Friday, March 11, 2011

Sci Fi Friday Review: XVI by Julia Karr

This has probably been one of my most-anticipated books of the year so far. What wasn't there to love about it? Dystopian SF that is actually feminist? So perhaps some of my ultimate disappointment comes from high expectations, but I'm pretty sure even if I'd gone in blind I would have come to a lot of the same conclusions.

XVIAll Nina Oberon wants is a totally normal, ordinary, boring life. Unfortunately, Nina is mere weeks away from turning 16 - an age all of her friends are eagerly waiting for, since they will receive their government-mandated tattoos and finally be "sex-teens," free to have sex whenever they want.

But Nina doesn't want to have sex. She doesn't even want a boyfriend. She wants to live in peace with her mom and little sister, and avoid her mom's skeevy boyfriend. But when her mother is mysteriously murdered, all of Nina's carefully laid plans are thrown out the window. With her dying breath, Nina's mother makes her promise to deliver a baby book to her father. The only problem: Nina's father died the night she was born. The truth about her father is one of many mysteries Nina must unlock, while trying to avoid her mother's evil ex, meeting a mysterious new boy, and trying to counter her best friend Sandy's increasingly sex-teen ways.

While the premise here is sound, it totally falls apart in the execution by committing one of the gravest sins in speculative fiction - failing to define the new world the readers are dumped in to. Many of the important aspects of this future society are left unexplained - most egregiously the importance of the titular XVI tattoos. Why on Earth is the government so invested in the sexual goings-on of teenage girls? And while I can easily come up with half a dozen reasons the tattoo is mandatory for girls but apparently not for boys, I'd really like to have seen at least the government cover story for the tattoo. Another under-explained point were the Female Liaison Specialists, or FeLS - we know it's really the only way for lower class girls to rise in rank and that they must be virgins, and we end up learning what the real purpose of the organization is, but the cover story is foggy.

Almost as bad, is the fact that I couldn't stand the protagonist. Nina is the worst kind of dystopian protagonist: the one that not only recognizes she lives in a dystopia, but coincidentally holds 21st century values and isn't afraid of telling us and anyone else that will listen why she is better than everyone else for her enlightened views. I don't know why she and Sandy put up with each other - Nina clearly is contemptuous of everything that Sandy finds important. Why would Sandy not only put up with that disdain, but consider Nina her best friend? Nina is also conveniently open minded about people from all classes - she doesn't have a classist bone in her body and goes out of her way to help homeless people, even when it means putting herself in great physical danger. Noble indeed, but very little textual support for having such a counter-cultural attitude.

Slang is a tricky part of any YA novel, and most SF in general, but Karr comes across as quite tone deaf when she makes one of the most-used slang words in the novel a 21st century slur against transgendered people. Really, there was no better way to refer to transportation as "transports" which is then shortened into "trannies"? It was especially disturbing when, before it was made clear what trans/trannies was short for, a character who's been in a fight is asked if he "kissed a trannie." It just made me really uncomfortable and kept pulling me out of the book (which happened quite often because damn do these kids talk about the various transportation options a lot). Please folks, if you're going to make up words for your book, do a quick Google search to make sure it's not associated with something else (do not Google "trannies" while at work - the first several hits are porn sites, which should be the first clue this wasn't the best word choice).

There's lots more I could critique here - including the mystical Asian healer stereotype and this being another entry in the trend of dystopian stories eliminating/ignoring homosexuality - but I think we'd be here all day.

The novel wraps up rather neatly, so I don't think this is going to be part of that growing trend of releasing dystopian stories in trilogies. On the one hand, there's clearly a lot of worldbuilding that could be expanded upon in a sequel, but on the other, all of the major storylines were wrapped up so neatly that there's very little actual story left.
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