Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I've Heard of Hairy Legs, but This is Ridiculous

Breeding Ground reaches right into my head and pulled out one of the great fears. Sure, the specific fear for me is giant trap-door spiders that pop up to snatch people as they walk through the woods.

But Sarah Pinborough’s giant pale telepathic spiders born of the human women strike close enough to home to really freak me out. Add to that the way they come about and this is truly a gruesome tale of apocalyptic proportions.

Matthew Edge is our first person narrator and main protagonist. He fills the every-man role quite well. He’s youngish, a generally good person, just moving from his misspent youth into some level of domestic maturity when his girlfriend Chloe comes up pregnant. Since Matthew is a stand up fellow who genuinely loves his girlfriend this unexpected pregnancy just solidifies their relationship (in his eyes) and he gets busy getting ready to be a dad.

The problem is the pregnancy between Matthew and Chloe isn’t the only pregnancy they experience. It turns out those meddlesome scientists have once again doomed humanity to an apocalypse of their own making, quite by accident (again) of course, but the results are the same: a quick devolution from civilization to a few humans clinging to survival.

As I said before, spiders are one of my “things.” A buddy and I were once caught with a can of hairspray filched from his sister’s room and a lighter. We were removing books one by one from a bookshelf and preparing with our homemade blow torch to roast an eight legged abomination. His mom caught us and we ceased and desisted. She pointed out we might have burned the whole apartment building down trying to kill one little spider. Then, as now, as long as nobody got hurt, burning a building down to nail a single spider sounds like a fair exchange to me. Eight legged pieces of evil these things are.

So, Pinborough had me hooked with the spider angle. Another of my “things” is the post-apocalyptic tale. The Road, Terminator (the future parts), The Road Warrior, Dawn of the Dead (the original) all have a dark place in my little heart. How humans respond to a threat big enough to not just kill, but to rend society asunder is fascinating stuff. Breeding Ground measures up to this lofty company.

Our narrator and hero loses his girlfriend and joins a band of humans who are all traumatized by recent events. They make their way to a military base and there they learn some of the truths of what is happening. I don’t want to reveal too much here, but suffice it to say that we humans did it to ourselves. Pinborough gives us a vivid and nasty monster in her spiders. At one point she describes that the y still have some semblance of a face on their torsos and this image is burned into my brain. Vivid and horrifying. Nice.

I would be remiss if I didn’t broach the subject of gender when it comes to the characters and to the monster spiders. Initially the spiders birth from the women of society, and all the new spiders are female. At one point Chloe, well along into the “there’s something really wrong here” territory is communicating telepathically with a friend of hers. She is sitting, bloated and monstrous in her living room but her mind is riding brain waves the spider creatures can use.

It is hinted at that the spiders maintain a level of telepathy after they are born and mature, and this is truly a terrifying thought. A giant spider is bad enough. A giant spider with intelligence and the ability to communicate with other giant spiders makes them a formidable foe, one that maybe can use strategy and try to outwit you.

Pinborough may be implying that women communicate better than men, or that they communicate on different levels than men. I think that is pretty obvious. Men and women operate and communicate very differently. It is what drives much of the humor and frustration in our society. If the human women had lived and worked with the spiders to round up the men I would rail against this whole theme. However, the women in this book are slain in the act of giving birth. Regardless of the community of females, the new breed that has taken over the planet could care less. Women or men, we’re nothing but food to the spiders.

I only had two minor issues with this book. First, Matthew must be some kind of Lothario or Casanova. He has a beautiful girl to start the story, and before it is over he has had sex with essentially the last two women on earth. I mean, bravo Matthew, but this seemed amazingly convenient.

The other issue was a bit bigger. Why did Matthew, Rebecca, George, and Chester leave the military compound? The base wasn’t overrun; they didn’t run out of food or supplies. Sure, the other men were one by one succumbing to the lumps on their bodies that led to the men of the new world sharing the fate of the women. Pinborough led us to believe that there were literally tens if not hundreds of thousands of these spiders running around. At night they could see rows of glowing red eyes in the trees (freak me out).

I know there were rumors of a kid colony and Matthew babbled on about Rebecca having a baby, but none of that passed the sniff test. As brutal as it sounds, you let the other men birth their shiny black spiders, you kill the spiders, and you hole up in the compound. In post-apocalyptic stories there is no “happily ever after” and these characters were leaving survival for the great unknown.

Survival is the only option. I read Breeding Ground not knowing it has a sequel (Feeding Ground), but my last thoughts as I finished this book were: too bad these guys made it this far and now they’re going to their deaths.

I guess dying on your own terms has a certain level of control to it, but living for as long as possible, and taking care of those you love, protecting them from monsters and death, Matthew should have staked out his piece of the earth inside the military base and tried to make it his new home.


  1. I completely agree about the characters leaving in the end. Simply wanting to get out lest they grow stagnant is NOT enough of an argument to get me to run out into a world of telepathic, bloodthirsty spiders. There was little resolution for me at the end of this story. I don't need or expect things to have a nice ribbon of happiness tied around them at the conclusion, especially in a horror, but I do hope that there will be some kind of logical end. For me, this didn't really happen because I couldn't understand their decision to go.

  2. Interesting angle on the female communication thing. I didn't even get that. I assumed the females came first because of simple biology... in many insect species the females are larger (think queen bees, ants, black widows, the praying mantis) to ensure the continuation of the species. Gotta have the girls to make the babies. But I like the angle you took with Pinborough making a point about female communication, not that I necessarily agree with it.

    I also had issues with Matt and the sex angle. He'd just basically witnessed the destruction of his child and his love. To jump right on the hormone bandwagon seemed a bit crass to me, but I tried to rationalize that maybe in that kind of survival situation the testosterone is overwhelming. I know, I'm probably stretching it.

    Nice analysis, Dave. Thanks!

  3. After reading your analysis of Breeding Ground I realize how I read much deeper into the story. It's really difficult to turn off the analytical part once its bitten into you. I wondered if there was going to be a second book with the ending and you answered the question. While the main thread of the story, survival was a continuous running story I really had difficulties with the believability. I kept looking for answers and got to the end of the book before I got the answers.
    One of the things I had to disagree with you on is the women talking, yes they do, but I've seen men who do the same thing, just different subjects, maybe this has to do with having three brothers and three sons. Like I said before, I would read her books and now think I need to get the second one, maybe I'll get the answers I'm looking for there.

  4. I agree with you here. I think it was pretty stupid that they'd leave their safety and go out into the world. I don't think they have enough special toxin blood to survive.
    Just because Rebbecca is deaf and can survive, doesn't mean that Matt won't be dragged off sometime in the night.
    When I finished the book, I had already found out that there was a sequel. When I turned the last page, my thought was, "Well, I guess I'll never find out what happened." because I didn't care enough about the characters. They did too many stupid things.
    Well stated though. Never thought about the female characters and their better communication skills. Good point.

  5. "I know there were rumors of a kid colony and Matthew babbled on about Rebecca having a baby, but none of that passed the sniff test"

    I love the way you put this! It's not just the pleasure of seeing a kindred opinion. It's also that you've captured the inanity of it all so well. They're so delighted about having a baby you'd think Matthew hadn't ever seen the half-eaten fetus on the kitchen floor. And unless he plans to slice and dice Rebecca for her poisonous deaf-lady blood, how exactly do they plan to survive?

  6. I'm also a long-time fan of post-apocalyptic stories, and as such, I share your trouble with Matthew Edge, Rebecca, George, and Chester leaving the compound. I would hope a border collie, at least, would have the sense to stay! You mention THE ROAD. Great book with lots of emotional punching power. Remember the scene where the man and the boy leave their little bunker? That was awful -- it filled me with dread. I wanted them to stay in their dry, warm, food-filled paradise, but I knew they couldn't... though leaving felt like hopping on the doom train, too. Here, leaving the bunker just seems dumb, and I think it hurts the book. As Irene points out in her blog post, in the end, Matthew Edge is more afraid of boredom than he is the spiders. How are we supposed to fear them if they're not as threatening as stagnation?

  7. I too didn't think the ending was very logical or thought out. Hundreds and thousands of widows out there, versus two humans, only one of them definitely immune to the widows. And with George, a human and a dog! Why face that until you absolutely have to?

    The end felt incomplete to me, so I also looked to see if there was a sequel. As many have mentioned, there is. BUT it's not a continuation of the story. Feeding Ground takes place in the same time frame as Breeding Ground, with a different group of people. So, no hope for any resolution there, since the characters here obviously don't make an appearance. Needless to say, I have no desire to read it, even if it would be to see if she explains things more thoroughly.


  8. Your comments on gender roles and communication were really interesting. I hadn't read that much into the novel while I was actually turning the page, but it's very possible that Pinborough set up gender differences in the book on purpose. It's very possible that she let the women communicate telepathically to make a point about communication.

  9. I thought that the female communication reference was intended. The gender differences do play a big role in this story. The ending left a lot to be desired and was quite the letdown. Not very scary or unpredictable.