Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Skinned

I just got around to reading a YA novel my fifteen-year-old daughter picked up at the bookstore and recommended to me, with the warning that it’s “sequel-rific,” meaning all the conflicts are not satisfactorily resolved. Robin Wasserman’s Skinned is about a girl from the future who “wakes up dead” as my friends used to like to say in college. The girl, Lia, finds that a download of her brain has been installed in an artificial body. She is essentially immortal, since a new body can be made anytime this one wears out. The people of her century don’t consider downloaded-brain people, or “skinners,” to be real people. She struggles to fit back into her old life, and must eventually find a way to build a new life.

It’s not a complicated plot, nor are the characters particularly well developed, but the world of this future is quite interesting. Some of the opposition to “skinners” comes from the “Faithers” who protest Lia’s arrival home from the hospital with signs saying “GOD MADE MAN, WHO MADE YOU?” and “BREATH, NOT BATTERIES.” We learn that “religion went out of style right after the Middle East went out in a blaze of nuclear glory. Not that some people, maybe lots of people, didn’t keep privately believing in some invisible old man who gave them promotions when they were good and syphilis when they were bad. If you had the credit, you could even snag enough drugs for a one-on-one chat. You sometimes heard rumors about people—especially in the cities, where it’s not like there was much else to do—actually gathering together for their God fix, but as far as most people were willing to admit in public, God was dead. The Faith party was for all those leftover believers who—even after the nukes and the Long Winter and the Water Wars of the western drought and the quake that ate California and the wave that drowned DC—refused to give up the ghost. They were for life, for morality, for order, for gratitude, and, until recently, not against much of anything. Except reason, my father was always quick to point out. Then Bio Max unrolled its download process, and the Faithers found their cause.”

The download process is described in detail; Lia has to endure months of physical and mental therapy to learn how to use her new body. At one point she’s asked to think of some of the advantages of her new mechanical body and she says reluctantly that she can “link in” whenever she wants, although she thinks to herself that it’s nothing new:
“for my sixteenth birthday, I’d finally gotten a net-lens, which meant that once I got used to jamming a finger in my eye, I could link with a blink….could superimpose my zone and my av over blah reality, type on a holographic keyboard that only I could see. But the pop-ups didn’t mention how it made you nauseated and made your head burn. Now I had a built-in net-lens, and migraines weren’t an issue.”

Lia doesn’t consider the “dark side” of being almost continually linked to her future version of the internet, like some of the characters in M.T. Anderson’s YA novel Feed, but her sense of self is dependent on it; her “zone” is something like a Facebook profile page, and the identity she has built up there is lost when the company that owns it terminates her account because she is “deceased.” It takes her one remaining human friend, Auden (surely named after the poet), to point out to her that she could have her brain wired “right into the network” and that she is “kind of like an avatar….like the ultimate avatar….this incredible body that’s been created as a vessel for Lia Kahn.”

Other parts of this world also remind me of the world of Feed. Both have been ruined by pollution and carelessness and life is next to impossible for those who aren’t rich, like the genetically screened protagonists of both novels. This is what has happened to a public library:
“The group met in one of those buildings where they used to store paper books until no one wanted them anymore. You could tell because the shelves were still there, sitting empty, waiting for the world to change its mind and start printing with ink again—like that was going to happen. There were a lot of places like this, empty buildings that survived long after their purpose had died. Why go out for art, for drama, for literature, for fashion, when you could stay on the couch, safe from germs, weather, overexertion, crowds, annoying small talk, and get it all up close, personal, and on demand?”

This is what Lia and Auden say about the past:
“It was different back then. There was more…room.”
“More room?” I echoed. “Are you kidding? I thought you were supposed to be good at history. No one had any room back then, when they thought they all had to live all crammed into the same place, all those people stuck in the cities….”
“….No, I don’t mean more room for people. I just mean more room to do something. Change the way things worked. You could be important. Now…I don’t know. No one’s important.”
“Everyone’s important,” I said. “At least if you’ve got enough credit.”
“And if you’ve got no credit, you might as well not exist?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yeah, but you thought it,” he said. Everyone does. And so all those credit-free people just end up in a corp-town or a city, and no one really cares, because that’s just the way it is.”
“But that is the way it is,” I said, confused. “And they don’t care, so why should you?”
“How do you know they don’t care? Do you actually know anyone who lives in a corp-town? Have you ever been to a city?”

Of course, before the end of the novel, Lia meets people her own age from the corp-towns, where you have to do whatever the corp tells you, and from the city, where the only way to visit and escape is to cover the car with trash and have one “skinner” volunteer to get shot as a distraction so the others can escape. The city they visit is relatively intact:
“This city had been lucky. No major bombings, so no radioactive debris. Too far east for the Water Wars, too far north for the flooding. They’d gotten hit by the Comstock flu strain, but no worse than any of the other population centers, and in the last bio-attack, before the cities cleared out for good, they’d lost less than a million.”

A small surprise for me in this novel is Lia’s attitude about analog timepieces: “A couple of miniature sticks swept out circle after circle, and you had to calculate the angles to even know the hour. And yes, I was smart enough to figure it out, but why bother to do a math problem every time you want to know what time it is, when you can just get your ViM to flash the info and then move on with your life?” This is almost exactly the attitude of my daughter towards anything that “tells time” non-digitally.

As a science fiction writer of my acquaintance told me recently, it’s hard to write a new SF novel without experiencing “future shock.” I thought the world of Skinned was the world of the future, but when it hits home, I know the future is now--at least some of it is!

I’ll be looking forward to the sequel of Skinned, advertised as “the first book in a gripping trilogy.” Have you been looking forward to something you thought would happen in your future, only to find that it’s already possible?

4 comments:

J. Kaye said...

I'm not a Sci-Fi reader, but this does look good...and I love YA.

Jackie Parker said...

Oh, good. I know just who to give this to, and I was about to run out of sf for her. Thanks!

Jeanne said...

J. Kaye, it is a fast read.

Jackie, I love giving the first book of a series. I rarely give all three even if they're already written, unless I know the person really well. The first one is like a taste.

Anonymous said...

I have read Skinned, and loved it. It was so gripping, i finished and and straight away slammed down a google search to see when the sequel will come out. (i still have no idea) I liked the idea of the futuristic ways too. Slightly like the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld. Which i suggest if your a YA lover.