The Mad Scientist's Daughter. I admit I probably wouldn't have given it much of a second glance if not for the fact that after I tweeted in mock shock about a spec fic book* making the Stella longlist, Kerryn Goldsworthy (chair of the Stellar judging committee) tweeted at me that there were actually two spec fic books on the longlist and directed me to The Sunlit Zone.
*Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan, which I'll get around to reading and reviewing some time hopefully soon
The Sunlit Zone is told by North in two parallel time-lines: her present in 2050 and her childhood from birth in 2020ish through to high school and university. North is a marine biologist, working in the fictional Victorian coastal town Anglers Bay, where she grew up. The future chapters serve mainly to establish North's character, friends and the setting. The real story, in my opinion, was the journey through her childhood.
The form of the writing means that mostly what we see isn't quite a long narrative as prose would more likely be, but a series of moments, some directly connected to the ones either side, others a bit less so. The glimpses we see of North's childhood show her growing up with her uniquely different twin sister on one hand (with allusions of selkie) and the neighbour's perfect genetically engineered daughter on the other. The friction comes from both sides; her sister's childish joy standing in the way of North's chosen activities, and the neighbour's sophisticated perfection, egging North on.
The science fictional elements in The Sunlit Zone are relatively minor, mostly confined to the genetic engineering and futuristic mundane technology. As a science fiction reader, I found the technology a bit iffy. The brevity of the form restricted the descriptions spent on future tech leaving fewer words with which to stuff it up. Nevertheless, there were a few odd things like referring to future ereaders generally as ibooks and similar. The sciencey strength, to me, was the marine biology and genetic engineering, although a biologist might disagree with me. Overall, the worldbuilding was the weakest part and the delivery (the writing) the strongest.
I was surprised how readable The Sunlit Zone was, given that it's poetry of which I don't usually read much. If you're wondering, it's not rhyming verse, although there are a few occasional scattered rhymes. I may be wrong, but I got the feeling that the more upset North was the more there was a rhyme and beat, although most of the time it was absent. I think others who don't usually read poetry would equally find it readable and should give it a try. If you're unsure (as I admit I was), you can read a sample in the Kobo store to get an idea of what it's like.
I really enjoyed reading The Sunlit Zone, but ultimately I was disappointed by the ending. It was a bit too subtle for my tastes. The story is a personal journey for North in which she comes to terms with her past, which is fine. The disappointment comes from the fact that I feel if it was a more science fictional (or fantastical) story, the ending would have been a bit more hopeful and less mundane. I suppose it's that I had an image in my head of an ending that almost but not quite came to pass. The real ending made me rethink the whole book and find it more depressing than I had upon first reading. Having given this point more consideration I've realised that my expectations were based on a spec fic trope that the author, being a poetry person, rather than a spec fic person (as far as I can tell from her website), probably wasn't aware of/didn't give consideration to while writing. And so the trope's absence in the ending of The Sunlit Zone does not necessarily signify the depressing view I first thought. Interesting how our expectations can define how we perceive stories and how we think stories should work.
Anyway, The Sunlit Zone was overall a good if unusual read. I would recommend it to anyone looking for something different to the usual spec fic fare. I think it's worth a read purely for the way it's written (which I suppose is why it made the Stella longlist) and I imagine readers who usually shy away from speculative fiction would enjoy it as literature. It's not a long read, either, and not the kind of poetry that one has to reread a few times to digest, so I do encourage you to give it a go.
4 / 5 stars
First published: 2012, Five Islands Press
Format read: Kobo ebook
Source: Kobo store
Challenges: The Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge