Thursday, 16 May 2013

Tankborn by Karen Sandler

Tankborn by Karen Sandler is a one of not that many YA dystopian novels I've read that is also proper science fiction. As well as the political aspects requisite in dystopian novels, it also deals with genetic engineering with a backdrop of planetary colonisation. I'd been meaning to read it for a while, since Shaheen recommended it, and I'm glad I finally got around to it.

Part of the blurb (last paragraph omitted because spoilers — why do publishers do that?):
Best friends Kayla and Mishalla know they will be separated for their Assignments. They are GENs, Genetically Engineered Non-humans, and in their strict caste system, GENs are at the bottom rung of society. GENs are gestated in a tank and sent to work as slaves as soon as they reach age fifteen.

When Kayla is Assigned to care for Zul Manel, the patriarch of a trueborn family, she finds secrets and surprises; not least of which is her unexpected friendship with Zul's great-grandson. Meanwhile, the children that Mishalla is Assigned to care for are being stolen in the middle of the night. 

The most prominent aspect of Tankborn is the rigid class structure that segregates the society. Natural-born humans are ranked from the rich, land-owning high-status trueborns down to the servant class low-borns. Beneath them all are the GENs — genetically engineered people with small amounts of animal DNA included in their make-up giving them extra talents and making them less than human. As one might expect with the main characters being GENs, a lot of the social commentary revolves around non-GENs being varying degrees of horrible to the GEN main characters. However, there's definitely more to it than that.

For a start, the GENs have a different religion to trueborns. The trueborns follow a religion that is implicitly vaguely Christian (or at least monotheistic and involving worshipping a similar god), while the GEN religion involves worshipping the Infinite, who whispered to the prophets how to create GENs and whose plan for GENs involves servitude. It's a case of using religion to control the masses, hardly a new idea, but not one that I think I've come across in YA. It was done well, even as it unravelled, and Sandler didn't pull any punches.
She knew it was the Infinite's will, that a GEN's trial of servitude was the only way back to His hands.
The GEN religion is very much based around keeping GENs in their place. A further example:
But liberation for GENs on Loka [their planet] would violate the Infinite's laws. It would only be right for GENs to taste true freedom in the palm of the Infinite's hand.
And so forth.

As with any dystopia, we see the fabric of the society start to unravel, partially at the hands of our main characters. Despite this being the first book in a trilogy, I was pleased to see that it's story was self-contained, hooks for the sequel notwithstanding, as I was half expecting the main action not to be resolved. Since book one merely described the first step in the (standard YA dystopian trend of) dismantling of society, I look forward to reading how it all progresses.

I had only two small peeves with Tankborn. The first is that both the romantic couples liked each other a little too suddenly and their relationships became serious a bit more quickly than I would have expected. I can see why it fit with the plot that way, but it did make me go "Hrm."

The other thing is the technology. Tankborn is set on a colonised planet with the GENs being invented (for lack of a better word) some time after the colony had been established. (Incidentally, I hope we learn more about the colonisation process in the future books. I am deeply curious and would be disappointed if some form of Conspiracy didn't surround colonisation.) So it's a future where interstellar space travel has been perfected. But the technology they were using on the planet — aside from the GENs who had fancy artificial neural networks — consisted mainly of readers similar to iPads and smartphone-style wrist watches. Which isn't exactly bad per se, but that's kind of he level of technology we're at now. It struck me as a bit unimaginative. On the other hand, the Author's Note did mention that the story originated as a screenplay in the mid-80s, which could account for it.

All in all, Tankborn was a good read. I highly recommend it to fans of dystopias as well as fans of general science fiction. Although it's marketed as YA, I see no reason for readers of all ages not to enjoy it.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2011, Tu Books
Series: Tankborn, book 1 (of 3?)
Format read: ebook on iPad
Source: US iTunes store (ebook not available outside of US, paper book only available as an import, as far as I can tell)

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