Sunday, December 27, 2009

Brave New World in YA Fiction Part II

Skinned by Robin Wasserman

Imagine a brave new world where cities are abandoned radioactive ruins inhabited by gangs, where everyone is perfectly engineered IF you have enough credit to select for the traits you want, where people have the latest nip and tuck to keep them looking perfect. Imagine a world where a person in danger of dying, can have their brain sliced, scanned and uploaded into a new body - a mech body.

That's what's happened to Lia Kahn, 16 years old, spoiled, glamorous, rich leader of the pack who was loved and fully alive. A terrible car crash has destroyed Lia's physical body and she awakes to find herself inside a new mechanical body that's indestructible. But Lia's new life comes at a terrible price to herself and her family.

Is Lia a mechanical/digital copy programmed to behave like the human Lia? Or is Lia a human downloaded into in a mechanical body? These are questions the new Lia must try to answer as she struggles to live after "death". Wasserman presents a society of "orgs" fully human people and "mechs" humans who have had their brains downloaded into mechanical, programmed bodies. Faithers are the people who oppose the mechs arguing that they are an abomination and sinful.

Wasserman deals with issues of death, faith, immortality, and what it means to be human. She presents a society where belief in an afterlife, in spending eternity with a higher being has long since passed away, hence the emphasis on living a perfect life in a perfect body and a fear of death which leads to... nothingness.

"Upstairs, I sat on the edge of my bed, alone again. I didn't want to be dead, I knew that. Even living like this...It was living. It was something. I couldn't imagine the other option. I tried, sometimes, lying in bed, thinking about what it would be lie: nothingness. The end. Sometimes I almost caught it, or at least, the edge of it. A nonexistence that stretched on forever, no more of me, no more of anything......."

Lia must decide whether she belongs to the mechs who can think but not feel, who live forever or if her past matters and if forgetting it somehow means she loses her last hold on humanity. Auden, a classmate from her school, and the one human she meets who hasn't been genetically designed, acts as a foil for Lia to explore the questions her new existence presents.

Wasserman leaves alot of unanswered questions. What happened to society in the past that all the "good" people are now living in Corp towns? There are allusions to nuclear war etc but no concrete details. Who are the Faithers and what impact are they having on people's view of mechs? Their leader appears briefly in the book to present his side of the argument against mechs but we don't hear from him again. Who pays for the upkeep of the mechs? Have other mechs been more successfully integrated into society or has society as a whole simply rejected them? Are Lia, Jude, Riley, Ani and the other mech's we meet in Skinned simply teen mechs who have not been integrated into human society? Are they just a bunch of rogue mechs seeking the next high in their attempt to "feel"? These are areas of the book that I believe Wasserman needed to explore and develop more.

If you enjoy reading Skinned, try the next book in what will be a trilogy, Crashed:

Friday, December 18, 2009

Brave New World in YA Fiction Part I

I've recently been on a roll reading Young Adult/Teen fiction that deals with bioethical issues akin to Brave New World; cloning, artificial bodies, genetic manipulation and so forth.
In this post and the next few, I'll begin to discuss a few of the books I've read and list a few others for your perusal.

Double Helix by Nancy Werlin

Although it’s described as a mystery for teens, Double Helix is more a discussion about genetic manipulation and IVF and how children created through the science of genetics might be affected emotionally and psychologically. The author, Nancy Werlin uses the genetic disorder, Huntington’s as the platform for this discussion.

With the opening pages, we get the sense that Eli Samuels is very different from your average teenager.
“And though anyone would find the chairs uncomfortable, they were particularly bad for me. My knees stuck up awkwardly, making the pant legs of my borrowed suit look even shorter than they were. There was nothing I could do about that – my father was only six foot three. His jacket, also, was too tight across the shoulders on me.”

It soon becomes apparent that Eli is physically and intellectually gifted . Werlin highlights just how different Eli is when he partakes in a brief game of pick-up basketball with a few older men in his neighbourhood. But for Eli, there is a sense that there is something about himself that he doesn’t know, something that is possibly, deeply disturbing. Maybe that is why instead of heading off to college as his father expects, Eli shows up at Wyatt Transgenics seeking a job. When Dr. Quincy Wyatt, head of Wyatt Transgenics offers Eli a job, his father’s warning to refuse the offer merely confirms his suspicions that there is some secret to his past. This mystery is further compounded by the fact that Eli’s mother is dying of Huntingtons.

Werlin also explores the impact of Huntingtons on families since this is an inheritable genetic disorder. Eli’s family has been fractured by his mother Ava’s rapid descent into Huntingtons. He and his father are emotionally distant and We see Eli struggle with whether he should get tested and how he emotionally isolates the one person he knows loves him unconditionally, his girlfriend Viv Fadiman.

When Eli meets Kyla Matheson, a beautiful, seemingly perfect young woman, he has no idea just how quickly and drastically his world will change. For Eli, Kyla, is the key to all of his questions.

Werlin does a good job of exploring many ideas and bioethical questions associated with genetic manipulation. Do we, should we trust scientists opinions in difficult scientific matters? Does genetics enforce one’s destiny? Should scientists be allowed to experiment simply because they can? Should we always do something medical because we can without ever considering the social and moral implications of these actions?

Double Helix ends with a brilliantly written final chapter that asks us to look more deeply into the biomedical issues that our society is facing today, and to ask ourselves if, in the interests of trying to eliminate suffering we are in fact, losing our humanity.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Breaking the Silence by Ted Barris

We shall not forget....

Breaking The Silence explores the realities of war from the point of view of soldiers who have been there and experienced the trauma and shock. Most of Barris' book details the experiences of World War II and Korean war veterans in a more personal and unique manner. There are a few interviews with Canadian veterans of the Afghanistan mission. Instead of the sanitized and glorious stories we normally hear from vets, we get the a more in-depth treatment of how their war experiences affected them over the years and what those experiences were actually like.
Barris details his work putting a human face on war and how he has helped younger generations meet up with Canada's war vets in a way that cuts through the ceremony of Remembrance Day. Inviting war vets to come and speak in schools has helped younger Canadians see that these men and women were real people who often had to make difficult decisions under a great deal of stress.
For me the most poignant part of the book was the description by Afghanistan veteran, Jeff Peck of his travel along the Highway of Heroes in 2007 when he accompanied the body of Capt. Dawes to Toronto. Since I don't live in this part of Canada, I've posted a few pictures:

Peck's told about the effect of seeing so many Canadians support the families of these fallen soldiers. In a country with so little national pride, this was heart-warming.
Breaking the Silence is a grim reminder of the cost of war and the price of freedom. Well written with photos of many of the vets Barris had contact with.

Highly recommended for all interested in war veterans and in particular Canadian war veterans.

Book Details:

Breaking the Silence.
Veteran's Untold Stories. From the Great War to Afghanistan. by Ted Barris

Thomas Allen Publishers, 2009