After World War III nearly wiped out all of human existence, the remaining civilizations united together under the banner of the Planetary Alliance Commission (PAC). People were divided into sealed provinces rather than nations and left generally to their own devices with one big caveat: financial backing comes from PAC. To earn it, a province must demonstrate its value to PAC, prove its worth through feats of scientific discovery or social engineering. How they achieve that is left up to the provinces.
Ashiva grew up in the slums of the South Asian Province. With the development of a powerful AI called Solace, citizens of the SAP were separated, the genetically desirable moving up into the elite towers and the rest condemned to a slow death by governmental neglect in the Narrows. With her cybernetic arm—courtesy of a scientifically gifted Narrows dweller—she scrounges and steals and scrapes by. Secretly, she works for a group of freedom fighters scattered to the winds but waiting for the signal to reunite and overthrow the corrupt leaders of the SAP.
Which brings us to the beginning of Olivia Chadha’s new cyberpunk young adult novel Rise of the Red Hand. Kid Synch, the rebellious son of an Uplander, gets embroiled in the middle of a massive conspiracy at the heart of Solace. He teams up with Ashiva and her adoptive sister Taru to stop mecha soldiers, skeezy scientists, and a virulent pandemic from destroying the Narrows and everyone in it. These three teens must choose who lives and who dies, or have the choice made for them.
Readers aren’t told exactly where in South Asia Rise of the Red Hand is set, but with the names and non-English words my guess is the Indian Subcontinent. This far into the future, and with historic borders dismantled, it makes sense for the feel of the setting to be regional rather than specific. It’s also a rather clever way for a diaspora author to replicate that experience. The people of the SAP may be living in the general vicinity of their ancestral lands, but they are also a diaspora. They have been displaced and corralled, their unique regional traditions erased or left behind as they are blended together in the melting pot that is the SAP. They retain bits and pieces, slang mostly, from a culture that they can no longer access.
The setting is more than an interesting backdrop. The behaviors, objectives, and motivations of the characters aren’t rooted in a Western/white mentality but a South Asian diasporic one. There’s a great moment when Ashiva sees the American Province representatives and uses it as a way to knock American “superiority” down a few pegs. Of course the Americans would use their funding to create identical, beautiful, emotionless clones, and of course Ashiva would roll her eyes at them playing into their own stereotype.
The rest of the worldbuilding is just as fascinating. The Planetary Alliance Commission has a strong colonialism vibe. They swooped in to take power from independent nations, and the people they rule over have no say in the any of it. They control the Provinces by controlling their funding. They issue dictates that must be obeyed but offer little support or guidance for how. This allows provincial leaders to exploit the hell out of their people while simultaneously enforcing a growing colonial hegemony. Ultimately the PAC benefits from that exploitation.
Ashiva’s concerns revolve around the SAP, but she is keenly aware that the root of the problem is the PAC. She can’t dismantle a global superpower, but she can use her cybernetic arm to assist the underground revolutionaries trying to take power from the SAP and return it to the people. Perhaps exposing the corruption and hypocrisy rotting the SAP from the inside out to the rest of the Provinces will cause some damage to PAC as a bonus.
This is the kind of story that requires a lot of background information in order to work. Chadha does a good job of dispensing that information out in such a way that it allows the narrative to breathe without slowing down the plot. We get to see the desperate poverty of the Narrows through Ashiva’s POV, the plastic pleasure of Solace through Kid Synch, and the blacksite hell that is the Void through Taru. Like the setting, each main character feels organic and true to the story Chadha has created. This is a world where alliances are hard won and peace is temporary. Families are forged and shattered. Friendships are tested by the drive to survive. The secondary characters don’t quite get enough fleshing out, but they serve their purpose well enough.
There were a few elements I struggled with. A couple of lines of description veered a little too close to fatphobia for my taste. And I would’ve liked more openly queer characters. I also don’t think the romance did anything for the plot. The only chemistry I felt between the two characters was purely platonic. Especially since a character has a whole discussion about how they haven’t had time for love since they’re so busy trying to survive. It added nothing and could’ve been excised without derailing the story or the characters’ motivations.
Cyberpunk, with its wild contrast of mind-bogglingly advanced technology against the crumbling infrastructure of society, is the perfect subgenre to explore the chaos of the world today and predict the world of tomorrow through a YA lens. We don’t get much cyberpunk in young adult fiction these days, despite the obvious need. Wouldn’t it be nice if Rise of the Red Hand kickstarted a new trend?