A Solid SciFi Story for the Tween Set
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)
The emptiness of the world outside told her that the last story of her people had ended badly.
For as long as she can remember, Nita has lived in the east wing of the Kwalung-Ibarra Institute with her furred, cat-like guardian, Llipel. Their only company is the robotic gardeners that maintain the grounds; the artificial intelligence that controls the Institute; and, later, a cat retrieved from the cold room for Nita. Llipel’s companion and fellow space traveler Llare occupies the west wing, but the two only communicate through the mind, and then only when necessary: this being their time of separation, Llipel and Llare are compelled to pursue solitude – from members of their own species, if nothing else.
As far as Nita knows, she’s the last remaining human on earth. That is, until she attempts to call Llare on the intercom and is stunned to find a furless face staring back at her. On the cusp of womanhood – no longer a child, but not yet an adult – Nita makes a shocking discovery: there’s a human boy named Sven just a stone’s throw away. And, for some reason that neither of them understand, both their guardians have kept the presence of the other a secret from their charges.
Emboldened by her new friend, Nita eagerly tries to unravel the mystery of their existence. The library located in the west wing – Sven and Llare’s wing – tells her the story of humanity’s rise – and fall: an escalating series of wars that eventually ended with the extinction of h. sapiens. That is, until Llipel and Llare stumbled upon the Institute – a former laboratory and cryonics facility – and accidentally activated the embryos that would eventually become Nita and Sven.
As Llipel and Llare’s time of solitude draws to a close, Nita and Sven must decide what to do with their lives – not to mention humanity, whose future almost literally rests in their hands. Will they go the way of their ancestors, and succumb to their most violent and base impulses? Or will compassion and hope prevail?
Though it’s a little young for me, Alien Child is an engaging and relevant science fiction story for the tween set. When first we meet Nita, she’s just a toddler, giving the story a middle grade feel. However, as she grows older (and meets Sven, and discovers s-e-x), Alien Child starts to feel a bit more like YA – but on the younger end of the spectrum. Say, junior high?
The story tackles many issues intrinsic to adolescence – understanding your changing body; relating to others around you, especially members of the opposite sex; finding your place in the world; grappling with the mistakes of those who have come before you and trying not to repeat them; feelings of loneliness, isolation, and alienation. Especially interesting is how Sargent navigates issues of sexual desire, expectations, and consent; while far from perfect, it’s not bad considering neither protagonist has taken a sex ed. or women’s studies class. If anything, it provides a useful jumping-off point for parents to explore such issues with their kids (and teachers, their students).
Pro tip: while I do include a trigger warning for rape here, as the scene between Nita and Sven might be troubling to some readers, there isn’t actually a rape scene. No sex scene either. However, there is an attempted sexual assault in which Nita has to fend off a clueless, fumbling, and victim-blaming Sven.
Weirdly enough, I enjoyed the story more before Sven entered the picture; and once the two left to explore the world beyond the Institute, my attention started to wane. There’s quite a bit of repetition of detail in their arguments, which slows the story down. And Sven is a bit of a pill. Much more interesting are their respective relationships with their alien caretakers.
The future of humanity? Yeah, that didn’t excite me as much. I would have lived a full life exploring the world and let humanity die with me. I mean just look how beautiful and wild and free the rest of earth’s creatures are without us! It’s a no-brainer.
I particularly appreciate the book’s diversity. (It was the book’s cover that initially drew me in.) Nita has dark, curly hair and “dark-brown” skin; later we learn that her “parents” were named Juanita Gutierrez and Robert Kufakunesu, and that her father was a native African. (A specific country would be nice, but you can’t win ’em all.) There’s much confusion about Llipel and Llare’s gender; whereas Nita thinks of Llipel as a “she,” Sven genders Llare male like himself. However, there’s no real indication that they’re either/or; in Llipel and Llare’s species, the concept of gender seems to be fundamentally different from ours. Likewise, when they meet the humanoid alien Raen (“golden-skinned,” with “short black hair” and “pale, yellowish eyes”), zhe is androgynous as well.
3.5 stars, rounded down to 3 where necessary.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Yes! Nita has dark, curly hair and “dark-brown” skin; later we learn that her “parents” were named Juanita Gutierrez and Robert Kufakunesu, and that her father was a native African. Likewise, the founders of the Kwalung-Ibarra Institute – Kwalung Chun and Ferdinand Ibarra – were both people of color.
There’s much confusion about Llipel and Llare’s gender; whereas Nita thinks of Llipel as a “she,” Sven genders Llare male like himself. However, there’s no real indication that they’re either/or; in Llipel and Llare’s species, the concept of gender seems to be fundamentally different from ours. Likewise, when they meet the humanoid alien Raen (“golden-skinned,” with “short black hair” and “pale, yellowish eyes”), zhe is androgynous as well.
Sven’s the only white, cisgendered, heterosexual male in the whole book. Yay!
Animal-friendly elements: Kind of; it’s a mixed bag. Nita and Sven express disgust at their ancestor’s violence – including that towards nonhuman animals, e.g., riding horses into their endless wars (but not domesticating horses to begin with). When she accidentally kills a bird with her stun gun, Nita is distressed. She loves her cat Dusky, but she doesn’t seem to connect the cat’s imprisonment in the cold room to the violence of animal experimentation. Their diet consists of items manufactured for them by the Institute’s AI; and, while some of it looks to be animal-based food (fish), presumably it’s all made of plant materials. Nita seems appalled that people would unnecessarily kill and consume animals; yet she’s all too willing to adopt that lifestyle so that she and Sven may travel. While there are a few animal-friendly elements here and there, Nita’s attitudes towards animals are contradictory at best.