Special (2016), YA science fiction, is Australian author Georgia Blain’s 7th novel and her second ‘Young Adult’. 2016 has also seen the release of Blain’s eighth, Between a Wolf and a Dog, and also the unhappy news that she has brain cancer (SMH story). I’m not sure how I came into possession of Special, I just noticed it one day sideways in a bookshelf, which is what I do with books I’m waiting to read, one of a stack handed to me by an ex-wife or daughter I guess. I have, and vaguely remember reading, Blain’s first two, so I decided to give it a go.
I’ve read some YA but not much. When I was growing up I went straight from Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton (all right, I still read William books) to adult fiction, as I’m sure most of you did too (not counting one blogger with Sweet Valley High addiction!), maybe some Ivan Southall and ES Ellis and, when they came out, Harry Potter. Special is a good story but suffers in my mind, not from being didactic exactly, but from too obviously putting up issues for kids to discuss.
The setting is a near-ish future, in an unnamed location, after ‘the Breakdown’, and is well imagined. Nation-states are gone, corporations are in control, privileged employees live in company towns with manicured surrounds and clean air. Ordinary workers live in little flats with shared facilities in grimy towers and the underclass in shanties around the base of the towers, queuing for casual work or begging from the marginally less underprivileged. Data is currency and the air is full of mediastreams, moving images that cannot be avoided without data.
Fern, the protagonist, is one of four girls who by virtue of their worker parents winning Lotto, have been genetically enhanced and admitted to Halston, a school run by the BioPerfect corporation for the genetically enhanced daughters of rich parents.
“I’m a Lotto girl. They use us. Sometimes it’s just to fill a gap in the market, sometimes they want to try out a new model. They might want to test the success of a teacher with more imagination. They finetune and shape and sculpt and then they have us – a prototype for a possible next version. They encourage our parents or bribe them. Mine were told I would be beautiful as well if they selected the menu option BioPerfect wanted.”
There they are house mothered by Margaret, herself crafted by BioPerfect to be an infertile carer. Fern is proud of her attributes in the field of communications – creating mediastreams – and is happy to lose touch with her parents and her brother. The other three are less so and two of them are deemed failures in terms of BioPerfect’s ambitions for them.
We learn much of this as Fern, aged 17 or 18, regains consciousness and memory after apparently being datawiped and dumped in a worker compound with, according to the data on her mobie, a new identity. She survives as a ReCorp trash sifter and grudgingly accepts the assistance of Chimo, a young man who befriends her. She has a memory that her removal, and that of the other Lotto girls, from Halston was engineered by Margaret for their protection, but as time passes she cannot contact them and no one comes to rescue her.
Eventually, she falls for Chimo and reveals to him her previous life as a Halston girl and her belief that she is in hiding from BioPerfect. Chimo helps Fern to make contact with her long-lost brother and through him, with the resistance organisation to which Margaret seemingly belongs. Blain’s descriptions of data as layered and tactile, of Fern diving into the data and leaving clues in order to be contacted while avoiding surveillance, is reminiscent of the much grittier and more detailed descriptions in William Gibson cyberpunk novels such as Neuromancer (1984).
Without giving away too much, Fern ends up once more with BioPerfect and seemingly in control of her own destiny. The dilemma she has to resolve is that throughout the course of the story, neither side sees her as a person. Both the corporation and the resistance seem to be using her as evidence in an argument over genetic design vs targeted education. I’m a black and white kind of guy and although Blain does suggest a resolution I’d have been happier if she/Fern more obviously took sides.
Georgia Blain, Special, Random House, Sydney, 2016