Young adult science fiction can be hit or miss. Each genre tag is a challenge by itself; with science fiction, unless you’re already a scientist, you have to be able to speak the technical language to be taken seriously. With YA, the task is the same, just inverted — if your characters are young, you must inhabit the headspace of a teenager without coming off as an Tryhard Old™. YA sci-fi, then, is akin to walking a razor’s edge authority-wise: be brilliant and naïve simultaneously, or risk losing your audience from the jump.
Portland-based author Emily Suvada walks this line better than any YA author I’ve read with her in-progress trilogy, the second book of which, This Cruel Design, was published last month. Along with its predecessor, This Mortal Coil, the series rivals The Hunger Games for its whirlwind life-or-death drama, while giving the carefully crafted science of Orphan Black a run for its money. The instant I finished This Mortal Coil last summer — usually an abominably slow reader, I devoured each of these over a weekend — I wanted to get it into the hands of every teenager I know. (Full disclosure: Suvada and I share a literary agent, but we’ve never met.)
Some spoilers follow for This Mortal Coil (but not This Cruel Design).
The books take place in a future America where gene-hacking is a consumer technology. Almost everyone on earth is implanted at birth with a biotech “panel,” which grows in a person’s body and hosts code and apps that can do everything from curing chronic illness to changing one’s physical appearance and abilities. (These apps don’t fundamentally change a person’s DNA, but rather wrap around and mask it — usually.)
One mega-corporation, Cartaxus, sells and distributes proprietary gene-hacking apps, while plenty of ordinary citizens around the world code their own “non-standard” apps to upgrade themselves how they see fit. People have a whole variety of ideas about the ethical limitations of gene-hacking — with fringier communities pushing the boundaries of the human form in radical ways, giving themselves animal attributes like scales or sharpened teeth — but the majority of people stick to standard cosmetic and medical upgrades.
When the story begins, a curiously horrific pandemic is fast overtaking the world, a virus that has thus far been resistant to vaccine attempts, and seemingly as a result of biotech meddling: it attacks the host’s DNA until every cell in the person’s body explodes in a plume of red mist. If that wasn’t bad enough, the only way to temporarily protect oneself against infection is to eat the flesh of an infected person; the scent of the infected inspires an instinctual, cannibalistic bloodlust in the uninfected known as “The Wrath” that compels them toward the unspeakable inoculation.
Cartaxus has herded roughly a billion people around the world into the corporation’s massive underground bunkers, where they are ostensibly protected from the virus — the catch is, only Cartaxus-approved tech is allowed inside, so to be welcomed into a bunker, one must wipe all non-standard apps from one’s panel. This poses a problem for countless millions with hacker-designed apps that treat or cure rare diseases and conditions, apps that Cartaxus has not deemed worthwhile to design and release itself.
18-year-old Catarina Agatta is one of these. As the daughter of Dr. Lachlan Agatta, one of the world’s most brilliant gene-hackers, Catarina has been told she has hypergenesis, an extremely rare autoimmune condition that acts like an allergy and keeps her from hacking her own panel, despite being an incredibly skilled hacker in her own right. Her father — who for decades worked for Cartaxus developing its biotech, including the panels themselves — has customized her panel himself over the years; it contains simple medical code but otherwise is incredibly limited, and because of her disease, all of it is non-standard.
Lachlan has holed the two up, along with his research assistant Dax, in a remote North Dakota cabin to escape the grasp of Cartaxus, which wants to re-recruit him against his will to develop a proprietary vaccine and which would force Cat to wipe her panel to join him, a fate Lachlan says would kill her. Instead, the trio spend their days working on an open-source vaccine themselves, one that would be available to everyone — rather than solely bunker inhabitants, as a Cartaxus vaccine would be distributed — through a “rebellion” network of free-thinking hackers called the Skies, which regularly hacks Cartaxus bunkers to bring life-saving code to those on the surface.
Of course, Cartaxus finds them after a few years; it captures both Lachlan and Dax and spirits them away to one of their bunkers, leaving Cat on her own in the wilderness, waiting for the virus to reach her. Before it does, however, a Cartaxus black-out agent rolls up. A young soldier who relinquishes his or her panel to the corporation to be filled to the brim with deadly and powerful abilities and reflexes that trigger instinctively and on the company’s commands, Cole has been secretly dispatched by her father to help her obtain what she needs to crack the vaccine. But he also ends up having been a subject of Lachlan’s Cartaxus experiments when he was a child, the first of countless revelations that end up calling into question Catarina’s whole life — including her very identity.
The story that unravels from there is one that, in the hands of a lesser writer, could have been drowned in a deluge of exposition. Written in first person present, Catarina’s young yet brilliant stream of consciousness belies Suvada’s own studies in math and astrophysics. Cat is advanced enough to expound on genetic concepts and save lives in medical emergencies, but naïve enough to take her relationships and her past at face value, only to be torn asunder by the countless revelations that unfold (and will no doubt continue to in the third book, which, at the current rate, is likely to be published next year).
Meanwhile, deeply troubling themes around bioethics and technological innovation permeate every corner with admirable attention to detail, from questions of bodily autonomy and consent in genetic research (including some serious implications of medical racism!) to Frankenstein-esque questions about how far scientists and corporations should really allow their ambitions to take them. It’s easy to see traces of today’s tech moguls in these stories’ villains, particularly in their megalomaniacal pursuit of “bettering humanity,” even if it means superseding humanity’s choice in the matter at any cost.
The best genre stories are ones that challenge you, that believe you are smart and capable of keeping up with them. This Mortal Coil and This Cruel Design deliver this in a way that few YA series do; they expect more of young readers than almost anything I read as a tween, but do so in a way that’s accessible and satisfying. (The one thirteen-year-old I did actually buy the first book for has already read it at least three times and lent it to a friend — hi, Stella!) Suvada herself has expounded on her own process on Twitter, in particular a technique she describes as peaks, promises, and bombshells that make the books move at a breakneck pace; sometimes that pacing can be exhausting — everything happens so much — but isn’t that exactly what life feels like these days?