August 03, 2017
(+++) ANGSTY TEENS
Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen. By Jazz Jennings. Ember. $10.99.
The Rift Uprising, Book One. By Amy S. Foster. Harper Voyager. $14.99.
Being defined by one’s race, size, appearance or sexuality is no picnic: modern Western societies have spent decades and longer looking for ways to convince and cajole people to regard other people as individuals rather than as group representatives. Some of the approaches have turned out to be silly – “people of color” is progressive and good, “colored people” reactionary and evil – but there is little doubt that there has been a discernible (if sometimes gratingly slow) movement toward seeing people as, you know, people, rather than as characteristics. This has been the case, but the pendulum in recent years has swung the opposite way – who even knew there was such a pendulum? Now various small subgroups of the general population are insisting that they indeed be identified first and foremost by how they look or what they do, and be accepted and even celebrated specifically on that basis. This is nowhere clearer than in the sexually diverse community known variously as LGBT, LGBTQ and LGBTQ+. It is no longer sufficient for someone outside this group to say something like, “Hey, what you do in your personal life is up to you, and there’s no reason to discuss it any more than there is a reason to talk about what I do in my personal life.” Now what is expected is that people outside this very small and narrow community will identify, acknowledge and celebrate its members because of what they do and how they self-identify. This is exactly parallel to identifying an African-American person first and foremost on the color of his or her skin and only afterwards paying attention to anything else – the opposite of the approach that had been advocated by progressive thinkers for many years. The result of the new position of the pendulum is a preponderance of books such as Jazz Jennings’ Being Jazz – and of Jennings herself becoming a minor celebrity and cable-TV star. Jennings’ memoir, written in a rather immature teenage style, is intended as a message of hope and uplift for other teens like her, returning again and again to her endlessly supportive and dedicated family (something other teens will likely wish they had) even as it discusses issues such as Jennings’ desire to play on girls’ sports teams, use girls’ bathrooms, etc. Jennings’ family comes across as more than commendably devoted to her; it would be interesting to have a more-in-depth understanding of the background of her parents as a potential guide for other families with children like Jennings. Instead, the book dwells on honest but largely superficial elements of being a contemporary teenager, from school to summer camp to soccer, including everything from Facebook messages to awkward sort-of-romantic moments. Some of the material in the book is just plain odd, such as the photo caption under a picture showing Jennings at age three with “a boy’s bowl cut,” with Jennings calling it “Humiliating!” Apparently Jennings’ parents were somehow supposed to recognize their son as “really” a daughter at this age. By and large, though, the book, in addition to being an enjoyably quick read for fans of Jennings’ TV show, will be useful for others like her and for teens who are not transgender but want to understand what is currently deemed the correct way to deal with people who want to be seen as transgender first and anything else afterwards. How matters will be handled when the identification pendulum again swings the other way – pendulums do swing, after all – will be a matter for other books.
The notion of defining people by an obvious characteristic and subsuming whatever else they may be within that single element pervades fiction as well as fact for teenagers. So-called “young adult” novels tend to start from the premise that the reality of being a teen is the main thing that matters in characters’ lives; everything else is secondary and follows from that basic fact in what would be called “ageism” if it were not presented in a positive light. Amy S. Foster’s first book in The Rift Uprising trilogy gets adults out of the way neatly by having the central characters required to be teenagers – since the process that creates the protagonists actually kills adults. This is one of multiple thin plot strands, because it is never explained how or why the implantable chips from an advanced humanoid race (yes, one of those) kill adults and cannot be modified by those advanced humanoids so they are not adult-fatal; nor is it explained why the chips need to be implanted in seven-year-olds (not six-year-olds or eight-year-olds) and how human scientists figured that out. Anyway, the (adult) scientists do figure that out, and they somehow do massive numbers of implants without the seven-year-olds’ parents knowing what is going on – and without the seven-year-olds themselves knowing anything. This would be a hilariously ridiculous premise, or set of premises, if Foster did not insist that it (and everything else in the book) be taken so extremely seriously. Matters are indeed deemed highly serious here: there are mysterious rifts in reality that connect our Earth to others in the multiverse, and some bad things will come through those rifts if our Earth does not stop them, so scientists and politicians from many countries forge a worldwide conspiracy to implant otherworldly chips in seven-year olds in order to train the kids secretly so that, when they are teenagers, they can become super-soldiers known as Citadels who can patrol the rifts and keep the baddies out while accepting some non-baddies and relocating them to internment camps that are also completely secret and unknown to the population at large. Oh, please. This has to be one of the silliest dystopian premises in some time: this is allegedly our Earth’s future, but somehow there are no drones, cellphone cameras, whistleblowers, dissatisfied conspiracy members, disaffected politicians, investigative reporters, or unhappy/disgruntled researchers – in any of the participating countries – revealing anything whatsoever about any of this to the world at large. One more absurd element here is a crucial one, indeed the primary plot mover once the story gets going (which it does slowly: Foster spends much of the early part of this first book building up all the foundational elements). This element is the violent rage into which Citadels fly if they make skin contact with anyone to whom they are attracted. They do not, say, become nauseated or physically averse to the person in 1984 mode – no, they get violent, which means attraction can lead to injuries that could include or be seen by bystanders or other observers and could lead to the unraveling of the whole worldwide conspiracy and all that. Yeah, right. Anyway, this matters because the protagonist of the book, Ryn Whittaker, is 17 and has known for three years that she is a Citadel – and has done her duty dutifully until an alternative-Earth boy named Ezra comes through a rift and Ryn experiences love, or at least lust, at first sight. It is this feeling, not some noble anti-conspiracy endeavor, that leads Ryn to pair up with Ezra to question the world as Ryn knows it and search for the truth about her implant, the rifts themselves, and the shadowy figures (they are always shadowy in books like this) pulling the teenagers’ strings for undoubtedly nefarious purposes. Foster’s plot is so full of holes that the only real reasons to stay with the story are incidental ones: some suspense in figuring out how the rifts work, some surprises in what can come out of them (essentially anything), and some incidental world building that is much better than the overall structure – notably the creation of housing for otherworldly animals and other creatures that emerge from the rifts. Much of The Rift Uprising is just plain silly, but because it partakes of so many tropes of the teen romance-and-angst genre, Foster’s book will be enjoyable for readers looking for escapism that does not require too much thinking – that, in fact, militates against it.