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So You Want To Be Human

I’m a reader, not a reviewer, so I don’t often talk about the books I read here on my blog. But today I’m making an exception, as I play host to a stop on Simon & Schuster’s “So You Want To Be Human” blog tour.

There are three of us authors with new science fiction books out from S&S: S.J. Kincaid with The Diabolic, Simon Curtis with Boy Robot, and me, with The Swan Riders. They are three wildly different books, but they all have some characters who are human, some characters who are not, and some making uneasy crossings of the line. Today I get to talk about The Diabolic.

The Diabolic is something we don’t see much in YA fiction: straight up science fiction without a whiff of dystopian, a far-future space opera. It’s set in a decadent and declining galactic empire that to my classically inclined eye evokes the fall of Rome. The divides between the ruling classes and the plebes are steep, almost unbreechable. (They literally live on different planets — or rather the underlings live on planets, and the ruling classes live on large constructions in space.) Physical excess — food, drugs, body mods — are everywhere. Sporting events come with casualties. And you guys remember Caligula, who poisoned his grandmother, executed his father-in-law, and his horse made a priest? He’s got nothing on the Galactic Emperor.

Into this world is born a Senator’s daughter who’s entirely too gentle for her own good — though perhaps not as innocent as she seems. Her name is Sidonia. To protect her, her parents order up a Diabolic — constructed from human DNA, yes, but altered to be strong, fast, and predatory, and programmed from birth to be loyal only to one person. Once the Diabolic, Nemesis, imprints on Sidonia, that’s that. Protecting Sidonia is Nemesis’s only purpose. She will never feel any other need. She certainly never fall in love.

But one thing leads to another and Nemesis must leave Sidonia and pretend to BE Sidonia. Pretend to be weak and obedient and easily shocked. Pretend to be a Senator's daughter. Pretend to be human.

Sidonia has always considered Nemesis human, but no one else ever has -- least of all Nemesis herself. Her task seems impossible, but is it? Is she human?

That is of course the central question of the novel: can we be more than what were made to be? Do we have a choice in the matter? Spoiler: it wouldn’t be much of a book if the answers to those questions were “no.”

But it also wouldn’t be much of a book if finding those answers weren’t a struggle. We’ve all got things that define us, though we didn’t choose them. Many of us have at least one such that we struggle against, or at least struggle to understand. That struggle, like Nemesis’s struggle, is often sharply painful.

My favourite things about this book are the world building — I’m a sucker for a big, immersive world — and for its eat-it-up-like popcorn twisty political plot. But if it has a central strength, it’s that old Philip K. Dick trick: it takes big questions like nature vs. nurture, the existence or nonexistence of freewill, and the unknowable spark that defines us as human or inhuman, and makes them literal in the plot. For instance: is Nemesis unemotional and predatory by nature, or was she carefully trained to be that way? Even if she was trained, does it matter, if the training can’t be broken?

There’s no medium like science fiction for asking these questions. We can explore the boundary of what it means to be human by telling the stories of people who must cross it.

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