Malinda Lo’s newest book, Adaptation, is a step away from her usual fare: it’s a young adult science fiction novel set in the near future. As the story begins, Reese Holloway and her debate partner David Li are waiting for a flight back home from a championship with their coach when planes start mysteriously crashing all over North America, due to flocks of birds striking them. As they try to make their way home in a rental car, the nation goes into upheaval; rioting, looting, and murder abound. However, at night on the Extraterrestrial Highway, Reese wrecks the car—and they wake up nearly a month later in a secure facility, alive and healthy, with no memory of the events after the accident. (I will note that Adaptation is the first half of a duet. Readers alarmed by sharp cliffhangers, be forewarned. The closing installment is due to be released in 2013, so it’s not too long of a wait.)
Having appreciated Lo’s previous work, I’ve been looking forward to her first novel-length foray into science fiction. Plus, there are certain things that more or less guaranteed I would enjoy Adaptation—for my tastes it was a grab-bag of treats, mixing a diverse cast led by a young queer woman, a theme and structure riffing on The X-Files, and a fast-moving plot driven by conspiracy, action, and more than a little bit of (also queer/questioning) teen romance.
Adaptation did not ask a lot of me; instead, it had plenty of fun to give. The sense of play—of allusion, homage, and, forgive the pun, adaptation—with source materials like the typical “YA love triangle” and the conspiracy-SF narrative empire of The X-Files makes this book read almost like a love letter to genre, while it is at the same time clearly having a roaring good time fooling around with the things it’s built on. And, aside from the extra-narrative pleasures, it’s also a fairly enjoyable romp—romance, action, and teenagers being teenagers in bizarre situations kept my attention throughout. Lo’s prose is clear and straight-forward, which helps to move the plot along at a generally steady and occasionally break-neck pace while also immersing the reader in Reese’s experience of her world.
I was particularly pleased by Adaptation’s careful attention to the conflicted self-identification of a young queer woman who is attracted to both a girl and a boy in her life. Rather than a typical love triangle, or worse, a “cheating bisexual” or “confused bisexual” narrative, Lo explores the difficulties inherent in mapping out the space of a queer identity for a teenage girl. Reese is believably conflicted—she is passionate about Amber, but has had feelings for David for a long time; she had previously promised herself a life of effective celibacy to avoid the pain her father put her mother through, but now she realizes that she needs other people in her life. Her ways of pushing to figure herself out, and to figure out the tension of caring about two people at once (and two people of different genders), are intimately and engagingly depicted in the narrative. (Admittedly, things get even more complicated when the reader discovers that Amber is actually an extraterrestrial, but that doesn’t happen until nearly the end of the novel.)
There is a scene that I suspect will come into play in the next novel, with regards to Reese’s ability to manage her two relationships: at one point, she overhears her mother lamenting to her best friend’s mom about how her ex-husband, Reese’s father, is insisting that he can love two women at once, and that he wants to have a (polyamorous) relationship with both of them. The inclusion of this scene isn’t accidental, I suspect—and Reese’s re-developing relationship with her father, as of the end of the book, might offer an outlet for her to examine her feelings and what she might do next.
The ending of the novel is a fast-moving escalation up to a climactic point—where it stops, leaving the reader waiting and eager for the next and final installment. How will Reese and David’s decision to pull the media into play save them from the bickering of “who gets to have them” between the Imria and the U.S. government? How does the press conference go? What’s the status of the conflict between the Imria and the U.S. government, who are both lying to the public rather severely? And, of course, what’s going to happen to the relationships Reese has developed with Amber and David? All of these questions, and more, are left tantalizingly unanswered. I happen to enjoy duets/duologies; the structure of these sorts of books is odd and unique, but I like the sense of a story half-told that I must wait to finish.
However, while I found the book enjoyable, it was more ambitious than successful in a few ways. For readers who will enjoy the book for what it does have to offer, these flaws are likely to be negligible, but are worth noting. For example, the narrative pacing is decidedly unbalanced—perhaps not a problem when reading the book all at once, as I did, but noticeable upon reflection. The narrative flits from scene to scene without immersing thoroughly very often. There are numerous incidents, such as the attempt to break into the warehouse with Julian and David, that read as almost unreal due to the speed with which they occur and are immediately moved past. In contrast, scenes spent with Amber and Reese exploring Reese’s developing queer sexual identity are lavish and emotionally intriguing—plus, a lot weirder in retrospect, after we’ve discovered that Amber is an alien—but tend to feel off-kilter in comparison to the speed at which the rest of the plot rushes by. The result is a somewhat disjointed whole, where the various subplots do not seem to entirely cohere, though all are engaging enough.
The issue of pacing is also connected to the lack of development of a good chunk of the cast of characters, few of whom the reader gets a truly full picture of. I was a big fan of Julian, but realize that his role in the text is somewhat superficial and his personality equally so; he is almost a cipher, rather than a fully realized character. (Of course, there is another book coming, which will potentially answer my questions on character depth and development.)
As a whole, I would still recommend Adaptation for its strengths and for its sensitive portrayal of a teenage girl attempting to work out a bisexual/queer identity. For the reader who reads the introductory paragraph of this review and thinks, “hell yes, queer teenage X-Files!”—I believe I can assert with some safety that this is a book you will have plenty of fun with.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.