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book cover shows sillouhette of female character and Empire State building - above it blue tinged clouds and silhouettes of birds and above the clouds an greenand blue picture of space - tag reads One choice will change her life forever

'2788. Only the handicapped live on Earth. While everyone else portals between worlds, 18-year-old Jarra is among the one in a thousand people born with an immune system that cannot survive on other planets. Sent to Earth at birth to save her life, she has been abandoned by her parents. She can't travel to other worlds, but she can watch their vids, and she knows all the jokes they make. She's an 'ape', a 'throwback', but this is one ape girl who won't give in.

Jarra invents a fake background for herself — as a normal child of Military parents — and joins a class of norms that is on Earth to excavate the ruins of the old cities. When an ancient skyscraper collapses, burying another research team, Jarra's role in their rescue puts her in the spotlight. No hiding at back of class now. To make life more complicated, she finds herself falling in love with one of her classmates — a norm from another planet. Somehow, she has to keep the deception going.' (source)

Reviewers often talk about the importance of separating our ideas of an author's intentions from the actual book they write when constructing criticism. This is good advice, but I'm sure I'm not the only book blogger who finds that can make you feel like a huge jerk. Some novels seem to have obviously been written as a genuine attempt to help, to try and widen diverse representation, despite presenting major flaws. It feels like it may be a mistake to call these problems out; when these flaws are possibly due to an incomplete understanding of the problems with current media representation; when your own understanding of representation is partial and individual; when the novel you see sinkholes in isn't popular enough to prompt a mass dissection and call out; when other reviewers feel this book is genuinely helping in some way, and especially when there are two rather different critical approaches to this type of problem warring in your head. Personally I find my internal critic is generally so loud that it's difficult to tell when I really might be best shutting up and when my desire to stop talking is really self-sabotage.

This brings me to my review of "Earth Girl", Janet Edward's debut novel. In "Earth Girl", Edwards has invented an SF disability — the novel's heroine, Jarra, has an immune deficiency disorder that prevents her from portalling between the different worlds that Earth has settled — which provides a fictional vehicle for showing how wrong prejudice is and how prejudice encourages self-hatred among disabled people (who in this novel are called the Handicapped — why the capitalised 'H' all the time, I have no idea). Although this technique of using a fictional substitute for a real world issue can be contentious and sometimes results in completely offensive stories, I don't think there's anything fundamentally wrong with using a fictional metaphor or stand in to illuminate real world issues for readers. It's just important that writers make sure they don't inadvertently erase the very group they're trying to represent with these fictional stand-ins: SFF worlds where chromatic people are entirely replaced by SFF races would be an example of this erasure; SFF worlds where love is persecuted but which contain no lesbian, gay and bisexual people would be another.

In my eyes, this is exactly what Edwards debut novel does: real world disability is entirely replaced by a fictional disability — as Jarra says, in her future version of Earth and across the many planets Earth has colonised 'Every other handicap can be screened out or fixed'. Let me spoil this point for you, 'screened for' does not mean readers of "Earth Girl" have landed in the kind of ableist nightmare world I was certainly imagining when I read those words; screening doesn't lead to the medically approved abortion of all disabled babies and the book does not validate any urge to medically remove disabled people from society by killing them. Jarra later qualifies that preventative medicine is used to help babies who are screened and found to have disabilities or medical problems — "Earth Girl" is proposing magical healing, not unthinking massacre. 'Go "Earth Girl" — At least this novel isn't monstrous!' — that's not the kind of sweet quote that looks good on a dust jacket.

Yes, "Earth Girl" makes great use of something similar to the magical healing trope which can be found in the fantasy genre. In "Earth Girl", people with missing limbs can re-grow them in healing tanks and all disability (apart from Jarra's immune condition) can be prevented through the use of futuristic medicine. I feel like science fiction's version of 'magical healing', where novels remove a character's disability through the use of technology that is more advanced than in our current world, is more complicated to respond to than magical stories' removal of characters disabilities (my only response to that — don't do it books). Society does use technology to change the level of people's disability and it intends to keep advancing this technology. What is 'too much' technological intervention in the real world's approach to disability? Is it fine for a novel to suggest that far in the future, if even more advanced technology was available that could prevent disability, society would make use of it?

Just thinking about different reactions within the deaf community to technology like cochlear implants makes it clear that the answer to these wider questions depends on the disabled person who is being asked and that these questions are really not for me, as an individual and an able-bodied person who has read little about disability in SFF, to try to answer definitively. In relation to fiction, though, I will say it feels to me like science fiction stories which use non-existent technology to remove disability are erasing disabled people, just as much as magical healing stories in fantasy or contemporary classics. Ria Cheyne's presentation 'Changing Capacities, Changing Identities' makes an interesting point about the way a physical reminder or marker of disability can change magical or science fictional storylines about reconfiguring disability. It seems like disabled characters should be represented, not glossed over with a fictional solution, and there's a good chance that suggesting a non-existent way of changing a disability is making some disabled readers who can't change their disabled status feel like fiction rejects their chance at having a happy, fulfilling life while disabled.

It feels especially unfortunate to see real world disability removed from society in a book that is supposed to show how wrong it is to be prejudiced against disabled people and features a heroine who eventually accepts that her disability can't be changed:

'I'm Handicapped and I always will be.
I can't join the Military, but I've got history and Fian, and I think they're the most important.'


While this is an uplifting message that could be helpful to disabled readers, it's hard to say that Jarra's world makes this positive statement consistently. Maybe the novel could talk about disability by oh, I don't know, talking about disability, rather than shunting it into a corner in favour of just reconciling its heroine to having a fictional substitute for real world disability? Why not have Jarra actually deal with a real world disability as well as her immune disorder? Would that be such a huge distraction?

However, however... in the book's terms Jarra, is a disabled heroine and she does say this inspiring thing that can be related to real life and that'll go a long way with some readers; it may even help people deal with real issues. See what I meant about feeling like you're about to be a jerk?

I've seen some commentary that "Earth Girl" is actually using Jarra's disability as a metaphor for racial or national prejudice. People who can't portal are called 'apes' by the prejudiced 'norms',or exos, and the intelligence/capabilities of 'apes' are questioned by the rest of society, which seems like familiar racist terminology and rhetoric adapted from views held in our own world. While that line of analysis makes sense to me, it makes it more complicated to work out what "Earth Girl" is trying to accomplish by including a fictional disability. Did Edwards straight up substitute one social circumstance (race) that people are prejudiced against for another (disability), in order to give an original subtextual presentation of racial prejudice? Is "Earth Girl" a book that attempts to show how wrong it is to judge all disenfranchised social groups? And if so, how does the book's inclusion of triad and bi-sexual relationships fit in? Is Edwards maybe not trying to make any comparison between the fictional prejudice of Jarra's world and the real world prejudice found in ours? Is she just writing a book about a girl who happens to be disabled and did she want to invent a new kind of disability to go along with her futuristic version of Earth and her future slang? What is going on?!

Personally I think the book is a little confused about exactly what is going on, who it's representing, and whether it wants to get real or act as some kind of idealised fantasy about prejudice and disability. It certainly has some issues with showing how prejudice really works. Jarra assumes she will meet prejudiced exos on her course because she has encountered their nasty comments in vids she's seen and knows that norms mostly abandon their children if they come out Handicapped. She approaches her classmates with great bitterness because of this assumption, but she comes to discover just how unprejudiced those around her can be. As she gets to know her group, she sees exos stand up for Earth people, and the only person who expresses strong, repeated prejudice towards Earth citizens is the unlikeable Kranth, who is pretty much your stereotypical Sun reader. Yep, despite widespread prejudice against 'apes' Jarra has just happily found a group where only the bad people are truly prejudiced against her people. Isn't that wonderful? Again, um. 'Nice' isn't a force field that deflects all the influences of society — nice people can be prejudiced. And while I think it's interesting to show how society's prejudice towards various social groups can lead people in those groups to become bitter, I'm suspicious of any book that makes that the whole story. Bitterness isn't born in a vacuum, after all.

Clearly I feel that one of the main storylines in "Earth Girl" is confusing and less than realistically developed, but this book has received praise and it's not like it's without good points in other areas. Recently, I saw Malinda Lo link to this quote from a post by Tobias Buckell:

'At a workshop not too many years ago a newer writer began to condemn a best selling novel, pointing out all its flaws and jagged edges. I listened for a long time, nodding.

"All those things are true," I said. And gave him the C.C. Finlay quote. "But until you learn what the good parts were that excited the reader, you're always going to be bitterly upset about what is wrong with that bestseller. Learn to spot what worked in that book, and you'll be able to move forward. And you'll be a lot less upset all the time as well."'

In light of this quote, I'd like to try and explain what I think the good parts of this novel are, even though I can't see them being entertaining enough to convince me to read on in the trilogy. A society colonising the (so far uninhabited) universe by portalling to new planets is an SFF concept I haven't seen used much, and finding out details about the new worlds that are being established is fun. The mixture of science fiction with archaeology and history is original — how many SFFnovels focus on archaeology or the humanities? The setting for Jarra's story is an Earth in the future, abandoned by the majority of its people and where our major cities have fallen into ruin but it's not a dystopian setting: there are stable structures in place to support the people living on Earth because they can't portal. Again, it's original to see an Earth that isn't fully functional but isn't dystopian. And I'm sure that kind of setting will appeal to fans of all the wonderful after humanity art currently floating around the web. More good things: Jarra is an incredibly competent heroine, both physically strong, dedicated to becoming the most skilled version of herself possible, and knowledgeable. There's also something very compelling about Jarra's story; I wanted to see what would happen to her next. The decision to give Jarra a total disconnected mental episode when she experiences some trauma was different and I'd be interested to hear what people with experience of mental illness make of the reality of what happens to Jarra there.And I really liked seeing an SFF coming of age story that focuses on a character's life, growth and passion for education, not on some big good vs. evil battle. I love me some 'Star Wars', but SFF doesn't always have to be battles with a side of character development. It can, like a regular contemporary novel, be about character development and come with SFF worldey stuff.

However, even with these good points, there are some things about the world-building that just aren't to my personal taste. I did not enjoy the idea of couples 'Twoing' and Jarra being a 'good contract girl' — beyond finding that replacement word for marriage cloying I'm just not that interested in an SF world which re-enforces the idea that legally contracted partnership is the ideal, or somehow morally proper. But then I don't want to get married so hey, that's to be expected, I guess. And perhaps I would have let this go if the legal gay and triad marriages included in the world of "Earth Girl" had been more to the forefront. On the plus side, at least "Earth Girl" makes space for these kinds of legal unions, and for open gay partnerships outside of marriage in its world, but poly marriages - this idea should have sent me into ecstasy (I love poly relationships in fiction). Unfortunately this world-building detail is underused. Like Renay said when she was reviewing 'The Cloud Roads', 'It's like the world tempts me with polyamory and threesomes and then goes, "AND NONE FOR YOU."'. Here's how they fit into this novel — in "Earth Girl" triad marriages exist, but they're illegal in some places. The places that do allow them will only let them take place between one woman and two men because of 'the imbalance of the sexes', which what? On the one hand, hurray for subverting the normal way poly relationships are presented in our media, but on the other, this setup excludes lesbian partners within triad relationships. Aaannnd that's pretty much all the detail we get about these kinds of marriage: we certainly never see a triad relationship or a gay relationship even among the wide cast of secondary characters. Every other relationship mentioned takes place in monogamous straightsville apart from one instance where two guys are maybe romantically together:

'He and his tag support had stopped shouting at each other, and were now talking in low voices. I didn't know if they were lovers, married, friends, or brothers, but they were totally absorbed in each other.'

Just so you know these guys will always be married in my head.

Staying with the theme of sexuality, I have something else that is less of a personal preference and more of a 'please don't reinforce damaging dominant social ideas' worry to discuss. Through her class, Jarra meets Lolia and Lolmack two characters from the Betan world. The Betans have a special reputation for being promiscuous, their national trade is the sex video, and they wear clothing that leaves little to the imagination. The other class members are slightly scandalised by them. The rest of the world, it seems, is rather coy about sex and sexual interest, or at least encourages their children to be coy about it: for example, people routinely use the word 'leg' in place of the word 'butt' when they find that part of a person attractive, while the Betan's happily use 'butt'. Let me tell you, the reader hears far more specifically and individually about Lolia and how she fits in with the Betan national stereotype than they hear about Lolmack. Lolia enthusiastically pursues the male students and makes lewd comments. We also hear quite a bit about her clothing - how it is 'clinging' and shows 'patches of bare skin in unexpected areas. None of them were actually over restricted body areas, but they were certainly very close to them.' Jarra and her classmates react negatively to this side of her. They don't slut shame her, but the men run from her painting her as sexually aggressive (she is referred to by Jarra as giving them a 'predatory look of assessment') and Jarra's narrative is often subtly condescending towards her, describing her clothes as 'a party dress' and saying that she moves with a 'theatrical wiggle'. Happy ending though — it turns out Lolia and Lomack are secretly married and right at the end of the novel Lolia begins to wear clothes that cover more for “practical reasons”. Oh good, we can all sleep easy knowing that the sexually confident female character is married and covering herself, then. I was worried there!

This book is kind of weird about sexual things is what I'm saying.

Returning to personal bugs, although I've seen plenty of writers make a spirited commercial case for not putting real swear words in young adult books, I thought the issue of swearing was clumsily handled in this novel. The replacement swear lexicon did not ring true for me, with words like 'leg' replacing 'butt,' and 'nuke' becoming the very worst word you can say. Yes, culturally that's an appropriate word, but linguistically I find it a weak replacement. Meh, it's hard to convince me that futuristic replacements feel as powerful as the swear words we use today, and I'd always rather have real swear words — but then I'm not a parent or a publisher, and while the new swear words put me off personally I can't really begrudge an author who wants to get their book out in the world for changing up inconsequential swear words if that'll help get their book on shelves. Nevertheless, if an author can't convince me their future words are real, or that they're using deliberately awkward future words to make some kind of deeper point, then I'm always going to get thrown out of the story and I'm going to find it hard to believe in the future world they've created.

Very few bookish issues make me sadder than a set-aside trilogy, so don't think I took the decision to leave this one on the roadside lightly. There were just too many parts of "Earth Girl" that I found unpleasant: the stick-in-your-throat future words; the sex issues; the missing lesbians; and above all that strange approach to talking about disability. In the end they all piled up on me and I couldn't see my way to being totally focused on the cool, archaeology-obsessed heroine. This Earth girl needs to find a new, less awkward future. Maybe there's one in the vast pile of books threatening to topple and bury me? We can but see. And if that makes me a jerk, I guess someone will tell me and I can learn.

Other Reviews

The Book Smugglers
Phoebe North at Strange Horizons

Date: 2013-06-16 03:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I feel like "missing lesbians" needs to be a trope, because they're missing all over the place in sci-fi.

Date: 2013-06-23 04:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh! Oh! I saw it over at Aidan's pad. It looks so, so good. Thanks for the heads up!

Date: 2013-06-23 05:28 pm (UTC)
cloudsinvenice: a blue rubber stamp image of a coelocanth captioned "upwards onward" (Default)
From: [personal profile] cloudsinvenice
The book sounds really tempting and really frustrating at the same time. And you make a good point about how SF narratives presume that future biotech or prosthetics will automatically exist, the full potential of technology to change the lives of disabled or sick people will be realised, and it will be universally available.

I think worldbuilders often forget the fact that the medical treatments and gadgets we have now come with all sorts of caveats. They can cause as many problems as they solve, so there's often a trade-off to be negotiated between problems inherent in one's condition, and the problems that come with medication X or treatment Y. Sort of like how, Moore's Law notwithstanding, our ever-increasingly complex computers are still prey to viruses, bugs, human error etc. And I think that in a thousand years, humans will still be grappling with the failiness of our technology and medicine...


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