Why I Read It: Jennifer Pelland is an up-and-coming talent, and when I read her short story collection Unwelcome Bodies, I knew I was looking forward to reading more from her, especially a novel. When I received the notice that a novel would, indeed, be coming out, I pre-ordered it without a second thought. It came faster than I expected though, so the poor book’s been wasting away a bit on my shelf, but I finally found the right time to read it.
The premise: ganked from BN.com: Celia’s body is not her own, but even her conscious mind can barely tell the difference. Living on the cutting edge of biomechanical science was supposed to allow her to lead a normal life in a near-perfect copy of her physical self while awaiting a cure for a rare and deadly genetic disorder.
But a bioandroid isn’t a real person. Not according to the protesters outside Celia’s house, her coworkers, or even her wife. Not according to her own evolving view of herself. As she begins to strip away the human affectations and inhibitions programmed into her new body, the chasm between the warm pains of flesh-and-blood life and the chilly comfort of the machine begins to deepen. Love, passion, reality, and memory war within Celia’s body until she must decide whether to betray old friends or new ones in the choice between human and machine.
“I’m not sure anyone else could take material like posthuman politics, kinky sex and body modification, and explicit metaphors for the abortion debate and euthanasia, and turn it all into a heartrending love story, but Jennifer Pelland nails the dismount every time.” –NK Jemisin, Hugo-nominated author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Yay. This book has a lot of meat to its bones in terms of issues and execution of said issues, so if you want to remain spoiler-free, please skip to “My Rating.” Everyone else, onward!
Discussion: I took a ton of notes on this book. My note-taking isn’t anything academic, mind you. It’s me having an observation while I’m reading and I want to mark it so that when I write my review, I’ll remember to talk about it. This book inspired plenty of comments and observations, but it’s all mostly an effort to try and understand how this book makes me feel about the story, the characters, and the issues involved and what it means for humanity’s future.
I think it’s interesting, too, that when I’ve read stories about androids or robots or whatever you want to call human consciousness in machine bodies (and there’s a different term for whatever variation you’ve got), those stories always take place AFTER the fact. They’re already a part of society, and you might get a brief history as to how that came to be, but this is the first book, in my memory (which is faulty), that I’ve read that deals with the transition between the before and the after. We’re seeing the growing pains of taking such leaps and strides in society, and growing pains are never, ever easy.
And I’m wondering if your mileage with this book will vary on your own personal thoughts on transferring human consciousness from the flesh to a machine body (or cloned body, take your pick). Your thoughts may determine how well you do or do not empathize with Celia, the heroine, and the choices she makes. Me, I went into it not batting an eyelash: the idea of putting a human consciousness in a machine replica so that one can live one’s life while a cure is being found for the flesh body makes all the sense in the world, to me.
So that’s my context.
The book opens with Celia waking up from the procedure that finds her in her machine body. Her wife is not there, and it becomes obvious, very quickly, that her wife, Rivka, won’t be coming. Indeed, when Celia gets home, she finds the “Dear John,” letter and the divorce papers, which becomes the inciting incident for everything else that follows.
I had a tough time with this set-up. A really, really tough time. I’ve had to consider it from a lot of different angles, and here’s what I came up with:
1) It was hard to root for Celia to be with Rivka. Despite the fact that they were married and loved each other very much, none of that seems to matter post-procedure, which is all the reader gets to experience. We don’t see the tearful good-bye PRE-procedure, with Celia looking forward to seeing Rivka when she wakes. We don’t see the decision-making process, nor do we get to see what Celia and Rivka are like together before the procedure.
Mind you, I’m not saying we actually NEED all of that. I think Pelland is using marriage and divorce as shorthand, hoping that the unfair divorce will immediately spark sympathy in any reader who’s ever been in love, any reader who wants to believe the best in their spouse, or perhaps even any reader who’s actually BEEN through an unfair divorce. That’s not a wholly bad tactic, save for one thing:
I never wanted Celia to get back together with Rivka. And because Celia did, because Celia’s actions were wholly based on the divorce itself (a divorce from a woman I feel Celia was better off without, thanks to post-procedure actions), then I had a hard time connecting with Celia’s actions, with her state of mind.
2) It may have been discussed in the book about why Celia chose the machine body over simply going into stasis until a cure could be found. I’m pretty sure it was, but I’ve wholly forgotten the reasoning. And I forgot because I was so frustrated with Rivka’s choices. When Celia is remembering their discussions leading up to the surgery, Rivka was obviously expressing concern that Celia misread, but seriously, Rivka, what the hell? Why didn’t you just say NO and tell Celia to go into stasis? And besides, didn’t Rivka realize that Celia’s personality was the same that went into the machine body, and that her personality and memories would be transferred BACK when it was all said and done?
Granted, it’s a human thing to want what’s best for the ones we love, thinking we can handle whatever comes our way, only to learn when it’s too late that no, we can’t handle it at all.
But Rivka is a coward. She never tried. How much more powerful would this book have been if Rivka had just tried, so that the reader could see everything that was HAPPENING (Rivka not being cool with it) and everything from Celia’s eyes (who would clearly see it all through rose-colored glasses)? So much more powerful. Of course, maybe such a decision would make the reader hate Rivka more than desired, and honestly, I’m not sure what the author wanted us to feel about Rivka and the possibility of her and Celia getting back together.
I know I didn’t want it to happen. I wanted Rivka to be utterly crushed and destroyed by her decision, I wanted to realize how everything that happened in the book was HER fault and I wanted her to be a miserable wretch wrapped in her guilt for the rest of her life while Celia made a new life for herself.
However, I’m not sure I should’ve felt that strongly. When you consider Celia had her machine memories wiped, that left waking Celia in the dark about what happened. The book ends with Rivka running off at the nurse’s insistence, after dropping the bomb that Rivka had divorced Celia while she was under, and Celia, though she really doesn’t want to hear it, is going to learn what really happened when she was under.
So you kind of have to wonder: what’s the point? I wanted to know what Celia would do next. I wanted to know just how much they were going to tell her about what she’d done as a machine. But I never got any kind of emotional satisfaction by the end, despite the story clearly coming to that end.
Let’s talk about the story itself:
The divorce makes Celia realize rather quickly that as a machine, she shouldn’t have to feel pain. Which leads her to try and do things that will dull the emotion pain, or at least mask it. So she starts by slicing herself open, and then later cutting her own arm off. At that point, she realizes she needs to try something different, that she wants to embrace being a machine, so she seeks out others like herself. Once she finds them, she’s able to make changes to her own programming, which allows her to block feeling emotion when she desires, which allows her to cut herself into shreds and heal herself without the hospital knowing, and it just escalates from there, to the point where Celia wants to punish her body, wants to show it who’s boss, and she enters the sexbot trade (not quite called that, but you get the idea). By time we get to this, the story starts wrapping up quite quickly, as the hospital is able to track her and the others like her down and brings them in. All of this is happening against a society that feels that such machine bodies are unnatural and an affront to God, and because it’s an election year, whomever wins the presidency will determine the fate of these programs, be it for medical purposes or otherwise.
For such a short book, it’s heavy on themes.
I did have issue with the setting, or the lack thereof. Despite being named, I felt the setting to be rather generic, like it could happen anywhere and I’d still get the same story. That not entirely fair to the author, because she does use place names and deals with location in a way that I know she knows where she’s writing the story. But I’m never immersed in the setting, I never felt like I was actually there. And that wasn’t the point of the story either, because really, the kind of story she was telling COULD happen anywhere. It’s just that for my buck, I’m personally wanting to feel more and more immersed in the setting the story takes place in, and when I don’t get that, I feel cheated. That’s a me thing, but there you go.
I did enjoy all the various futurisms. Everything from the various pieces of technology to the fact that the Clinton family is still in politics all the way in the year 2092, that was a lot of fun. Or the evolution of Halloween, which is rather frightening in a common-sense way. And the issues at stake made a lot of sense. Pelland does a great job in showing the reader the various types of people who would deal with machine bodies, the various types of people who think they’re a sin to the types of people who think everyone should have them and everyone in between. There’s one scene between Celia and the Mechanic when the Mechanic is discussing his passion for the mechanical body (page 95). Celia responds:
“Well, I’m sorry you can’t be like me. I can see how much it means to you.” She didn’t really mean it. She didn’t think that just anyone should be handed a body like hers. She’d had to suffer to get it, and she couldn’t see what the Mechanic had done to earn one for himself.
A co-worker, Shanda, also desperately wants one. Her reasons are more than just the following paragraph (page 110), but I have to say, the following would be appealing:
“I’m sick and tired of working so hard to maintain this body,” Shandra said. “I would give anything to be able to lie on the sofa and eat doughnuts all day and still look good, or to have skin that never blemished, no matter what. It would just be so much easier to replace my body with a mechanical one and never worry about any of that again.”
From the start, I’d rather hoped that Celia would find a friend in Shanda, but that’s not the case. Shanda gets increasingly fanatic, going so far as to out Celia once she’s in her new body. It wasn’t malicious, but it was definitely a bold step in the new direction of the future, and I have to say, I can’t help but wonder how the story would’ve been different if Celia had changed her focus from not feeling to trying to make the future better for others like her.
Pelland’s futuristic society is definitely one born out of today’s issues and fears. Celia constantly is bombarded by political ads, and this one stood out (page 105):
“Traditional Values to Keep America Strong!”
Celia groaned and pushed the political ad to text-only as the trolley car descended underground. This close to the election, even the Traditionalist candidate was shoving ads her way. And thanks to campaign ad reform, she had to skim past all of Tam Galloway’s revolting positions to get to the OK button to make the ad go away. No to federalization of same-sex marriage, no to expanding the bio-android program, no to wasting tax dollars on space exploration. What did he say yes to? She was afraid to find out.
One problem, and it was a major one, that I had with this book was that none of the characters were sympathetic for me. Shandra I’ve already discussed, and you already know how I feel about Rivka. I’d hoped that Trina, Celia’s best friend, would be a ray of hope, but that woman is quite possibly the worst person ever after she’s had a few drinks, because she doesn’t stop to think what’s coming out of her mouth. You know what they say about good intentions: the road to Hell is paved with them, and that sums Trina up really well. She was never malicious, never meant to hurt anyone (except Rivka), but her actions were the most disastrous for Celia in the end in terms of outing her as a bio-android.
An aside: the bio-android program was a major issue in this society, yet we hear from even the President-elect that those people involved in the program for medical reasons weren’t the issue. So I’m still wondering why Celia was such a target for hate? Granted, hate isn’t rational, but it stands to reason if this program was there for medical purposes only, well…
I don’t know. It’s a complex issue. It’d be different if there were people getting bodies legally in the U.S. who didn’t need them (we meet celebrities who went out of the country for theirs, which is what Shandra had to do), but if everyone who had them had a medical reason why, well….
Yeah, hate’s not rational, and it’s a complex issue.
Moving on, back to characters:
I read an article on Tor.com comparing the women of HBO’s Game of Thrones to the women of HBO’s Girls. Interesting article, and worth reading, whether or not you watch both shows. One of the commenters said something that really stood out. It was referencing the show Girls, but the statement was this:
I don’t share any of their experiences, so when I try to watch them, all I have is either disdain or indifference to the characters.
And that comment summed up every issue I have with Celia as a character.
Because the story isn’t about Rivka: it’s about what Rivka’s actions force Celia to do. But my problem, as a reader, is that I’m not an overly emotional person. I’ve experienced pain in life, certainly, but I’ve never felt the need to drown that pain in something else. Maybe I’ve not just been hurt badly enough and I should thank my lucky stars. But regardless, in a situation like Celia’s, I do know that I would be furious. I’d want some kind of revenge, and I’d obsess over it.
So Celia’s method of handling the pain was just utterly foreign to me. And every action sparked a reaction, which sparked a different action, and none of these would’ve been the actions I would have taken.
Don’t get me wrong: I never felt disdain for the character. But indifference is a great description. I felt bad for her on an intellectual level, but I can’t say I ever wholly sympathized. I wanted her to get mad, get even, to do something productive. And if she must wallow, then get it out of the system so she could move forward.
And truth be told, I’m not sure what she did, exactly. I do think that wiping out her memories was the right decision, because Celia didn’t exactly do anything to be proud of. It’s not that I disdain her choice of wanting a total and complete machine body. That, in and of itself, was cool. But her decisions about what to do with it, the need to simply punish it by cutting and mutilation and sex, the whole debasement of it all, was not something I’d want to live with. The memory wipe was a second chance for herself, a second chance to make better decisions with the same motivating factor (Rivka’s divorce). And I hope she does that.
And there were times I cheered: when Celia followed Rivka into the stasis chamber and bitched her out, pointing out that Rivka’s decisions cost her both Celia’s. That was awesome. I wish the full truth of that had hit Rivka harder then, because it was true.
The good thing is, despite that indifference I felt for Celia and the injustice I felt about the whole situation, the book is utterly readable. That’s due in part to the ideas, but the narrative voice reads rather quickly. It does, however, lack a certain charming narrative cohesion that gives an author his/her unique voice, which was an odd thing to finally notice, because I don’t recall having this trouble with Pelland’s shorts. The narrative voice isn’t wholly bland either, it’s just lacking a certain spark. Still, it’s very readable.
Even during the uncomfortable scenes. When Celia chooses to let Gyne and Betty knife her open, I felt oddly detached from the scene. I should’ve been horrified, but that wasn’t the case. And it’s an interesting question here: was that intentional, did the author want me to feel the same detachment that Celia did? Or was the author unintentionally detached from writing the scene herself because it is so horrifying? Or did I simply shut myself off in order to get through the scene? Hard to say, and I’d like to compare notes with other readers. But I would’ve expected such a scene to be more visceral, but the fact that we’re firmly grounded in Celia’s POV, and she’s in lockdown, well, it makes sense that it wasn’t.
It’s time to wrap up here, and I’m sorry for talking your ear off. I did want to say, though, that once the movement to start accepting bio-android bodies gets underway, we see far more of them coming out of the woodwork. Some celebrities, and then there were studies done to show how bio-android bodies would benefit the space program. I liked this section a lot (page 294), as the celebrity part of it reminded me of the real-life parallel of celebrities coming out as gay, and I liked how Pelland grounded her futuristic issue into a modern one we’re all familiar with.
My Rating: 6 – Worth Reading, with Reservations
The book is chockfull of interesting, fascinating ideas and questions, and for that alone I’d recommend it. I’d also recommend it because Pelland is an up-and-coming talent, and while I’d admit to preferring her short fiction over this, I still can’t wait to get my hands on whatever she publishes in the future, because her fiction is so idea-centric in a way that makes the reader really question the things they took for granted. She wants to make you uncomfortable and she wants you to think about why, and that’s an awesome thing to have in science fiction. However, the reservation is because what makes the reader uncomfortable may be a trigger for some people, and while nothing was a trigger for me personally, I wasn’t so invested in Celia’s motivation that I was able to fully empathize with her actions. However, the book is a solid and fast read. Pelland’s doing a lot with this book, some of which is successful, and some of which is almost there. For a reader who wants to check out her work, I would recommend starting with her short story collection Unwelcome Bodies, because you get a variety of stories that really showcases what Pelland is capable of. But despite my liking this a bit less than her short fiction, Pelland is a talent to watch, and I look forward to seeing what else she’s got up her sleeve.
Also, on the plus side for this book, the heroine is a character of color (mixed race, if I recall) as well as a lesbian. So if you’re wanting to read more speculative fiction that features one or both of those things, then you should definitely get your hands on this.
Cover Commentary: I hate this. And honestly, I don’t know if I saw the cover when I pre-ordered or not. Maybe it was a tiny thumbnail, so I really didn’t see the detail? Whatever the case, when I pulled the book out of the envelope, I was horrified. I will give credit where credit is due: the face and the hair really fit Celia’s description in the book, and I kept seeing that face while reading. But the rest of it, try as it may to capture the tone and feel of the book (and really, I get it), it’s just awful. When I read Unwelcome Bodies, my husband looked at that tasteful cover and thought it was porn. It’s a wonder he didn’t say anything about this.
Don’t get me wrong: once you read the book, the cover makes all kinds of sense, even the uber uncomfortable, impossible pose. But this is the kind of cover that will send most readers running the opposite way, because it looks like one of those old school SF covers that’s all about objectifying women (however, Pelland’s tale is a bit subversive, because that’s kind of the point, albeit objectifying machines, not necessarily women). Hell, if I’d really known what the cover looked like before I ordered, I would’ve gotten the Kindle version instead so I wouldn’t have to look at it, I hate it that much. And the font is such a poor choice, especially the differing sizes of the letters. It’s almost as if someone was trying to be artsy and cool, but instead of that, it failed miserably. The font deserved something stronger, something straight forward like the title itself. And going back to the pose, you have to look really, really, REALLY closely to see that Celia isn’t wearing some kinky lingerie, but rather she’s cut open, and she’s showing you her machine innards. Unfortunately, the angle of the pose and the positioning of the cuts makes this really tough to see, unless you bring yourself to look closely.
But really, this cover is just a hot mess, and that makes me sad.