Saturday, 28 January 2012

Spare Parts by Sally Rogers-Davidson

Cross posted from here.

This was actually a fairly difficult book to track down. When I first made my list of possible science fiction books by Australian women, many were out of print. This was one of them. Or so I thought at first, since it was published in 1999 and not readily available in the usual places. I actually found it on Audible in audiobook form (if you become a member, even briefly, it’s much cheaper to buy audiobooks from them, FYI). It was read by Suzi Dougherty, who has apparently also read many/most of John Marsden’s audiobooks. The Australian accent was appreciated since most audiofiction I come across, with a few British exceptions, is American.

But enough about the format.

Spare Parts is about Kelty, a 19 year old “C-grader” (in a caste system which goes down to D), whose prospects were reduced when she narrowly missed out on a place at university (because C-graders can only get in with scholarships). The book is set about a hundred years in the future in the sprawling suburbia of Melbourne, albeit a Melbourne more filled with high-rises and with even dodgier trains than at present.

When Kelty’s best friend is grievously injured in an industrial accident, Kelty decides to sell her body and join the space corps to save her friend. This is a world where the rich discard their old, decrepit (or sometimes merely slightly wrinkled) bodies and have their brains transplanted into the young bodies of people of the lower classes, for a nice fee. The people who’ve sold their bodies then get to have their brains transplanted into cyborg bodies. The catch? Cyborgs (or cybermorphs as is the politically correct term) aren’t allowed to live permanently on Earth.

When I first started reading, I thought this was a dystopian novel and was convinced that Kelty was going to discover that the evil A and B graders were killing the poor for their bodies and organs. It’s possible that I’ve read too many YA dystopias of late. To alleviate any confusion such as what I suffered, I want to make it clear that this is not really a dystopian novel. Sure, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine for the poor, criminals wear tracker bracelets which electrocute them if they feel angry (so they don’t attack bystanders) but it’s not terribly different to our world. The class boundaries are just a little more emphasised so that the rich live in high-rises and ride cable cars around the city and the poor live in dodgy areas and ride the subway. The main thing which distinguishes Spare Parts from books like The Hunger Games and Divergent or even 1984 is that there is no government conspiracy keeping everyone oppressed. The poor are just poor and have to either sell their bodies and join the space corps or be smart enough for a scholarship to university to improve their situation.

Of course, I’m not saying that the characters, rich or otherwise, are necessarily all on the up and up, but if I hadn’t automatically assumed dystopia, I think I would have enjoyed the start more, instead of spending it being deeply suspicious of the society. That’s more an issue with my expectations than with the book itself, however.

I thought the way the cyborg bodies were explained and treated was well done. The space corps is composed entirely of cyborgs because ordinary human bodies aren’t resilient enough to withstand the accelerations and radiation and other dangers of space. Human brains can’t just be plonked in a cyborg body and be expected to know how to manipulate it (especially given the extra senses they have, like infrared and UV vision, for example). Rogers-Davidson deals with this by giving each cyborg an AI assistant which interfaces with their systems and helps them acclimate to the world. They can even mitigate or postpone the effects of alcohol. Kelty’s snarky AI was one of the really fun parts of the novel. (She’s so “state-of-the-art” she can even be sarcastic.)

I also enjoyed the human aspect of the novel. It was nice to see a wide range of female characters and their relationships were equally varied and well drawn particularly between the main character and others (since this was written in first person, that’s to be expected). In fact, I think there was only one prominent male character, and he was only really around in the first half of the book, which is rare to see. Another key difference between Spare Parts and many more recent YA books is the lack of a romantic plot line. Which I found endearing. Given all the changes she’s going through — changing bodies, changing socioeconomic circumstances — Kelty really has much more important things to worry about than boys. It really is nice to read about a teenager who doesn’t think important life choices have to include boys.

Rating: 5 / 5 stars

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