Book Review: Spare and Found Parts, Sarah Maria Griffin (2016)

October 5th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

“From my heart and from my hand and / Why don’t people understand my intention?”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

There are three rules:
1. The sick in the Pale, the healed in the Pasture.
2. Contribute, at all cost.
3. All code is blasphemy.

It came together at her will, and a cocktail of delight and pride swelled inside her. She would hold this hand. She would be held by this hand.

“I am your maker,” you say. I open my eyes again and … love. Yes, this is love. Your hand is wrapped around mine. This is what it is to be alive.

— 3.5 stars —

Nell Crane’s life is tick-tick-ticking away around her. There is the audible, literal tick: the sound of her robotic heart beating. The sound that sustains her life – at least for now – but also sets her apart from her peers. Though almost all of the residents of the Pale are missing limbs, Nell is the only one whose deformity is hidden on the inside. And, unlike the biomechanical prostheses worn by her peers, the failure of Nell’s augmentation could mean her death.

There’s also the metaphorical tick of time, spelled out in painful detail for Nell by her once-beloved (now insufferable) Nan. All citizens of Black Water City are expected to contribute to the city’s progress in some way. Instead of traditional schooling, kids take on apprenticeships; by their late teen years, they’re expected present a contribution to the city council; marry a compatible someone and help with his or her project; move out to the Pasture; or do manual labor on Kate, the city’s answer to the Statue of Liberty. Contributions run the gamut, from nightclubs and bakeries to boost morale, to more practical projects, like health care and scientific advancements.

Nell’s parents did both: Kate is her late mother’s baby, Nell’s other sister; and Dr. Julius Crane invented the prosthetic limbs that everyone so proudly wears today. Their legacy is the albatross wrapped tightly around Nell’s neck, slowly but surely strangling her. How can she – a cranky, moody loner – possibly live up to the Sterling-Crane family name?

The answer comes in a plastic mannequin hand, washed up on the shore of the Livia River; in a herd of ancient elephants, genetically altered to have an impossibly long life span; and in contraband electronic music, recovered in secret in the Lighthouse. Nell will build her own boy, out of spare and found (or should I say scavenged and stolen?) parts. He will be her contribution – and her only friend. He will communicate with the long-dead computers and share his knowledge with the citizens of Black Water City. A sentient computer in boy form, he will show them that there’s nothing to fear in letters and number and code. Together, they just might change the world.

So this is a really interesting book. The plot’s a lot more complicated than I’d expected, in ways both good and bad.

Nell’s a misanthropic little firecracker. While I both liked and could identify with her, I didn’t entirely understand why her particular biomechanical part would single her out for such fear and ridicule. If anything, the fact that you can’t see her synthetic part should make Nell a little more normal; healed and fit for the Pasture, no? Or maybe it was the obtrusive ticking and long, angry scar that was really the issue?

I absolutely loved the interactions between Nell and Io; these scenes made the book for me. The bulk of the story is written in third-person/present tense, but these chapters are interspersed with much shorter scenes that challenge the reader to live difference episodes of Nell’s life as Nell; to see things from her perspective, in the most fundamental sense. (“The first thing is you are ten years old. Your last summer in the Pasture is rose and tender until it is sour and wrong.”)

These chapters are a wonderful surprise, but things get even better when the focus shifts to Nell’s android, Io. As exciting a challenge as it is to be asked to live another person’s life, imagine experiencing the world as another being: a newly born sentient computer. Io is all kinds of awesome, and his childlike wonder as he processes this new world around him is charming AF. Seriously, I just wanted to hug and squeeze and dance with him. (“Let’s hear it for the boy / Let’s give the boy a hand / Let’s hear it for my baby / You know you go to understand.”)

Music, in case you haven’t guessed as much, is a large part of the story. The death of the computers meant the death of a culture – or many of them, depending on what happened outside of Nell’s little island – including music. The very first computer Io reads is a “music box” containing a hundred thousand songs (give or take), which Io can play back for Nell. Though she loves these strange electronic songs, Nell’s ignorance (like Io’s wonder) is just the cutest:

“What is that song?” she ventured, hesitant to interrupt. Io turned to her, a mottled scrubber in his left hand and a rough brown mug in his right, dripping soapsuds, tiny bubbles, iridescent in the light streaming into the kitchen.

He cocked his head a little and replied, “‘Life on Mars,’ David Bowie, track four, side A, Hunky Dory, 1974.”

Nell was dumbstruck for a moment, then couldn’t help laughing. “I have no idea what you just said. That is the longest song name I have ever heard!”

It’s not entirely accurate to say that Io is Nell’s first and only friend; there’s also Ruby Underwood, who lives across the way, and Oliver Kelly, who apprenticed with Dr. Julian Crane alongside Nell (and much to her annoyance) and has propositioned her some nineteen times in the interim. Okay, so Oliver isn’t a friend, though I guess he could be (in the theoretical sequel, anyway). But he hangs around a lot and generally makes a nuisance of himself.

Though Nell is steadfast in her rejection of Oliver, I worried for most of the book that she would cave by story’s end and the two would live happily ever after (gag!)…thus reinforcing the popular tropes that stalking is romantic; “no” means “yes” (or, at the very least, “ask again later”); and it’s perfectly fine for dudes to ignore a woman’s wishes. All of which contributes to rape culture and exists on the same continuum as more “harmful” transgressions, including sexual assault.

THANKFULLY, Nell and Oliver do not end up together (though there’s a great twist that really throws this effed up dynamic into stark relief). Major bonus points to Griffin for that.

What I didn’t like: the world-building, which is hella confusing. The story takes place one hundred-odd years in the future, in the wake of a rather weird and puzzling apocalypse. Apparently the vast majority of humans became too reliant on computers – which were just becoming sentient – so another group of people (the world governments, maybe?) sent out a electromagnetic pulse to kill the machines (the “Turn”)? And then there was some sort of an epidemic that poisoned the environment and caused birth defects in humans? And the animals are mostly all gone too? Except for elephants, who somehow survive on a small island even though they require vast spaces to roam and travel up to thirty miles a day? (But I digress.) And we can’t resurrect computers due to possible aftershocks? Huh?

Also, there’s a Pasture for healthy, healed, and mystical people (healed? do some people spontaneously regrow limbs?) and the Pale for manual laborers and those sporting “gross” computer parts. Yet there isn’t any resentment among the worker drones … who are basically maginalized by the Pasture peeps for their disabilities? Does not pass the smell test.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Nell is biracial – though it’s hard to tell, since this seems to be a post-racial society. Race isn’t really discussed, anyway. Whereas Dr. Julian Crane has pale skin, Cora Starling-Crane was brown-skinned. Nell is brown-skinned like her mother, and her grandmother Nan, a healer who lives out in the Pasture (the country). In this post-apocalyptic world, everyone in the Pale (the city) who survived the epidemic is missing a limb: an arm here, or a leg there. Many people wear biomechanical limbs developed by Nell’s father. Nell’s best friend, Ruby Underwood, is missing an eye; she decided against augmentation.

Oliver Kelly is adopted; his moms, the proprietors of the morgue and flower shop, respectively, are a lesbian couple. Again, same-sex relationships don’t seem to be a big deal in Black Water City; for example, when Ruby teases Nell about her romantic life, she references both boys and girls (and the joke isn’t in liking girls, but liking anyone; Nell is one antisocial duck). Nell herself wonders if she might be flirting with Antoinette during a fight, yet this doesn’t cause any sort of identity crisis; rather, same-sex relationships are treated as normal, same as opposite-sex ones.

Nic Fern, one of the tech aficionados, is androgynous in appearance; Nell refers to zher with gender-neutral pronouns (they, them, their).

Animal-friendly elements: Nell builds a sentient android, but what rights Io is entitled to (if any) isn’t a topic that’s broached.

 

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