Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Cage by Megan Shepherd

The Cage is a science fiction novel about a group of teenagers kidnapped from Earth by an advanced species of beings known as the Kindred and placed in a type of cage. They are part of an elaborate experiment to determine if humans are capable of evolving into the Kindred's definition of intelligent beings. They claim they are also attempting to save some humans since there is a 98.6 percent chance that Earth will be destroyed.

The story opens with Cora Mason, daughter of a U.S. Senator, waking in a burning desert filled with rolling dunes. Only minutes earlier, sixteen year old Cora had been in a car with her brother, Charles, driving to a ski resort to meet their parents and scribbling the lyrics to a song. Now she has no idea where she is or how she got here, only the memory of a man's handsome bronzed face. Climbing a towering dune, Cora discovers that seven different habitats have been placed abutting one another in a way that seems impossible. There is a farm with fruit trees and fields, and arctic tundra where it is snowing,an ocean adjacent to the desert, a forest, a cityscape, grasslands with a few trees, and a forest.  On the beach Cora finds a dead girl in a white sundress while out of the forest trudges a boy wearing a leather jacket, jeans and a white shirt whose name is Lucky. Lucky knows who Cora is because he's followed what happened to her family on the news but Cora has no idea he knows her. The accident that had torn apart her family had ruined his too. After sharing names they both indicate that the clothes they are wearing are not their own and they notice that pieces of jewelry are missing and that they have tattoos of dots on their necks.

Cora and Lucky decide to walk to the city but as they get closer Cora realizes that what looked like a large city is really just ten small buildings. There are shops that line a town square, each in a different architectural style and from different time periods, making the town look strange. In the town, Cora and Lucky find two boys, a red haired pale boy dressed in a military jacket named Rolf and Leon who is a huge boy of Polynesian descent with black tattoo lines around the right side of his forehead and eye. In the toy shop they also find an Asian girl in a black dress whose name is Nok. They learn that Rolf who is fifteen and from Oslo, Norway,  is studying observational reasoning at Oxford, Leon is from New Zealand, and Nok is a "model" from London, England. Rolf tells them that he has explored the stores with Nok and found that there is six of everything including toys, dressers filled with clothing. When Leon tells them he's leaving, Rolf explains that they cannot leave, that "It doesn't matter which direction you head. You'll just come back to where you started." Rolf explains that this is what is known as an infinity paradox and it is also responsible for the terrible headaches they are all experiencing.  They also notice that there is a black window in the toy store which emits a humming sound. Rolf suggests that these windows might actually be "viewing panels" allowing their captors to watch them. They notice that the toy store contains puzzles which must be solved, indicating to Rolf that these might be how their captors are gauging their intelligence. Rolf notices that his eyesight has been corrected and he no longer needs glasses and later on Nok discovers her asthma also has been cured. Rolf also feels that if this is some kind of psychological experiment then there is likely someone who is a control, someone on the inside who is a mole and not being manipulated.

Various strange things begin to happen. First they notice that the black windows are everywhere, meaning they are constantly being watched. Whenever Cora solves the puzzles she wins more tokens than the others. They also hear the song that Cora wrote while in the car with her brother on the radio which creeps her out. Outside the light gradually fades to later afternoon and a trapdoor in the diner opens to provide them with six trays of food. That night they all try to sleep although Cora finds it difficult to do so.

The next morning a man who calls himself their Caretaker, suddenly materializes in front of the group. He is an impressive man, very tall with bronze/copper skin that has a metallic sheen and eyes that are completely black. Cora recognizes him as the man from her dreams. He tells them they are on an aggregate space station far from their solar system and that the different habitats are meant to imitate those found on Earth. Cora is horrified to realize that everything around them is not real. When she asks the Caretaker why they have been brought to the station, he tells them that his people are called the Kindred and that they "are the stewards of endangered species" such as humans. They are told "Earth is a dangerous and unpredictable world. The practices of your species are unsustainable. So we have brought you here, to this enclosure, where we can ensure the survival of your race regardless of your planet's well-being. Here you have ample sustenance and a microcosm of the various habitats and cultures in your world. We have given you a variety of stimuli to exercise your minds and bodies. You will find these enrichment activities to be rewarding."

The Caretaker's description of the eight enrichment puzzles in the biomes and the eight in the settlement areas lead Cora to realize that they view humans as children, even as animals. The Caretaker also tells them that each of them were chosen for their valuable attributes such as beauty, morality or strength. He also indicates that they have three rules they must obey if they are to avoid "removal". They must solve the enrichment puzzles, maintain their health by eating the food provided and they must engage in "procreative activities" to create more humans. While the Kindred realize that rule three is difficult, this must be accomplished by day twenty-one or they will be "removed". Just as he is about to leave, Cora grabs the hilt of what she believes is a knife and vanishes with him.She finds herself on the other side of the black window, in a room able to see the others sitting on the grass in the town square.

The Caretaker tells her the hilt is not a weapon but something that allows him to dematerialize. Cora manages to force her way into an adjacent room and sees four Kindred soldiers along with the body of the dead girl who was on the beach. The Caretaker tells Cora they are examining the girl's body to detect any changes in her physical evolution and attempts to calm her by reiterating that they mean them no harm. When another Kindred appears the Caretaker introduces him as Fian who is the Warden of the station. Fian both frightens and threatens Cora and the Caretaker tells her that the Warden believes she is unsuitable for this enclosure and should be removed. When the Caretaker returns Cora to the cage he tells her that there is another way into and out of the Cage, a fail-safe exit in case there is a problem.

Upon Cora's return she tells the group where she's been and what she's experienced. Nok and Leon are deeply upset that they are trapped on the planet but Rolf seems to want to stay in the cage, insisting that it is a matter of survival. Leon believes they are going to die here, but Cora tells him that "The Kindred brought us here, which means they can take us back." She reasons that because they appear to be physically similar to humans and because the Caretaker appears to have scars on his face, they can be attacked. She tells Rolf that they should do the puzzles, earn the tokens and use them to buy the "toys" some of which can be made into weapons. Rolf is skeptical but Lucky and Nok believe it is a plan that could work. They also plan to map out the different habitats to try to locate the fail-safe exit and to this end, they divide into groups, Nok and Rolf investigate the swampy area, and Lucky and Cora the forest. Leon meanwhile is sent to check out the mountains. Their reconnaissance of the different habitats reveals that Rolf was correct in his initial theory - all the paths lead back to the town center.

When the group is taken in for medical check-ups, Cora is held back by the Caretaker.  Cora attacks him wondering if he feels pain, sympathy or desire. In response the Caretaker reveals to her that they feel all these things but these emotions are considered signs of weakness. They have learned to suppress their emotions in public. This leads Cora to realize that the Kindred can read their minds as she did not express this question verbally. The Caretaker tells her that he's kept her behind because she's not following the second rule by eating and sleeping. Cora tells him that she wants to go home and that her name is Cora, not Girl Two. She tells him that in order to sleep, she just needs to go home. "What I require?" Her throat felt dry. "To go home. For all of us to go home, and that girl in the cage too, while you're at it." However, the Caretaker tells her this is impossible, "Your life here will be effortless. We will provide everything. All you must do is enjoy it."

Cora questions him as to the real motives behind their kidnapping and he tells her that the Kindred are an astral species, living among the stars and that they are now interested in elevating humans to be an intelligent species. The Caretaker tells Cora that they define advanced intelligence as perceptive abilities of telepathy and telekinesis. He insists Cora's theories about why they are prisoners are incorrect, denying they are being manipulated or that they are test subjects. Instead, he tells them each was chosen based on their genetic attributes and personal traits. The Caretaker also reveals his name to be Cassian.

At Cora's request, the girl in the cage, Mali, is placed in their enclosure. Mali tells them that she was taken from Earth when she was four years old and reveals to the group the extent of the humans in captivity and that there are four intelligent species; the Kindred, the Mosca, the Axion and the Gatherers. She warns the group that they must cooperate with the Kindred if they wish to remain under their protection. Mali's appearance causes a shift in the group's thinking. Based on the information she has given them, Rolf no longer believes they should try to escape, especially after she tells Cora that it's unlikely she will find the fail-safe exit.

Rolf tells Cora that they should not fight against "creatures who trade human body parts." He intends to "buy the painting kit. Take up art. Enjoy myself." However, Lucky is determined to help Cora find the fail-safe exit.

Mali continues to reveal what she knows about the Kindred. She tells the group that the Kindred cloak their emotions in public so as to give them greater control over their perceptive abilities such as telepathy. One way to block their mind reading is to create pain as this hides thoughts. As Lucky and Cora continue to map their enclosure, Rolf and Nok become closer and eventually become intimate, fulfilling the third rule. By the fifteenth day, Cora begins to realize that the Kindred have been manipulating time as no one's fingernails have grown nor have the boys grown facial hair.

Gradually the group begins to lose its cohesion and its desire to escape. Lucky and Leon want to fight rather than solve the puzzles and Leon wanders off to live by himself believing he is responsible for Girl Three's death.The food in the trays disappears except for one and the group believes Cora, who is the Caretaker's favourite has been taking their food. Nok and Rolf spend all their time making love. In desperation, Cora tries to break one of the black windows. In an attempt to help Cora, Lucky explains how he knows who Cora is and the connection he has to her family. But this only convinces Cora that everything has been carefully planned and she is more determined than ever to escape. Even when Cassian warns her about her defiance and gives her rain and the stars, Cora remains intent on escaping and Cassian only stimulates her curiosity about what is outside their cage. In the hopes that if she learns what his world is like she will want to remain in the cage, Cassian shows her parts of the aggregate station and explains to her more about the Kindred. But Cora, perceptively discovers that Cassian is not telling her the entire truth. When Cora returns to the cage she tries to enlist the help of the other captives trying to counter their belief that Earth is destroyed and their desire to remain. Cora begins to formulate a plan to escape but can she convince her fellow prisoners to abandon a world built on lies for a chance to return home?


The Cage is reminiscent of the Star Trek episode entitled "The Cage" which was shown on October 4, 1966 in which the captain of the USS Enterprise, Captain Pike (who preceded Captain Kirk) is captured by the Talosians to create a colony of humans on Talos IV. The Talosians are able to create an illusory world, making it almost impossible for humans to determine what is real and what is not. Pike eventually escapes his captors, but Starfleet bans all contact with Talos IV on pain of execution. Parts of The Cage episode were rebroadcast in the two part Menagerie episodes that ran later in the year in November.

Despite having all of the characters narrate (with the exception of Cassian), The Cage really focuses on Cora and her attempts to escape the Cage and try to return to Earth. Unlike her fellow prisoners, Cora cannot accept living the rest of her life in the illusory world created by the Kindred, nor does she believe them when they tell her that the Earth does not exist anymore. As the rest of the group begins to lose touch with reality and becomes increasingly paranoid, Cora becomes determined to escape. However, she is also deeply conflicted because as the days pass she does not want to leave behind the other members of the group even though they no longer want to leave the Cage. This conflict is further aggravated by her blossoming friendship with Cassian.

Shepherd does a good job of portraying how the various members of the group gradually begin to lose their desire to escape and come to accept their captivity. At first Nok is horrified that the Kindred want them to procreate. "They want us to sleep together!" Nok sank to the grass next to the supine Leon, their earlier fight forgotten. "They want us to have babies so they can do god knows what, probably torture them or raise little human slaves." Her face went white. "What if they eat them?" She is equally horrified at the prospect of spending the rest of her life in the Cage. "So this is is?" Nok cried. "We're here for the rest of our lives? No more walks through Hyde Park, or old Star Trek reruns, or any of that?" However Nok begins to accept staying in the cage because of Rolf, who has a plan to make him and Nok happy. He tells her "I know this place was scary at first. But it really is engineered to keep us safe and happy....I don't care what Cora says. I know I'm supposed to hate it here and want to go home, but the truth is, life was bad for me there." Rolf who is brilliant, felt like he was trapped into studying engineering. The cage, instead of being a prison for him, offers him freedom to be himself. Nok is in a similar situation; her life on Earth was terrible, one step away from being a prostitute. Rolf and Nok's lives devolve into a kind of comical craziness; they make love constantly and are seen with candy-stained lips in their underwear painting one another. Even Lucky tells Cora, "But this is our home now. The others already know it. It's time we grow up and admit it too."

It seems that Cora's relationship with Cassian helps her to maintain her sanity while the others begin to unravel. Time spent with Cassian allows her to put the experiences in the Cage in context and to understand how illusory the cage really is. It is because of this however, that Cora cannot accept her fate. "She was done being caged. This couldn't be her life. Four walls made of endless trees and mountains and a ceiling made of limitless sky, and a man with black eyes who thought giving her the stars could make this world real."  Even when Cora reveals to Cassian that she knows where the fail-safe exit is and he tries to talk her out of attempting to reach it, she tells him "I can't stay here," she said. "None of us can. Through the ocean is the only way. ..Don't you understand? None of this is real. We can't live like that." 

As Cora and Cassian come to know the other, how they view each other changes. "When she had first seen him, she had though him such a terrifyingly beautiful creature. Their captor. Their jailor. Hew was still these things to her, but he was something more...This was what had changed, and it was so devastatingly simple: she had become a person to him; he had become a person to her. Human, Kindred, it didn't matter." Cora also realizes that although the Kindred had arranged everything so that she and Lucky should have fallen in love, it hadn't happened because "Love wasn't' just a combination of matching physical and personal criteria. It was something you couldn't put into words, just a certainty, a twist of fate, a spark. "   Instead, she has fallen in love with her captor, an alien, despite knowing this is wrong. Partly this is because Cassian also views Cora differently than people on Earth did and how Lucky does. She's not a victim to him. Instead he sees her strength and her potential. And Cassian is captivated by Cora, so much, that he helps her escape.

Readers will likely be surprised at the twist near the end of the novel, with Shepherd leaving many questions unanswered. Cora survives Cassian's experiment and her blossoming psychic abilities have merely strengthened her resolve to change how the Kindred view humans, not as test subjects but as a force in the universe to be reckoned with. Megan Shepherd's novels are wonderfully distinctive and refreshing;  the Cage being another fine example of Shepherd's creative storytelling.

Book Details:

The Cage by Megan Shepherd
New York: Balzer + Bray      2015
385 pp.

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