Cryogenic Colonialism: Karen Healey’s While We Run

The more I read of Karen Healey’s work, the more impressed I become. While We Run is only her fourth novel, a sequel to last year’s truly excellent When We Wake. Set in Australia a little over a hundred years from now in a time of grave resource depletion, when the human species may well be facing extinction from the changed climate within two generations, When We Wake was the story of Tegan Oglietti, cryogenically frozen in 2027 and brought back to life by the Australian government—the first ever successful revival—who stumbles across a horrifying government conspiracy to do with cryonics and resolves to reveal it to the public.

While We Run is the story of Abdi Taalib, the son of a Djibouti politician. Abdi came to Australia to study, and ended up Tegan’s boyfriend, playing a vital part in Tegan’s spilling of the secrets behind the government’s cryonics conspiracy. It’s not possible to talk about the events of While We Run without mentioning many of the things revealed in When We Wake, so if you haven’t read the first book (and if so, why haven’t you? I recommend you go read it right now), be warned: there are spoilers ahead.

It is some months after the end of When We Wake. Abdi and Tegan have been taken into government custody where, tortured and manipulated into compliance, they recanted the truth they told: that the Australian government were killing and freezing refugees in order to send them as slave labour to the stars. Now they have no choice but to parrot the government line—to act as spokespeople for the Ark Project—at fundraisers and international tours. Abdi has almost given up when rescue finally comes.

And rescue catapults him and Tegan into the hands of other people who want to use them. Although their friends Joph and Bethari are on their side, there are precious few others they can trust. It is Abdi’s turn to make hard choices, and when they learn the real truth about cryogenic revival, Abdi finds himself in the position of having to take responsibility for, having to make choices about, the lives of hundreds or thousands of others. He will need every lesson his mother (the politician) ever taught him to make the one that causes the least harm.

Abdi’s voice is a strong one, distinct from Tegan’s in When We Wake but just as compellingly readable. He has some difficulties adjusting after his rescue from torture—Healey doesn’t shy away from the consequences of that—and despite his intelligence, his practicality, and his learned ability to understand and manipulate other people, Abdi’s still not an adult, and at times his reactions are exactly in keeping with adolescent reasoning.

(I would like to mention here that I really like, also, While We Run’s cover image. Abdi’s face, and Tegan’s, behind semi-transparent lettering; with cracks like those in sun-baked dried-out earth superimposed on their faces.)

I really enjoyed this book. In fact, I believe Karen Healey may well be one of the best voices writing science fiction today. As a paired set, When We Wake and While We Run are worth setting up beside Charles Stross’s near-future police procedurals and the science fiction of Elizabeth Bear; and though different in kind, they’re in the same league of quality as the work of Kameron Hurley and Ann Leckie’s debut. Science fiction, as Elizabeth Bear said in an interview earlier this spring, is the literature of testing to destruction, and Healey takes her what-ifs—What if there was the potential for successful cryogenic revival? What if the government thought there was a way for the wealthy to escape a dying world? What if its plans re-enacted the old patterns of colonialist exploitation?—and works them out through the voices of her protagonists. Her characters are compelling in their actions and their struggles, and the world she builds is detailed and believable. (If a bit generous, actually, in terms of the devastation another hundred years of climate change on the order of the last decade will wreak on the world: the picture she builds is not as bad as it could be.)

Science fiction published by Young Adult imprints for the YA market is frequently dismissed or overlooked by adult genre readers. This is often a mistake. It would especially be a mistake to do that here. I recommend While We Run and its predecessor very highly.

 

While We Run is available May 27th from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers


Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

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