no handguns and there are Tescos instead of Walgreens. But it's waaaaay too aware of other post-apocalypse stories. Pinborough bypasses that whole oh-my-god-what's-happening-here-are-the-evacuation-plans-oh-wait-they-don't-work. We go straight into desolate Road Warrior country. The only hint we have that there is any sort of formal inquiry into the odd happenings is a completely illogical scene where a doctor gives Chloe a perfunctory examination, blows her off, then goes and gets drunk. No radio broadcast, no "keep calm and carry on." Matt escapes from Chloe and everything and everyone is gone. Ghost town. Boom. Granted, England is a sad, desolate place where all hope dies under the crushing weight of gray skies, good conduct, and sexual repression, but at least have a humvee or two drive by. Drop leaflets from a plane. SOMEONE WOULD HAVE DONE SOMETHING!

Oh god. Does that Sara Pinborough only trying to tell another goddamned SCIENCE GONE MAD!!!! story?

Sure seems like it. "You faaaacking daft scientists, always messing with things and offending the natural order! I've 'alf a mind to give you a right kicking, so I do!"

"Oh you're bloody right! I'm so concerned by what I can do that I don't ever think of the ramifications of genetically engineering foods so that they will last longer and can therefore feed more people. My word and I daresay, this whole spider plague is my fault. Oh by jove I'm being devoured. What a sticky wicket!"


I've gone on a rant about this before, but I HATE science-gone-mad stories. They're simplistic and regressive and reductive and remind me of why I hate horror.

Yep. You read that right. I hate horror.

Grain of salt, obvious. I'm getting a master's degree in horror fiction, I host a horror podcast, I've been to Transylvania, I started my high school horror club, I worked four seasons in a Halloween store and I've been to the Fangoria weekend of horrors a few times. I've earned my stripes. Having said that, fuck horror.

Horror is predominantly a conservative genre. While sci-fi looks to the future and imagines a world of possibilities and fantasy kills hours of my productivity (damn you, Skyrim!), horror is the sad-sack Strong Sad bemoaning change. Horror is the guy from the cornfield town with the religious upbringing and limited sexual experience who sorts out all his pissy little fears and seething sexual inadequacies in formulaic tales that remind us all to stay in our place because the big wide world is super-duper scary. Horror is Chucky Finster from Rugrats: "I don't know, guys. It looks scary. And we'll get in trouble."

Since starting my MFA program, I've come to appreciate the amount of effort that goes into writing a novel. It's hard. You gotta sit down and grind every. fucking. word. out. over the course of MONTHS. You miss things, it's lonely, and you fight a long internal battle with yourself to get something of merit down. Any book, successfully written is a herculean effort and I applaud Pinborough for the effort she put it. It is a failure, but it's a failure of ideas, not craftsmenwomanspidership.

I don't have much patience for this sort of book and I'm probably never going to pick up anything by Pinborough again.

It's unambitious. It's not trying say anything. It's not trying to do anything. It doesn't mean anything. There are a lot of other flaws to it that my fellow Setonians (Hillians?) covered. Who gives a shit about Matt? Nigel is set up to be a straw man jerk and I didn't care about his conflict with the group and the ultimately horrible and immoral way they let him die.

Spiders are scary. Here's a spider.

Post apocalypses are fun. Here's a post apocalypse.

Here's a bit of internal conflict.

Here's a couple relationships (to her credit, I did like the sex scene between Matt and Katie. I love reading female writers writing about sex from the male perspective and I thought she did a good job.)

Here's an ending where the book just....stops. We're done. Lights out. First round at the pub's on me, gents!


(Post Script: I found an interview with Pinborough where she talks about Breeding Ground as a book full of interesting ideas. I'd read the HELL out of that version.)


Rhonda JJ said...

I agree that the book was unambitious, though when pressed by something I read in another classmates' blog, I was able to think of a message that I thought may be in the book. But when I read it, I read it for pure enjoyment and didn't mind that there didn't seem to be a bigger aim except to entertain folks. Now, that said, your post makes me think about how I have to consciously turn off all my writer stuff and higher reader expectations in order to enjoy some books. Is this a con of our trade and experiences that we have really high standards of each other and all written works?

Maybe not. But of course, I am the person who reads/watches/tries almost anything just because somebody thought enough to create it. Even if it turns out to be a waste of pages, I can appreciate it as something not to do myself. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

There are so many problems with the book, but I think it was meant to be more of an "Along for the ride," sort of book. I found it in a discount store's clearance bin, so going in to it I didn't have particularly high expectations. Ironically, it is one of my favorite horror novels, but the reader has to be willing to accept it purely as an entertainment piece.