Book Review: The Illegal Rebirth of Billy the Kid, Rebecca Ore (1991)

November 8th, 2013 12:14 pm by Kelly Garbato

Of Mythoconstructs and Men

four out of five stars

* Caution: minor spoilers ahead! Also, trigger warning for discussions of rape. *

Billy the Kid keeps dying.

Night after night, it seems, Sheriff Pat Garrett guns down Henry McCarty in Pete Maxwell’s darkened bedroom – after, of course, an evening romp with Celsa Gutierrez, one of The Kid’s many female admirers. But bleeding through these “real” memories come images of a distant, nightmare world: a trocar jammed in Billy’s neck. A coffin filled with a warm salt bath. Dozens of Celsas: always the same, but different. A man – Pat Garrett, but not really – spying, killing, reviving. “Like a God.”

Henry McCarty has been dead for centuries, but in 2067 his memories – or rather, the history books’ construction of them – live on in a Billy the Kid chimera. Commonly referred to as “nonhumans,” “animals,” and “dog meat,” chimeras are beings made out of “rebuilt” animal cells. Purchased by wealthy civilians as pets and exploited by the government as “meat-robot” spies, many chimera look physically human – though they can be made to a variety of weird specifications (Luna, for example, has fangs like a vampire). While their DNA is indistinguishable from that of “real” humans, by law the DNA of chimeras must be branded with a special DNA marker. The recreation of criminal personalities is outlawed.

Simon Boyle, a chimera technician for the CIA, made his illegal construct to earn a little extra money. Simon rents out Billy the Kid to rich women, who delight in forcing Billy to relive the last few hours of his life, over and over again, so that they can stand in as his last sexual partner. All goes according to plan until one of these “Joans” steals Billy and he escapes into the world. Now the hunt is on: rogue maker Simon must recapture his chimera before the CIA discovers his betrayal. Caught in the middle is Jane, an employee at the SPCA, which cares for wayward chimera until their “owners” come to reclaim them – or they can be ferried away to safety on a cultural park or Buddhist preserve.

A unique piece of alternate history, Rebecca Ore’s The Illegal Rebirth of Billy the Kid broaches a number of questions – including the search for identity, the nature of consent, and what it means to be human – without fully resolving any of them.

Chimera Billy, for example, is best described as a sex slave – he was created for the expressed purpose of being pimped out, raped, time and again – as are many “pet” chimeras. Yet a human cannot legally be said to rape a chimera and, in many cases, chimera are created with the inability to even say no; they are conditioned to enjoy and even desire their own abuse. Luna is a constant visitor to the SPCA; her most recent stay is instigated by an especially brutal attack wherein her owner ripped one of her fangs from her mouth with a pair of pliers. Despite the SPCA’s offer of relocation, Luna continues to return to her human, who the staff believes will eventually kill her. “Don’t they make you feel happy when they hurt you? I think it’s illegal not to,” Luna asks Billy.

Killing chimera? Also not a crime. But a chimera who harms a human – or commits any number of minor offenses, such as theft – may be sentenced to death (bringing to mind the animal trials that continued into the 18th century).

The cultural construction and romanticization of Billy the Kid is also a key element of the story; the chimera isn’t Henry McCarty per se, but rather a “mythoconstruct” built on the Billy the Kid legends. Because he’s physically true to type – short, with small hands and feet, and almost comical buck teeth – Simon’s customers aren’t buying Billy for his beauty, but rather the mythology surrounding this historic figure. It’s significant, then, that it’s always his last night that the women choose to replay: they’re aroused by the tragedy of it all. Through it all, the chimera struggles to find himself – uncover his own personality, make his own true memories – among the fragments of Billy the Kid. When Lisa, his rescuer-slash-thief, reconnects with Billy at story’s end, she remarks, “You don’t seem as innocent as you were, as fresh.” In becoming an actualized person, he’s ceased being Lisa’s fantasy of the Historic Billy (as chimera Billy has come to think of his doppleganger).

In many ways, The Illegal Rebirth of Billy the Kid is an indictment of the cult of celebrity worship, while also pointing out the depravity inherent in fetishizing the (presumed) pain and misfortune suffered by another.

There also exist some rather interesting parallels between the push for chimera rights in the future, and the present-day animal liberation movement. The language used to refer to chimera is dehumanizing, likening them to nonhuman animals rather than humans – much as the language we apply to nonhumans suggests that they are somethings rather than someones. Chimera are “dog meat,” “pets,” and “toys”; the doctors who treat them are “vets”; and they are cared for at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which seems to have ceased rescuing “lesser” animals like dogs and cats. (Or perhaps future dogs and cats are all lab-created as well.) The “Animal Defense” underground smuggles especially endangered chimera to safety. While Buddhists, like Catholics, view chimera as animals, the difference is that the Buddhist philosophy of non-violence extends to human and non-human animals alike.

Weirdly enough, by story’s end Jane has begun breeding “fighting cocks” with Billy, in order to while away the decades of boredom she’s facing living an old-fashioned existence on an agricultural park. I guess this suggests that her career rescuing chimera at the SPCA was more about nonconformity than compassion, but it’s a disturbing twist nonetheless.

Gendered slurs are common, both from Billy (unsurprising, given the time period from which he hails) and Simon (at one point, Billy’s internal monologue brings him to the realization that “the man who made him had weird ideas about women”) – but also Buddhist Yaffe (boo!), from whom such sexist language seems out of character. Additionally, Jane refers to an Asian man as “Oriental” – and the author, to someone of biracial heritage as a “half-breed” – derogatory terms which I thought had fallen out of favor by 1991. Also a general trigger warning for rape, which is a fundamental part of the story.

3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 on Amazon.

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