When my Grandma was a girl, she was told by a Catholic priest that Protestants had tails hidden under their clothes. Maybe they had cloven hooves too, or that might have been Jews, but either way, Protestants weren’t rightly human. I don’t think my Grandma ever went so far as to believe this, so I can’t tell some fun story about how she was surprised by my Protestant grandfather’s tail-free posterior when they married. Plus, obviously, she married my Protestant grandfather. (And Grandma was raised in Homestead, PA, which was very pluralistic, not a priest-run village in County Clare or whatever, just to note how easy it was to debunk such information, yet how such disinformation persisted within her Catholic community.) So when I went to roll my eyes when Kayla in Tankborn by Karen Sadler is told that if she, as a Genetically Engineered Non-human, touches a trueborn, her skin will bruise and bubble, I checked myself. Of course that is an incredibly stupid idea with zero basis in reality, but humans regularly believe such things. And while Homestead in the 1920s had a caste system like any other American city, it was no where near as rigidly enforced as the one in this novel.
Kayla and Mishalla are GENs on the post-Earth planet Loka on the eves of their matriculation at the start of the novel, and the plot follows their assignments out of the GEN ghetto into the larger world. GENs are the bottom of the heap of a caste system, genetically engineered slaves who were introduced into society 75 years before when the lowborn – the children of the original indentured servants when the colony was being settled – revolted against continuing hereditary indenture (or what we like to call slavery.) The slaves revolted, so the highborn of Loka made a new class of slaves. The complex hierarchical social and economic system is very much the selling point of this novel, as this information I’ve parceled out in a couple of sentences is something I came to slowly, through (mostly) Kayla’s vantage point as she navigates her society. Loka is richly textured, with various competing homegrown religions and cultural norms, and Sandler doesn’t infodump or downtalk, assuming the reader can catch up to the barrage of new terminology and ideas.
While I don’t think a dystopian society has to be entirely plausible to be effective – Divergent, for example, has a hugely stupid societal structure, but manages to resonate as a kind ofemotional experience of adolescence – it was enjoyable to see a fictional society that wasn’t just plausible, but grounded in (mostly not-junky) science fictional elements and attention to detail. Loka is pretty much the American colonies crossed with an Anglo-Indian caste system, but the culture itself isn’t leaning too hard on either of these places, culturally speaking, synthesizing them into something new and strange. This reminded me a little of God’s War – especially the weird indigenous life of the planet – but God’s Waris waaaay more hardcore in a number of ways.
My reservations with Tankborn all stem from the plotting of this novel, which relies far too much on information withheld from the main characters (for no apparent reason) and stunning revelations that maybe only stun our protagonists. Kayla ends up in the employ of a cranky old Lokan scientist with seeekrets and a GEN-like tattoo on his check – gasp, why would any highborndo that – while Mishalla works at a crisis nursery for orphan lowborn children – but with seeekrets. Just about everything that happens appears to be engineered by the cranky old guy, down to the chance-looking meeting between Kayla and her eventual love interest (and his great-grandson) on the banks of the GEN ghetto river. And while he (and the seeekret organization you learn he belongs to) appear to be able to engineer the most frankly ridiculous coincidences, he chooses very convoluted and bizarre ways to parcel out information to Kayla and his great-grandson. While there are culturally cogent reasons for this not to happen, sorta, I frustrate with plots that could be solved with a simple phone call.
The parallel love stories between the GEN girls and and their trueborn paramours was also not hugely successful. I’m not criticizing the dystopian love story – let us all remember that 1984in many ways hinges on the romance between Winston and Julia before we start snarling about YA dystopian romances and how girl readers are ruining fiction – it’s just that Kayla’s relationship seemed awful sudden, overcoming scads of cultural conditioning much more severe than someone telling Grandma Fran once that Protestants had horns. Mishalla’s whole plot line was much more truncated, and therefore that much more sudden. It would have been nice to see something other than a love relationship be the impetus for cultural revelations, is all, and the fact that there are two very similar trajectories for the GEN leads seems like a wasted opportunity. (Though, I will note I really liked the sequence where Mishalla spends an afternoon passing for trueborn, and the thrill, danger and disappointment that flows from that.)
The book-ending revelations felt a little well, duh, though I do get that that they would be huge, game-changing ideas for the leads. It’s maybe tough to hide the football of the GENs origins to an SFFnal readership, and I appreciate that walking a tightrope between reader’s expectations and character’s more limited vantage is a thing. Some of the book-ending revelations also felt, as the saying goes, problematic. I’m not even kidding when I say the following information is a serious spoiler.
[spoiler]Turns out, both Kayla and Mishalla were lowborn children who were stolen while toddlers and implanted with the GEN technology to make them GENs. The science here starts to fall apart for me, because while we’re told the genetic stock for the GENs is degrading or something making child-theft a sensible solution, I don’t buy it. The evil scientist in me was like, you could totally buy eggs from lowborn women or just sneak them out of IVF clinics or something; they don’t need to resort to trafficking which is a huge logistical pain in the ass. There’s a whole ethical grey zone right now surrounding these technologies, not even getting into tanks gestating children and whatnot.[/spoiler]
[spoiler]That Kayla and Mishalla aren’t exactly GENs felt frustrating, because while the obvious take-home is that GENs are people too!, we’ve just imbued our GEN protagonists with a secret nobility – they are not actually tankborn, but trueborn. So should I continue to believe all the racist shit about GENs – it is explicitly stated that animal DNA is used in their creation – because our spunky heroines have not been tainted by that origin? Do the Protestants still have their tails? Obviously not, but, again, it just felt like a wasted opportunity, because one could be trueborn, and one tankborn, and then the point could have been much less ambiguous. People are people, etc. [/spoiler]
So, all told, an interesting novel, one that in many ways avoids the occasionally sloppy societal construction of the contemporary young adult dystopia, but unfortunately fails to seize on the opportunities suggested by its carefully constructed society.
Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC.