Monday, January 5, 2009

The Six Million Dollar Gossip Girl

Halfway through Robin Wasserman's novel Skinned is a passage that may be the most frightening thing I've read in ages. I don't mean "scary" in the sense that monsters or violence are scary; I mean terrifying in its implications, both for the characters in the immediate story and the society they live in, which is our society pushed forward a few nudges.

Lia Kahn (although the name is vaguely ethnic, it's clear from both the cover and description in the text that this is a blonde, white beauty) is the elder daughter of a wealthy businessman in the near future. When she is horribly injured in an accident, her personality is downloaded into an anatomically correct android body, and she becomes a "skinner," one of a growing subculture of similarly recreated teens. Some, like Quinn (left physically ravaged by an accident when she was three) embrace this new existence and turn it into a typical teenage clique, modifying their artifical bodies to denote their independence from "orgs." And of course, religious fanatics claim these beings are abominations and protest their very existence.

As part of her recovery, Lia attends a group therapy session with other skinners. One of them, Sloane, had attempted suicide and says this about her current condition:

"They [her parents] let their daughter die, I'm just some replacement copy. And if I do it again, they'll make another copy."

My life has been directly touched by suicide, and I have strong feelings about it. What I don't believe is that anyone, parents or otherwise, should have this level of power. In a way, the thought of being forced to live is almost as awful as being deliberately killed. This is the core idea at the heart of Skinned.

But I can't recommend the book whole-heartedly. It has the same central flaw I see in a lot of YA books: the assumption that their target audience is only interested in stories about rich, beautiful teens. Lia is a daughter of privilege as both a human being and a skinner, and all her worries are separated from any sort of concern about day-to-day survival. As I read, I could only think how much more powerful the story might have been had it happened to a daughter of the middle class, or even the child of a monetarily poor family. What if resurrecting their daughter wiped out the family's income? What if they had to make payments, and she could potentially be repossessed? This opens a wide vista of ways to comment on our current society, but Wasserman instead gives us a Bionic Gossip Girl, watering down the premise with the implied assumption that Lia, no matter what, will be taken care of. It's The Hills crossed with Monster Garage, with those shows' same sense of entitlement. There is a subplot about the first skinners, black inner-city kids given Caucasian bodies because that's all the corporation makes, but the "rich white girl learns the sufferings of the dark-skinned poor" trope is as trite as they come.

Still, the heart of the story remains utterly, totally frightening. And Wasserman, a prolific author of YA novels', nails the character's voice and mileiu with broad strokes and telling details. This is the first of a trilogy, and I'm intrigued enough to check out "Crashed" when it appears in the fall.

As for whether guys will like it, that's a tough call. It's a traditional girl's book, and not just because the hero is female. The issues are primarily emotional, and there's no real plot. Not that there needs to be; I was actually delighted that it didn't turn out Lia was secretly created to be a super-powered weapon, or that some conspiracy wanted her for nefarious purposes (although there's a hint that future books may, alas, take that cliche'd route). Wasserman writes as realistically as the story allows, and this works in its favor. But it's a book to make you think, not excite or thrill you.

Or, in my case at least, to terrify you.


PiLibrarian said...

The highly-reviewed Adoration of Jenna Fox is very similar to the sound of this book, and now that you mention it, it also features a rich, beautiful white girl. Jenna Fox has a few environmental themes, and questions the ethics of uploading and downloading (and making backups of) individual minds/souls. I didn't think it was as great as everybody said, and most likely it's not a guy book, either.

Peter Dickinson's 1988 novel Eva covers much of the same territory, but much more deeply in my opinion. In it, a teenage girl's mind and personality are transplanted into the body of a chimpanzee, but discovers as she lives on that some of the chimp's mind and memory live on and they are sharing the same body.

A Paperback Writer said...

I also thought immediately of Jenna Fox with this one. It sounds very similar.

A Paperback Writer said...

As I was driving home today, I heard the old Styx song "Mr. Roboto" on the radio, and I realized the song sounds like a scene from a supporting character in this book: human thoughts inside a manufactured body.
Perhaps the song inspired the author????
who knows.
But it does sound similar.