A Review of Strangelets by Michelle Gagnon
Soho Teen (2013)
by REBECCA, May 1, 2013
Sophie: California terminal cancer patient who doesn’t mind dying, she tells us, as she dies … or does she?
Declan: charismatic petty thief from Galway who rips off the wrong people and gets shot … or does he?
Anat: the fierce military trainee from Tel Aviv is risking it all for love … including her life
Sophie, Declan, and Anat would have died at the same moment. Instead, they (and several others) wake up in an unfamiliar deserted hospital. Where are they? Or when? And why them? In order to escape the hospital, and figure out how to get home, they have to work together. But some of them know more than they’re letting on. And some of them are not what they seem.
From the blurb and the first, say, ten per cent of the book, I thought this was going to be a kind of supernatural tale about human experiments with death, or teens delving into the afterlife. You know, a kind of The Midnight Club meets Flatliners. And I was into it! The Midnight Club is like totally my fave Christopher Pike and stuff. Five terminally ill teens living in Rotterdam House meet (at midnight) to tell stories as a ward against the fear of death; they pledge that the first to die must send a sign to the rest of them . . . from the other side. The theme of trying to touch the afterlife is particularly poignant with teens since they’re, like, the opposite of death, so I had high hopes here, and loved the idea of death as a universal fear bringing together teens from all over the world.
Well, anyway, that’s not really what Strangelets is about. But you should all read The Midnight Club in case you haven’t (since sixth grade).
Still, the first quarter of Strangelets is intriguing. We are introduced to Sophie, Declan, and Anat, each in the moments leading up to their almost-deaths. When they wake in the hospital, they meet Zain, the friendly boy from New Delhi, Yosh, the shy and soft-spoken girl from Kyoto, and Nico, the hale blondie from Switzerland. Together, they have to find a way out, determine where the hell they are, and figure out why the parking lot outside looks like the broken-down cars have sat there long enough to grow moss and amass inches of crud on them. If they want answers, they’ll have to venture outside. But something is out there, and it’s not just the bears (oh my). There is genuine creepiness here (the creepiest of which I won’t spoil) and atmosphere that has some serious promise.
what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?
The first half-ish of Strangelets is a taut, well-paced mystery with sci-fi tendencies and I really enjoyed it. Gagnon doesn’t give too much away and her characters have distinct, recognizable personalities. It’s nothing particularly revolutionary, but it’s confidently done—more locked-room mystery than dystopia. But oh, holy jesus, the second half reads like someone took a wrecking ball to Jurassic Park, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and a few of the wackier Torchwood episodes, and then Mod Podged it all back together. That isn’t to say that Gagnon won’t attract fans of this mashup; it’s certainly not the dystopian fare many publishers have been rolling out lately.
And here’s the thing: if Strangelets’ only issues had been the grab-bag nature of its genre choices, I wouldn’t have thought much of it except, oh, ok, not really satisfying to me, but sure. It’s that this (unsatisfactory) science-inflected twist on a dystopia doesn’t mean anything. Where the conceit (no spoilers) might have shown true pathos or raised interesting questions about scientific ethics, or even—even!—taken a shot at saying something about how everything is connected, à la The Butterfly Effect, it would have been more interesting than what it did. Which is nothing. I love a good ole sci-fi romp, believe me, but what makes the best sci-fi delightful is how it expands our notions of the possible (or the impossible!), and how it shows us how deeply that which is most familiar to us resonates with that which is most alien, neither of which Strangelets even approaches. And I’m not going to even dignify the “romance” with a comment.
Equally frustrating was that while Strangelets held out a hope of being one of the very few YA novels—and even fewer sci-fi YA novels—to bring us an international cast of characters, it ended up reinscribing some pretty troubling conservative international and racial politics. Thea over at The Book Smugglers says it well: there is a “potentially worrisome, stigmatic portrayal of the characters of color (Anat, Zain, and Yosh) – one of these characters is the first to die, the other a villain, and the other meets a sad, cruel fate. Meanwhile for the white characters (Sophie, Declan, Nico), one holds the key to understanding everything, and two live happily ever after.” This is made worse for me because our happy couple are the least interesting characters. Sophie is totally boring in every way. Even the grace with which she accepts death after being ill for so long, which, ordinarily, I might find refreshing, smacks of an annoying kind of Little Eva-esque woe-is-me-she’s-too-good-for-this-cruel-worldiness. And Declan is a pretty predictable collection of generic charisma and obligatory Irishisms. It’s Anat who I was most interested in, and who seemed to be the meatiest character in terms of the potential for a dynamic ending to her story. Alas, it isn’t to be.
procured from: I received an ARC of this book by the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. Strangelets by Michelle Gagnon is available now.