Joan He’s The Ones We’re Meant to Find is sci-fi dystopian at its best: sharp, devastating, and brimming with invigorating questions about what it means to be human on this earth we continue to ravage.
The novel follows two sisters, the Mizuharas, in alternating chapters that shift between timelines. We follow Cee through an intimate first-person present, where she’s been marooned on a deserted island for three years, colorblind and without memories, with only a friendly, rudimentary bot for company. We come to know Kasey at a more distant third-person past POV, as she navigates her sister’s recent disappearance at sea. Kay is a sixteen-year-old genius, brilliant but disconnected from her peers, the flux of emotions evading her. She, like all inhabitants of earth’s eco-cities, wears an Intraface, tech embedded in her brain that can record memories, provide conversational aid through Silvertongue, and display one’s rank. Admission to the eco-cities is dependent on a rank-based system, purportedly for the good of the remaining humans, in order to best allocate and preserve the planet’s waning resources. When Kasey disappears, Cee maneuvers her way into her sister’s abandoned Intraface to search for answers.
Where Kasey had found solace in science, her sister had flourished among other people. Cee had been the kind of popular that makes people love her. She’s also clearly brilliant in her own right, in her own way, surviving on the island by herself for as long as she does. She’s powered by a fierce, driving force, a goal that keeps her alive: find Kay.
Both sisters navigate developing relationships with boys along their journeys. Kasey meets Actinium, a boy with mysterious connections to Celia’s past. Hero washes up on Cee’s shore, with just as few memories as she had when she arrived. There’s more to both boys than either sister realizes, and they’ll end up playing crucial roles in their stories, though it’s the sisters who ultimately decide their own fates.
This is not the sisterhood dynamic within this genre I was expecting. And as each sister learns more about the other from their respective timelines, terrible, devastating truths come to light—some that have the potential to change the world as they know it.
The Ones We’re Meant to Find is an intricate puzzle box, an eco thriller with horror elements. He deftly explores how our scientific advances, when met with near-inevitable climate disaster and a code of ethics designed by powerful people to their own benefit, can steer us toward a horror of our own making. Dark, gut-wrenching, and often unsettling and eerie, this is a reclamatory narrative that centers two complex East Asian girls as they navigate dire sci-fi circumstances to figure out what it might mean to save themselves.
This novel has been described as Black Mirror by way of Ghibli, and that’s fitting, but don’t expect the more whimsical side of Ghibli. This evokes Ghibli at its most unapologetically environmentally conscious, and in that it centers self-sufficient girls on a surprising adventure in a devastated world.
Expect intricate worldbuilding that occasionally feels opaque, especially in the first half—though no more so than some of the most foundational, popular genre fiction narratives, and it not only ramps up wildly in the second half, it thoroughly pays off. He offers fresh, innovative explorations of some of the genre’s most formative questions: what does it mean to be alive, versus to survive? What are we, if not our choices, or our memories? What is our responsibility to each other? Where is the line between destiny and design? As our technology progresses and we deplete our planet, what might it mean to maintain our humanity? He doesn’t attempt clean answers, but instead leans into the contradictions. She approaches these questions with specificity and rigor, to compelling and often devastating effect.
This is a novel about the many messy ways we protect and betray each other. This is a story of selfishness and sisterhood in a world on the brink, a fresh take on what it means to be human. This is a terrifying interrogation of late-stage capitalism, classism, and the surveillance state as they intersect with ecological disaster. This is a meditation on the vicious complexity of grief, and the intimate resilience of hope. And this is a story about personhood, about self-determination, and what it might mean to find and choose yourself.
He wields her twists masterfully, with surprise around every corner, building toward a devastating series of conclusions. The world of this novel unfolds, unfurls, deepening, as does the sea that surrounds both sisters, into a dark, abyssal core of complicated choices.
He’s writing is beautiful and propulsive, spare where it needs to be, lyric and suspenseful in its deep explorations of the novel’s world. This is one of the strongest sci-fi novels I’ve ever read. Action-packed and philosophical, ambitious, melancholic, and mind-blowing, The Ones We’re Meant to Find sings with sublime ache.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.