Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sometimes You Should Stop at the First Book: My Review of "Monsters of Men" by Patrick Ness

Recently Requires Only That You Hate, one of the best book blogs that I read (okay, so it's the only book blog that I read), put up a post about why she's done with YA. I may have recently reached my limit with YA science fiction as well, after spending my morning finishing Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness, a book that was so disappointing it made me downrate the rest of the series in retrospect, much like the third season of Star Trek to some extent invalidates the previous two seasons. A book that made me have so many strong emotions (most of them negative) that I'm breaking my ban on book blogging to write this! This is really more of a review of the series as a whole, although most of the hate falls to the third book because that's where things really fell apart. So yes, SPOILERS AHOY, although only dweebs care about spoilers.

I picked up the first book in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, because it won the Tiptree Award and I'm trying to read through the Tiptree Award winners because, why not? There's too much on both the Hugo and Nebula winners' list that I know I'm going to hate, so I'm never going to do a systematic read-through of either of those awards. Anyway, TKONLG centers around a religious community that colonizes a planet. When they get there, they discover two surprises: there's a native species on the planet, and they can hear the thoughts of everything in the world... except human women. We never learn why women are exempted from this involuntary telepathy (although I was desperately hoping to learn it at some point), but the effects of this exemption are more important. Men's distrust of women leads to gender segregation in some areas, all-out war in others, and in the main character's community, to gendercide, of the women by the men, although one would think that the tactical advantage of silence would give ladies the upper hand. Not so!

So the book opens with the main character, Todd, who has never seen a woman and is basically waiting to die on this crapsack world with maybe a hundred or so angry men on it. Soon, though, he learns that there's more to the world than just his town, and he meets a girl, Viola, who he believes is less than human because of her lack of Noise, yet somehow feels drawn to help her anyway. We all learn something about sexism, and there's a lot of chase and actions scenes because well, this is YA. The most interesting part of the first book for me was learning about how the other towns on New World "dealt with their women," and I bet it was these glimpses at an extreme (if invisible) sexual dimorphism through the eyes of an innocent person that won this book the Tiptree. It probably deserved it, although I don't know what else was nominated that year.

In the second book things... kinda fall apart, although not completely. The focus shifts toward two groups, the male, town-based Army of the Ask led by the mustache-twirling Mayor Prentiss, and the mostly female, woods-based Answer, who are portrayed as terrorists, although it's a justifiable terrorism. I mean, man, when a megalomaniac takes over your town for no reason other than bein' crazy, and pretty much starts right away with the business of oppressing women, who wouldn't be a terrorist? One of the things that annoyed me about the second book was that the Ask and the Answer are seen as being two sides of the same coin when, no, that's not true at all. AFAICT, the women in the largest town (Haven) were pretty much just chilling, not really being oppressed at all, when crazy old Mayor Prentiss rides in and turns their world upside down. It's hinted that it's only because of the tacit approval of the men of Haven that he's able to accomplish this takeover, but I think again, it doesn't go far enough, whether because Ness didn't want to alienate male readers or because he himself is male.

Third book, though, hoo boy. We've totally abandoned the interesting gender speculation of the first and part of the second book, and it's all about WAR WAR WAR. We also have a new first-person viewpoint character in the person of 1017, one of the Spackle, the humanoid (blah) native species of the planet who, again, have such a strong tactical and population advantage over the Earthicans that in reality this book should have been like five pages long. "There's tens of millions of Spackle to 1000 Earth beings. The end." But because the Spackle aren't a ruthless species (like human men... dunno if this was meant to be the point but that's what I took away from it), there's instead 600 pages of drawn-out battle scenes handled even more awkwardly than the battle scenes in Mockingjay (and that's saying a lot... Suzanne Collins your books are enjoyable in many ways but that city warfare is terrible!). Adding the VP of the Spackle does almost nothing for the book except reinforce that writing non-human characters is extremely difficult and something that almost nobody should try, because 99% of the time it comes off as hokey. That's no different here. Bonus points for the Spackle not being an alien stand-in for Native Americans but they don't appear to have much culture at all. It makes sense that they're monocultural, because a telepathic, quasi-hivemind species wouldn't have developed different religions or languages or rituals (it's also stated that the leader has control over the world-mind), but they don't have much of a culture, period, other than being humanoids who walk like us, ride animals around like us, fire gun-like weapons like us, etc. Writing intelligent aliens who aren't just humans in costume is really fucking hard which is why I don't do it. But hey, at least they're not Native Americans!

So anyway, both the Mayor and the leader of the Answer become pretty cartoonishly evil over the course of this book, and nobody plugs either of them, under the belief that doing so would make them (especially Todd, who is already on the road to evil due to his maleness) as bad as the adults. Uh, what? Dude, at some point, the refusal to kill isn't a virtue, it's a sickness. Anyway, there's a showdown between Todd, Viola, and the Mayor, which involves Todd and Viola flinging each others' names at him in succession, making me think of another character from a series that declined in quality as it went along:

WAAAAALLLLTTTTTTtttttttt....!!!

But then came the part of Monsters of Men that I thought was inexcusable, the reason I'm writing this review. 1017 comes upon Todd and Viola on the beach after the Mayor's suicide (spoilers!) and thinks Todd is the Mayor, so shoots him. Todd is established as being dead. 1017 is shown to be devastated over this even though Todd is a member of the species who enslaved him and killed thousands of his people. (But the colonists will be good THIS time! Pinky swear!) Meanwhile, Todd comes back from the dead, and at the end of the book is in a vegetative state that we're led to believe is temporary. So basically, Ness led us down a path where the plot seemed to dictate that Todd HAD to die, he had to die to leave us with the knowledge that war can be so devastating that it can up and kill one of your main viewpoint characters, and then totally ruined that ending. What a freakin' copout, and I daresay it wouldn't have happened in a book not marketed as YA.

So yeah, the plot was disappointing, but so were a lot of other elements. While I don't like to be "that person" who whinges about improper science in my science fiction books, the question about why women don't have Noise gnawed at me and the fact that it wasn't answered was like breaking Rule #1 of creating your science fiction world. It can be a bullshit explanation (and what SF explanations aren't?), but it has to be there, or at least be commented upon. At the end, it's assumed that the men and Earth animals will join with the Spackle in some hippy-dippy communal voice that will create a peaceful paradise lasting for all time... but when Viola asks "hey, what about the ladies?" it's merely hinted that they'll, like, learn how to use Noise. Stop bothering us with your stupid questions, girlie!

Also totally missing from the book is any mention of religion, except that their religion is what caused the colonists to take the oh-so-convenient step of destroying links to Old Earth. It's gotta be Christianity due to the colonists being almost all white and the houses of worship being called "churches," but no link is made between the original religious motivation for colonization and the consequent falling apart of society due to the gendercide and resultant fallout. You know what might have been interesting? Using the church as an explanation as to why it was so easy for the men to overpower the women despite their silent advantage, because paternalistic Christianity taught them to obey men. But that would have unsettled some Christian readers, I imagine, and been too "heavy" for a YA book.

One bright spot is the fact that there are several same-sex couples in this book handled without fanfare, both human and Spackle, although I really wondered how this fits in with the fact that the colonists are supposed to be religious fundamentalists. Perhaps New World was founded by fanatic Universal Unitarians? It's cancelled out, however, by the gender essentialism: my "looking for scientific answers in a YA book" mind originally assumed that all the native species on the planet were one-sex, which would have simplified the mechanics surrounding Noise, but instead the way Noise is handled made it seem like XX human beings were some kind of freaks. I think it speaks to a lack of imagination that the Spackle race has two sexes (although they don't appear to have gender). There are apparently no trans* humans on New World so I don't know how Ness would have dealt with their Noise.

So while I could have recommended the first book gladly, I can't really recommend the series, and unfortunately TKONLG ends with a major cliffhanger. I don't think this book will put me off YA entirely, but I think that this pattern of "excellent first book, okay second book, terrible third book" is something I've seen a LOT in the YA series I've read over the past few years: the aforementioned Hunger Games, the Uglies series. The underrated City of Ember remained at a high point throughout, but it's the only example I can think of right now. So maybe the rule for YA should be, read the first, make up your own ending? That sits a little too close to fanfiction for this extremely infrequent book reviewer.

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