Necessary Ill, Deb Taber’s debut novel (out of Aqueduct Press) is a difficult read, but a worthy one. Difficult, because it asks hard questions and refuses easy answers; and because it demands you extend your sympathy to all sides: mass-murderers, liars, haters, the wounded and the bereaved and the betrayed.
In another novel, Jin, one of our two protagonists, might be a villain. In a future where the human race seems doomed by resource depletion and overpopulation, Jin is a “spreader,” a creator and disperser of plagues designed to cull the population in the hopes of obtaining equilibrium between the demands of human consumption and the available resources. Jin is part of an underground community of genderless individuals (neuters, or “neuts,”) who fear violence at the hands of the rest of humanity, yet who nonetheless endeavour to help the prospects for humanity’s long-term survival through research, medicine—and yes, carefully targeted diseases.
The second character upon whom the narrative focuses, Sandy, is a young woman. Rescued by a different spreader after witnessing her mother’s murder, she comes to live for a time in a society of neuters, where her talkativeness and vibrancy bring the outside world within the ambit of Jin’s solitary, sterile existence, while she herself comes to terms with a morality that accepts the necessity of killing thousands—tens of thousands—that the rest of humanity may survive a while longer.
But the neuter community’s existence is itself under threat, with increasingly accurate propaganda deployed against them. Written, we eventually learn, by one of their own who found the guilt of spreading plague too much to bear. What comes of this has profound effects on Jin, Sandy, and the world they live in.
Necessary Ill is an odd book. In the beginning passing unusually lightly over Sandy’s introduction to the neuter community, at times disjointed, it presents no clearly observable gripping drama of confrontations, the likes of which one comes to expect in science fiction. But it works as a coherent whole nonetheless: it draws its tension from moral conflict and thematic argument, rather than from direct confrontation—although there are a handful of moments of that, and they are, I feel, very well handled. Taber has chosen to make her neuters preternaturally gifted with awareness of their own bodies and chemical processes, and in possession of heightened awareness of those around them, in what is perhaps the most science-fictional conceit of the novel. This makes for remarkably interesting treatments of physical violence and its aftermath.
But at its heart, Necessary Ill concerns itself with character and situation; with the social experience of marked vs. unmarked bodies, and the ethics of preservation of life. Is it better to kill many in order that the species might survive? Is it right to permit the human race to drive itself to extinction, if by one’s actions one can prevent it? Is it ever possible to act ethically in taking choices away from other people?
Necessary Ill doesn’t answer the questions it raises, or at least not all of them. But it asks them thoughtfully, and with an eye for character that makes for an enjoyable read.
An addendum: I wish I were more widely read in queer theory, because then I might be better able to disentangle whether the novel’s idea of an underground neuter society troubles me because of my enculturated assumptions, or because the worldbuilding logic behind its existence is somewhat flaky. (I’m prepared to handwave worldbuilding logic as necessary: I’d just like to know.)
A further addendum: there’s a good bit of sexual violence, actual or implied, within these pages. And I’m not sure whether that serves or detracts from the narrative as a whole.
A third addendum—
—Nah, just messing with you. It’s an interesting book. If anyone else out there reads it or has read it, I’d love to hear what you think of it.
Necessary Ill is published by Aqueduct Press. It is available now.