I recently read and reviewed (for VOYA) a debut YA novel called The Color of Rain, by Cori McCarthy. It was decently-written (“a not-bad book”) but there was something about it that kept bugging me, and it wasn’t until I finished it and started writing the review that I realized what it was. It had to do with expectations, and that got me thinking about that in a larger context.
First, about the book: it’s a science fiction book, set in some unknown future time in which space travel exists. Rain and her brother Walker live in Earth City (which may or may not be actually on planet Earth). Walker, like many other residents of Earth City, including their dead parents, is “Touched”; that is, his mind is going. It appears to be something like a very early-onset Alzheimer’s. The Touched are, well, untouchables. They are rounded up and taken away, and Rain wants to protect Walker from that at all costs. In fact, Rain wants to get Walker away from Earth City and to the Edge, where there is hope for a cure.
In order to accomplish this, Rain makes a deal with a spaceship runner named Johnny: “whatever you have for whatever you need.” What Rain needs is to get off-planet with Walker. What she has is her body. So that’s the deal she makes with Johnny. She becomes one of Johnny’s girls, bound to him by an electronic bracelet. The girl whose bracelet glows red is Johnny’s favorite; green means elite–they’re offered to Johnny’s hand-picked clients; blue girls trade themselves to the passengers for money; yellow girls are relegated to the crew deck.
Yes, it’s “Prostitutes in Space.” There is, of course, lots more going on. Rain, with the help of one of Johnny’s bodyguards, a sweet “Mec” (mechanically enhanced human) named Ben, discovers that the hold is loaded with Touched that are to be sold, lobotomized, and used as disposable labor units, and she conspires with Ben to release them. Meanwhile, she tries to keep on Johnny’s good side in order to keep Walker alive and healthy. There’s action, intrigue, and some romance. There are some interesting moral questions about how we make decisions. All in all, as I said, a not-bad book.
But here’s the thing: I realized that I was having trouble with the fact that this was a science fiction book in which every single woman character was a sex object, and only a sex object. “Wait a minute,” my brain kept whispering to me, “this is supposed to be the future. Men and women are supposed to be equal in the future. Spaceships are supposed to have female officers and crew, along with the men.”
Yes, I know there’s Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, and I’m sure there are other books set in the future in which women are objectified and demeaned. But I think there has been a long-standing trend in science fiction to show a different kind of future and a different kind of relationship between men and women. Even Robert Heinlein, who was pretty much a sexist pig (at least in his writing; I know nothing about his personal life) had female sex objects who were smart and clever and had positions of power.
So reading The Color of Rain got me thinking about the expectations we bring to certain genres and types of stories, and what happens when those expectations aren’t met. I know there are people who simply won’t read a book if it thwarts their expectations. I’m kind of inclined to admire McCarthy here for turning a convention on its head, and I’m curious about how and why she came up with this idea.
I may have more to say on this topic, but I’m still mulling it over. How about you? Any examples of books that defied your expectations in a good (or bad) way?