Stephenie Meyer has described The Host "a science-fiction story for people who don't like science fiction" (source). So what does that mean?
A lot of science fiction is rooted in, well, science. It takes existing scientific concepts and extrapolates them to their inevitable conclusion. Usually, that means bad news for the human race.
But The Host doesn't have exciting new technology that many sci-fi works have, even though it explores a Bad News situation. It also explores themes that only this genre can tackle, like what happens if someone else is living in your body? How would your family react? Your former lover? The situations may not be realistic (at least we hope they're not), but the emotions within it are. This book has heart—we're just not sure how many.
In The Host, a host is a human body that has been unwillingly implanted with an alien parasite. But the book is less about the host, Melanie, than it is about the alien, Wanderer, because Wanderer finds that her human host if more powerful than any host she's had before. It ends up ruling her, governing her actions and overwhelming her emotions.
In the end, Wanda is defined by the body she is in. When she gets transferred into a new body at the end, we learn that the host will always define her.
Two things of note happen at the ending of The Host. In the final chapter before the epilogue, Wanderer is removed from Melanie and implanted in a new body. The big-picture scenario here is that the roles are now reversed. The humans are now the body snatchers, taking the aliens away from their community and blasting them into outer space.
Think back to what we know about the alien invasion: humans were picked off one-by-one, in small groups, until the aliens had taken over. Now, the aliens have their own society, their own jobs, friends, and families. And the humans are doing basically the same thing: taking the aliens away from their mates. While they aren't killing the aliens, they're basically ensuring that they'll never see their friends and family again by putting them on a rocket bound light-years away.
Hm, there really isn't much difference between the humans and the aliens any more, is there?
On a smaller, but no less important, scale: Melanie is reborn, hooray! And Wanda doesn't have to die! Double hooray! But now she's in a sixteen-year-old body of a girl who looks like a real-life kewpie doll. Huzza-wha?
Throughout the novel, Wanda is insecure about her maturity level. She's been on the planet Earth for just around a year and she's still not totally in control of her emotions. "I feel like a child all the time," (25.108) she laments. At times, she feels trapped by Melanie's overwhelming emotional reactions. "I started to cry again, like a child, afraid that I would never get free" (30.18).
So, what do they do when they find a new body for Wanda? They replace Melanie—strong, athletic, tall, early-twenties—with a short, sickeningly cute, weak, living doll of a child. This is not only insensitive to Wanda's feelings, but it's more than a little controlling. Athletic Melanie is a threat. Fragile little girl who gets treated like a child is basically property. At least they still get to utilize her best talent: shopping! Her shopping ability is enhanced by her unassuming cuteness.
On top of that, Ian is almost thirty years old. Wanda's new body is half his age. Do we even need to expand on how creepy that is?
In the epilogue, the tribe of humans meets another tribe of humans in the desert. This changes their world. There are more survivors! Not only that, but they have a sympathetic alien, named Burns, in their entourage as well. Like Wanda, they kind of use Burns as a slave to do their bidding, but he seems fine with it.
By this point, the caves are home to both Wanda and Sunny, both aliens happy to co-exist with the humans. By meeting Burns, Wanda realizes that she's not that unusual after all.
And this encounter raises a few questions: Will the human factions get along? Will the aliens always be content with their submissive co-existence? And who gets dibs on all the Cheetos?
It's hard to determine the year The Host takes place in. Aside from television, no other modern human technology is mentioned. Wanda sends e-mail, but whether she's using existing human infrastructure or alien technology is unknown. Why does it matter?
Well, it would help us put the attitudes toward women in perspective. There's a lot of talk over who is responsible for Melanie's body—like, "Whoever the body belongs to makes the call" (16.41), says Jeb. And neither Wanda nor Melanie are ever consulted, only the men, usually Jared or Jamie, sometimes Ian.
Could they all be living in the 50s, young Don Drapers trapped in an Invasion of the Body Snatchers ceremony come true, or are they just modern-day chauvinist pigs? Since Wanda knows of The Brady Bunch, this has to be post 1970, so unfortunately, in their return to primitive living, the men have also regressed to primitive behavior. (And is it just us, or this is a pretty common feature of post-apocalyptic stories?)
The deserts of Arizona is an apt setting for The Host, because the human race has found itself in a metaphorical desert—barren, dying, and surrounded by danger.
But in the Epilogue, it rains in the desert. Rains have a tendency of washing things clean and bringing new life. That's exactly what's happening in the epilogue to The Host. The humans and Wanda's species (well, at least two of them) are about to embark on a new journey of co-existence. In addition, they've found other human survivors. The weather is changing, and we don't just mean the cold front moving in. Could the ending be the beginning of a turning point for the human race?
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt
Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
When Body my good
bright dog is dead
How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye
with cloud for a shift
how will I hide?
The poet May Swenson has been described as a "visionary […] observer of the fragile and miraculous natural world" (source). And, guess what? Wanderer and her species are also observers of our fragile world, finding it pretty miraculous. Especially Wanda, who wants to stay here forever.
This particular poem is a love letter to a person's body. To a human, body and soul are intertwined and separable only through death. But Wanda's species sees the two as distinct entities. Bodies are like costumes they can change at will. But notice that they always seem to want a body. Even though both species view a body differently, Swenson's poem would probably evoke similar feelings of anxiety, fear, and worry in both of them. Neither human nor soul can live a full life without a body.
Reading The Host is like devouring a super-size bag of Cheetos. It may seem big at a glance, but once you get started, you can't stop. Stephenie Meyer described The Host as "a science-fiction story for people who don't like science fiction" (source). You don't have to worry about headache-inducing quantum physics, dizzying time travel, or tongue-twisting alien languages. Like Wanda all cozy up in Melanie's brain, you can open up The Host and feel right at home.
Wanda has a passion for processed foods. Red Vines, Snickers, and Pop-Tarts: they're all "delicacies" (18.56). That's not a term we'd ever use for a Pop-Tart (a toaster strudel, maybe) but remember that Wanda hasn't seen delicious junk on any of the previous eight planets she's been on. She values it more than actual food, as we see when she finds a delicious cache of junk food: "I was surrounded by food. Not just rough bread and weak onion soup, but food. [...] Chocolate chip cookies. Potato chips. Cheetos." (27.16) You know, stuff you can live off of.
However, the crown jewel of junk food to Wanda is the illustrious Cheeto. Cheetos have never sounded this good. Wanda drools and licks her lips to nearly erotic imagery of Cheetos on two occasions. The first time is when she's trapped in her prison cave, and Jared is withholding Cheetos from her: "The rich smell of fake powdered cheese rolled through my cave... delicious, irresistible. [Jared] ate one slowly, letting me hear each distinct crunch" (18.58).
Later, Ian feeds Wanda a Cheeto: ""I listened to a sharp crackle and a ripping sound... and then I could smell, and I understood. "'Cheetos!' I cried. 'Really? For me?' Something touched my lip, and I crunched into the delicacy he offered. 'I've been dreaming about this.' I sighed as I chewed." (35.58-35.61) That's more romantic than Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore making pottery. We're surprised Wanda doesn't have a sexy pin-up poster of Chester Cheetah on her cave wall.
In fact, when Wanda plans on dying to save Melanie, she wants one of her last meals to be fast food: "I'd just wanted some of the flavors I particularly remembered, one more time" (53.98). By this point, Wanda's grown accustomed to Earth, and she wants to savor this unique flavors, no matter how greasy and fattening, one more time before she can never taste them again. They remind her of her new home, and her life as a human.
But we think Cheetos have more to symbolize. (Really.) They're fattening, diabetes-causing, and have about as much relationship to real cheese as a your pet goldfish has to Jaws. But they're delicious—just like Earth. We may not be able to do everything right. We may be mean, argumentative, controlling, and frankly a little destructive. But there's also love, companionship, and mercy.
If a character in The Host ever said "the eyes are a window to the soul" they would be right—in the most literal sense.
On Earth, Wanda's species call themselves souls. How do you know if a human host is occupied by a soul? By a faint silver ring in their eye, like a really pretty case of eye-ringworm. Therefore, the eyes are a window into seeing the alien souls.
But the eyes are also a way to see a person's true intentions. In the caves, people often glower at Wanda, "regarding her with hostile eye." (20.46). In fact, the humans' anger almost makes us long for the gentle souls residing behind silver eyes. A person's true nature is revealed in their eyes., and it's not always a pretty sight.
The 1950s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a thinly veiled allegory about the horrors of communism. The alien race in The Host almost parodies this fear: Oh my god, Everyone gets along fabulously! How can this be? They don't even need money! "Everyone who participates gets a medal now" (29.72). Our worst nightmares have come true!
We hate to say it, but, aside from all the humans being dead, the world seems like a better place.
Being an alien herself, Wanda totally buys into the whole "community" part of communism. When she's basically a prisoner and slave with the humans, she says that "The part I really minded [...] was all the taking without giving anything back. [...] I took what I needed and nothing more" (47.45).
So it's a good thing then that the new human colony, run by Jeb, pretty much operates exactly the way that the alien community does. People take turns performing all duties—cooking, cleaning, farming—and share all the spoils that Jared gets on supply runs. They would be just like the aliens if they actually got along with one another and had better healthcare.
What other parallels do you see between the world of The Host and the red scare?
Although the book is primarily told in a first-person perspective, it's not from the a p.o.v. you generally hear from in literature: an invading alien species. Our narrator, Wanda, has taken possession of a human body, Melanie, and 95% of the thoughts we hear in the book are Wanda's.
Meyer plays with both the p.o.v. and tense at different times in the narrative. Melanie's memories are told in first-person from her point of view, but they're told in present tense. This gives her memories a feeling of immediacy. How many times has a strong memory made you feel like you were right there?
She also uses the plural "we" at certain points in the narrative, indicating that Melanie and Wanda are actually cooperating. This happens for the first time when they're about to die in the desert: "We only lasted a few hours" (12.46), Wanda says, uniting the voices in her head in death.
When they first encounter Jeb and the other survivors, she talks in "we" for a bit, until the humans make it clear that she is not exactly a guest of honor in their society. At that point, she goes back to "I," signifying that she stands alone against the humans, her enemies, despite Melanie's voice living inside her.
The point? These narrative tricks show us when Melanie and Wanda are at their most connected, and when they're at odds with one another.