Destination Human (2013), by K.L. Denman

Denman - Human…or better yet: Destination Human; or, The Death of a Mosquito. What fun! Rather corny, but fun for all that. Welkin is a Universal: a highly developed life-form that is nonetheless schooled in a fashion similar to readers in our world. Its assignment: to infiltrate a human host on Earth as part of its bioethics class—which it has already failed a number of times. It’s obviously not very good at this. Welkin is a stereotypic teen: uninterested in school and tuned out when its teacher describes the assignment. As a result, Welkin’s entrance into his teen host (high school society has been deemed an excellent site for exploration of the human race) is compromised and it is unable to completely control its host. Its negotiations with Chloe are the source of humour in the novel; their two voices, while different, both scream “teen attitude.”

The plot is relatively non-existent; the focus is on Welkin’s learning about human (teen) society, and comparing it to the textbook information it has been given about the human race. What captures our attention, and makes us think there might be something a little deeper in the novel, is a teeny moment on page 10. Welkin inadvertently enters a mosquito and, through its sting, enters Chloe’s body: but “All bodies occupied by Universals die when we depart. So as I leave the mosquito behind, its body dies. And just like that, I am inside the human.” Chloe remains oblivious to this aspect of their relationship, but readers remain conscious the entire time that the growing mutual respect between host and parasite is not destined to end well.

Despite this possibility of trauma, the tone of the novels never really slips out of the lightheartedness brought about by the interplay of the two narrative voices. The somewhat contrived denouement is thus in keeping with some of the other groan-worthy moments in the book—and by that I mean those groans that escape when something is so corny as to be funny, like when a pun is both so obvious and so unexpected that we hide our faces in our hands—as we groan—for missing it. This was my response to Destination Human; I am not sure it is what the author intended, but I hope so. As a simple, chuckle-worthy story that nonetheless says something about what it is to be a friend, Destination Human succeeds admirably.

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The Discovery of Socket Greeny (2010), by Tony Bertauski

Bertauski-SocketLately I’ve been downloading a large number of free ebooks from BookBub, or Kobo, or anywhere I can: my book budget has been exhausted. I have discovered, though not surprisingly, that my quality of reading has thus dropped significantly, and a large proportion of the free books I delete after reading the first couple of pages. Every once in a while, thankfully, one like Tony Bertauski’s The Discovery of Socket Greeny comes along to rejuvenate my joy of reading on the Kobo. The book was first released in 2010, so it was not a “straight-to-almost-free” book like so many, but at first my response was “What on earth are they doing offering this for free?” followed by “I wonder how much the sequels are going to cost me?” For there are always sequels in children’s and YA fiction these days, it seems: but I have lamented this situation before.  There are, in fact, sequels to The Discovery of Socket Greeny, although all three books were released in 2010: The Discovery of Socket Greeny in July, The Training of Socket Greeny in September, and The Legend of Socket Greeny in December. Despite the sequels, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the first book was, in fact, sufficiently self-contained to satisfy my narrative needs completely. There were directions that Bertauski could take his story, more that could be told, but it is not necessary to read more to find closure.

The conception and plot of Socket Greeny are original and engaging. Picture a YA version of Neuromancer with shades of Little Brother, Ender’s Game, and Feed. How could I not read on? Perhaps, too, I liked the immediate immersion into the virtual world of MMOGs (massively multi-player online games).  The story opens with three teens hooked into virtualmode to study, but instead hacking into someone else’s virtual world to battle. Bertauski’s description of the transitional process is both a little familiar (see Neuromancer) and yet unique.

The banter between Socket, Streeter, and Socket’s girlfriend, Chute, about the wisdom of their enterprise reveals the closeness that exists in this triad of friends:

“What are we doing here?” I asked
“We’re going to get our kill on.”
“I just got pardoned for fighting. We get caught, just stamp my suspension.” …
I looked at Chute. “Did you know we were doing this?”
“He didn’t tell me. If you were in class on time, he wouldn’t have told you, either.” …

I have listened to the teens upstairs: Bertauski’s characters are real.

Hacked into the Rime world, something goes terribly, unexpectedly wrong. Their sims are almost destroyed: a shadow forms that only Socket can see (“You’re brain damaged. Shadow sims can’t stabilize in this environment”); he begins to feel his sim; and time stands still. Cut to the three of them in detention for misuse of virtualmode time, when Socket is pulled away by his mother for a “family emergency.” His friends don’t see him again for 8 months.

The discovery of Socket Greeny—who and what Socket is—underlies the remainder of the novel. But it is not the mystery that grabs the reader so much as our affection for the character: his combination of youthful bravado and insecurity, his compassion, his need for love, his anger, and even his outright fear. His internal monologue sits comfortably beside his descriptions of all that he sees and experiences in the new reality he finds himself in.

Ultimately Socket does discover who he is, essentially, as well as learning the truth about his broken family, and his mother’s disinterest and even coldness towards him. Starved of affection for so long, it is no wonder that he clings to his friends just that little bit, emotionally. His need is mirrored in his unswerving commitment to the friendship, though, and in the end it is the combination of their talents that helps them to fight for their lives almost successfully… Not that everyone dies, of course, but it honestly is not obvious that they will all survive. Bertauski does give us the satisfactory happy ending (of course, we knew that Socket lives on, or there wouldn’t be sequels), but the danger feels real, and the escape from it uncontrived, if expectedly fortuitous. The world has changed irrevocably for Socket and his friends: they will never again be the team that they have always been, but they—and we—are okay with that.

Hunted (2012), by Cheryl Rainfield

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 17.5.

Hunted


While I was reading Cheryl Rainfield’s Hunted, I attended a lecture by Karen Armstrong, founder of the Charter for Compassion.  Listening to Armstrong, lines and scenes from Hunted repeatedly rose up in my mind, and I thought: this is more than a dystopic novel about oppression and intolerance (which it is); it is a powerful narrative example of the strength it takes, within an oppressive culture, to maintain one’s sense of humanity.

In Hunted, Caitlyn and her mother are continually running, changing names, schools, lives… because Caitlyn is a “Paranormal,” a telepathic who can read others’ thoughts and emotions: a power that frightens those without it. In Caitlyn’s world, Paranormals of all kinds must be registered, and once registered, are removed from society and tortured, sometimes forced to hunt other “Paras.” During the uprising that led to this abusive system, Caitlyn’s father was murdered and her brother Daniel taken away; she and her mother fled. After years of running, Caitlyn finally needs to stop, to rest, to blend in. Rejoining society—as much as she is able—is difficult, dangerous, and yet rewarding. Her two new “Normal” friends are similarly, if not equally outcast: Rachel is lesbian and Alex is black. While Rachel’s lesbianism is highlighted as a consideration in her relationship with Caitlyn, Alex’s race is not sufficiently apparent to the reader. When we meet him, we are told that “his skin contrasts with his crisp white shirt” (30), but that could make him Mediterranean, or even just well-tanned. Once, later, Caitlyn mentions his “springy black curls” (148), but no other mention is made until almost he end of the book, when the term “black” is finally used. In our white-washed world, a few more hints would be welcome.

The political aspects of the plot—too complicated to delineate but solidly structured and effective—lead to a crisis for which Caitlyn’s online avatar, Teen-Para, has been made the scapegoat. In the end, sacrifices are made by individuals on both sides, and readers are left with a strong message regarding blanket assumptions about good and evil. Caitlyn’s faith in the goodness, the inherent humanity, of “Normals” is justified, as is her wariness of belief in anyone merely because they are paranormal. There are hints here of Katniss’s response to the politics of Panem in the end of the Hunger Games trilogy: a group being oppressed and thus rebellious does not necessarily equate with that group being right or justified.  What Caitlyn and the reader have reinforced is a message of tolerance of difference, and a wariness of all individuals who seek power at the expense of others.

The Charter for Compassion expounds that “compassion is not an option; it is the key to our survival” (Alastair Smith, Greater Vancouver Compassion Network); faithful to this humanist tenet, Caitlyn strives to create the compassionate world her father envisioned: “Dad dreamed of a world where we could live freely—but he also taught me that all life is precious, Normal or Paranormal, and that we’re all in this together” (294). The power of Hunted is that by the end of the novel, the reader is sure that she is right.

Post-Human (2009), by David Simpson

Accepting that Post-Human is self-published by David Simpson, a young Vancouver author, we can overlook a number of publishing and editorial mistakes.  The plot itself is original and interesting: humankind has approached physical perfection through the introduction of nanobots into our bodies.  When a universal update goes devastatingly wrong, a few scientists momentarily off-line on Venus are saved.  The plot revolves around their search for other surviving humans, and their battle against the A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) that has taken over control of the nanosystem.  Concepts in the story remind one strongly of M. T. Anderson’s Feed (2002) melded with William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), but Simpson has introduced a number of interesting elements that bear consideration by those readers interested in contemplating where modern and futuristic technology will take the human race.  The strongest success in the novel is the characterization; Simpson’s ethnically interesting mix of characters avoids stereotypes and allows us to engage readily with individuals on both sides of the human conflicts that develop.  Overall, a very interesting novel that suffers most from a lack of professional editing and publication.