Lara Hedberg |
What happens when you find out that not only have you been dating an alien, but that you are now part-human, part-alien?
Malinda Lo’s Adaptation (2012), the first in a two novel series, deals with the highs and lows of being a teenager who has been unknowingly implanted with alien DNA. The novel explores implications of becoming part alien – or ‘posthuman’ – in a not too distant future, but the heart of the narrative arc is on ‘real world’ relationships. In particular, Adaptation offers an especially rich commentary on young queer relationships. On one level, Lo’s book therefore fits with Farah Mendlesohn’s observation that most YA science fiction texts end up failing to be ‘true’ science fiction works because the SF elements often become secondary to the coming of age, or bildungsroman, elements within the narrative (2004: 293). Yet Lo’s book also complicates that characterisation, in that the science fictional elements serve a story which is not so much about coming of age, but about the limitations of the structured and systematic categorisation of sexuality and identity. Lo explores these limitations in two key ways – through the manifestation of implanted of alien (‘Imrian’) DNA in both Reese and David, and a narrative focus on Reese’s two love interests, Amber and David.
Adaptation begins at a fast and furious pace. Following the grounding of all planes due to flocks of birds causing havoc around the country, and an incident at a gas station leaving their debate coach dead, Reese and David – two teenagers who have just lost a national debating contest due to awkwardness about unspoken feelings for each other – determine they will drive themselves back to San Francisco from Phoenix, Arizona. On route to Las Vegas, they are run off the road by a crazed bird and crash in the desert near Area 51. Upon awaking in a militarised medical unit, Reese and David are told that they have been given secret medical treatment, are forced to sign non-disclosure forms, and are left to wonder at the mysterious scars running the length of their bodies that miraculously disappear in just days. Soon after the two teenagers return home, Reese has a seemingly chance meeting with a beautiful and effervescent young girl, Amber. Despite having staunchly established that she “wasn’t going to get involved in anything romantic” (46), Reese quickly finds herself becoming romantically involved with Amber. Things begin to unravel when Reese finds out that Amber has been sent to monitor her by the doctor that operated on her and David at Area 51.
Brooks Landon refers to science fiction as a “zone of possibility” (1997: 17) and Lo uses this conceptual possibility underpinning the genre to explore queer potentiality through affective resonance. Due to the adaptation process of being healed by and through the implantation of Imrian, or alien DNA, Reese and David begin to connect with each other in ways that defy the limitations of human communication, rendering their bodies ‘posthuman’. In her work on YA SF posthuman texts, Elaine Ostry (2004) focuses on the question of what it is to be human. She notes that YA literature is always engaged with a “search for identity, [and] in the posthuman young adult science fiction novel, this search takes a particularly sharp turn when the protagonist realizes that he or she is not conventionally human” (224). The way in which alien DNA manifests physically in both Reese and David produces distinctively science fictional possibilities for thinking beyond the discursive limits of both body and identity, following what Jes Battis notes as the use of aliens in SF as a “cultural mirror through which we can revisualize human nature” (2008).
The first changes that Reese begins to notice are physical, as her body adapts to the alien DNA that has been planted within her. Not only is Reese able to heal and regenerate quickly, but she begins to engage differently with people she has physical contact with. When hugging her mother she doesn’t just sense or comprehend the emotion and feeling within her mother, but experiences physical, affective, visceral resonance.
A door opened between them, and she could do more than merely hear it. She sensed her mom’s heart beating from the inside. … Beneath it all was a deep sense of protectiveness that was anchored so firmly in her mother’s physical being that Reese couldn’t miss it if she tried. (210)
Reese begins to acquire the ability to resonate with, and infold into her body, a kind of affective intensity from the person she has contact with – and it is this affective connection that brings Reese and David together toward the end of the novel. They cannot hide their feelings from each other as each can feel intimately exactly what the other desires. As Reese and David explore their attraction and the posthuman changes to their bodies, they find they are able to communicate both telepathically, and physically: something that the reader eventually learns is common to all Imrians.
These posthuman elements, clearly linked to the Imrian alien race at the novel’s end, play a notable role in how queer relationships are constructed. When Reese first tells Julian – her gay best friend – about dating Amber, Reese herself is uncertain that she is a lesbian, and similarly discards the identity category ‘bisexual’.
“I’m not gay,” she said, throat raw. “I’m just … not straight.”
“I knew it!” he crowed. “I totally knew it. And there’s a word for that, you know. Bisexual.”
“I don’t know,” she said reluctantly. “That seems pretty definite. Like: Yeah, I like both.”
The question made her squirm, and she peeled the lid off her coffee and blew on it. “I guess, but I don’t want to put a label on it.” (192)
Julian goes on to tell Reese how he hadn’t wanted to label himself either at first, but that was just because of uncertainty and fear. This effectively implies that at some point Reese will come round to the correct or ‘right’ way of thinking, by identifying with a particular identity category. In comparison, when Reese first asks Amber about her sexuality, Amber states:
“I’ve always known. I don’t think it’s useful to limit yourself to one gender.”
“So you like guys too?”
“Not so far. But never say never.”
“Are you out to your parents?”
“Yeah. They don’t care.”
There was something odd in the way Amber said it, but Reese didn’t want to push. (179)
In most LGBT young adult novels this kind of exchange usually signals a sub-plot revolving around the protagonist pushing hard to hear the ‘true’ coming out story of the other character, signalling the difficulty of re-telling that story and the act of coming out itself. One of the most transgressive elements of Lo’s series is that this doesn’t happen. Instead, the narrative reveals that Amber is in fact Imrian, and the daughter of the Imrian doctor who implanted Reese and David with alien DNA. Not only are Amber’s parents totally accepting of her fluid sexuality (as determined in Lo’s 2013 sequel Inheritance), but Reese also discovers it is normal for many Imria to have multiple relationships with many genders. This fact of the alien culture signals the queer potential garnered through a posthuman body. However, it is not only Imrian parents that respond positively to non-heteronormative relationships. When Reese tells her mother she is dating a woman, Reese is shocked that her mother’s response is encouraging, saying:
“What? I grew up in San Fransciso. You don’t think I’ve ever kissed a girl?”
Reese’s mouth dropped open. (208)
Although Reese’s mother is supportive of her relationship, the way this statement is constructed suggests that it is through geographical queer space that this support is afforded. The encouragement of same sex relationships in the human world of the story is seemingly predicated on the assumption that city spaces – particularly traditionally gay spaces like San Francisco – are tied to sexuality. In other words, ‘place’ more than ‘humanness’ is implied as a determining factor for openness and acceptance around queer engagement.
While there is the unfortunate cliché of Amber – who, unlike Reese, openly identifies as gay – pushing the relationship too quickly, Adaptation presents a welcome image of queer teenage relationships through the lens of the ‘posthuman’. In Lo’s sequel Inheritance, Reese goes on to date both David and Amber at the same time. Although Inheritance is relatively didactic in its effort to encourage readers to align with such a non-normative relationship, it is nonetheless remarkable that this series ends with a functional polygamous relationship where each character is being satisfied within the relationship. The affective engagement of posthuman bodies in Adaptation and Inheritance therefore works to drive the narrative beyond traditional heteronormative modes, promoting queer possibilities to the young implied reader.
It should be noted, however, that whilst I champion the promotion of non-normative relationships in the novel, it is not without considerable complication. This is a series that works to promote transgressive modes of how we conceptualise body, sexuality, and identity for young people, but the question must be asked whether the books also suggest that it is only through the use of posthuman bodies that queer relationships become successful. The articulation of Reese’s girlfriend as alien, her boyfriend as posthuman, and their connection through posthuman communication positions the implied reader to view open and accepted queer relationships as a manifestation of alien DNA.
Fortunately, it is not all posthuman doom and gloom for queer young adult readers. While these texts do promote queerness primarily through posthuman bodies, they also both actively and implicitly raise the important question of how human bodies and modes of communication may defy normative structures of sexuality and identity. In the very posing of that question, I see Lo’s work as a significant contribution to the growing body of YA science fiction texts.
Battis, J. 2008. “Captain Tightpants: Firefly and the Science Fiction Canon,” Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies 25, 7.1 [online]. Available at: http://slayageonline.com/PDF/Battis3.pdf [Accessed 25 July 2014]
Landon, B. 1997. Science Fiction after 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars. Twayne, New York.
Lo, M. 2012. Adaptation, Little, Brown and Company, New York.
Lo, M. 2013. Inheritance, Little, Brown and Company, New York.
Mendlesohn, F. 2004, “Is There Any Such Thing as Children’s Science Fiction?: A Position Piece,” The Lion and the Unicorn 28(2): 284-313.
Ostry, E. 2004. “‘Is He Still Human? Are You?’: Young Adult Science Fiction in the Posthuman Age,” The Lion and the Unicorn 28(2): 222-246.
Lara Hedberg is a PhD candidate and sessional tutor at Deakin University. She is currently undertaking a research fellowship at the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany. With research interests including the intersection of children’s literature and queer theory, Lara’s thesis explores sexuality in young adult fantasy fiction.