Author: Gordon Dahlquist
Publisher: Dutton Books
Publication Date: February 21st, 2013
Read: November 2013
Where It Came From: Library
Rating: 4 Good Questions
The Quick and Dirty:
Veronika, Caroline, Isobel, and Eleanor are four girls living on a remote island with their two caretakers, Irene and Robbert. They spend their days taking walks, learning to analyze their surroundings, and napping, until one day Veronika comes across a new girl washed up on the shore. This first contact with the outside world will contrast the 4 girls’ lives in isolation with that of the different girl, and have consequences when other outsiders finally discover their island. It’s really hard to blurb this book without spoiling the fun in reading it, but I thought it was fantastic—steady, lulling reading with an unassuming depth and underlying tension that slowly builds to an affecting climax.
The Wordy Version:
Let me preface this by saying two things: First, that this wordy version will necessarily have things in it that could be deemed spoilery, and second, that this is not a book for everyone. I have been a huge fan of Gordon Dahlquist’s since reading the epic The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters (so much so that I ordered the final book of the trilogy from the UK when I learned they weren’t going to publish it in the US—who publishes 2 books of a trilogy and then backs out on the 3rd??), and while this is very, very different from that, it was so, so good. However, it is a book that requires some work on the part of the reader to get the most out of it. You have to read between the lines, look at what is going on beneath the surface, analyze things, and make some inferences if you want to piece together the greater picture. In short, you have to think like the girls in the book. If you like things laid out for you by the author to be easily understood and prefer your endings tied up in a neat bow with no remaining questions, this book might frustrate you. But it quite clearly advertises what it is. Here’s what’s printed on the back of the book: “You will have many questions. You will receive some answers. You will learn to think differently.” Big letters, bold font, easy to see. And so I was very frustrated by all the poor reviews this book has gotten on GoodReads, because in them were many complaints about the book being EXACTLY LIKE IT SAYS ON THE COVER! To my mind, those are the three perfect sentences to sum up the reading experience of this book. I had many questions. I received some answers. I had to come up with other ones myself. And I learned to think differently.
But let’s back up a bit. A self-contained YA volume with no romance?! How refreshing! And although this book is categorized as YA, I think it would be just as at home on the normal science fiction/fantasy shelf, too. The book opens with Veronika telling us this story from sometime in the future, starting with their former daily life on the island, before the different girl arrived. While Veronika, Isobel, Caroline, and Eleanor seem fairly normal for the first few pages, when it is revealed on page 17 that they go to sleep with a button click behind their ear, it becomes obvious that they are (highly advanced) androids or artificial intelligence of some sort. This early revelation resituates the reading of the book, and for me, altered conceptions that I was unaware I’d already formed. Veronika’s straightforward, almost stark narration makes more sense now. Robbert and Irene must be scientists of some type, not simply guardians. Their walks around the island and lessons are teaching the girls to analyze and think the way humans do. The girls know they are different from Robbert and Irene, but they do not see themselves as “robots”—can’t see themselves as robots since the word is never used—just a different type of people.
In their lessons they learn how to analyze, how to think, and I found this exploration of cognition and thought processes to be fascinating. For most people, how you look at the world and process things to arrive at conclusions is second nature, or first nature, really. You don’t actively think about it, you just do it. It happens in your brain without actively trying. But seeing the girls learn how to learn gave such a new, enlightening perspective. Watching them develop their thought processes in the lessons with their caretakers, and then extend that learning to things beyond what those caretakers intended and make decisions for themselves was compelling. As Caroline has dreams while she is “asleep,” and as Veronika starts making decisions to deviate from Robbert and Irene’s instructions, you see them coming closer and closer to what could be considered “human.” Some other readers seemed to find it “boring” or “slow,” but I did not.
And then comes May. Veronika finds a girl from the outside world washed up on the beach, and Robbert and Irene nurse this shipwreck survivor back to health. They don’t really know what to do about her, and worry about how she will react to the girls. When May does find out about them, she reacts with scorn and anger, in part from her grief at losing her uncle in the shipwreck, and also because of the outside world’s mistrust of technology. She sees the girls as “other,” but the girls just see her as a different and thus inherently interesting person, and as May spends time with them she learns to see them more as Robbert and Irene do.
The plot has rising action, a climax, and falling action, but it’s not the slam-bang save-the-world sort of plot that is found in a lot of dystopian fiction. It has a much more sedate, thoughtful pace, but there is a tension underlying everything that happens, and you know that it is building to something. When it gets to that something, I found the deaths to be affecting and a testament to how very real, how very person the android girls are. May goes on a similar journey, and seeing her evolving attitude toward the girls has an emotional payoff.
A lot of my enjoyment of the book came from watching things unfold as more information was revealed and pieces started to come together. My perceptions and conception of the characters, the world, and its elements were ever-changing. For example, the reader learns early in the book that the girls are some sort of advanced artificial intelligence, but as you continue reading you develop a more complete picture of them, perhaps different from your prior idea. The girls are described as one each brunette, blond, black haired, and redhead, but as you continue reading and pick up little things here and there you realize that it’s not hair like human hair, but a part of their design to convert solar energy into power. They initially seem capable of most action and movement that humans are (with the exception of swimming), but recurring mentions of the difficulty of walking in sand and holding the banister when climbing stairs show the limits of their mobility and the dangers of them falling. And it’s not until the final conflict of the book when you realize that their hands and feet are not only not capable of the dexterity and range of motion of their human versions, but also look very different, too.
This slowly unfolding and assimilation of different pieces of information also serves to fill in the background of the world. There is no infodump fully explaining the world, but here is the picture that I arrived at from all the clues and reading between the lines: Some time in the future, there is a rift in society concerning technology. Irene describes the two camps as the people who go to school and the people who “believe” (it’s been a couple weeks since I read the book, so forgive me if that wording is a little off). The people who believe have a problem with technology and, by extension, AI. The people who go to school seem to be the learned people of the world—scientists, inventors, the educated. The people-who-believe group distinction is a little murkier—it could be interpreted as the religious, or simply as anti-progress Luddite types. At any rate, the people who believe seem to have the upper hand in this conflict, as demonstrated by the fact that Irene and Robbert have to take such pains to keep the girls hidden on this remote island, and that May’s uncle seemed to be a smuggler of electronics. At one point someone mentions how the sea levels have risen, so it must be after global warming has had some effects. It may sound confusing out of context and the picture is certainly vague, but there’s enough there for the greater situation to take shape in your mind.
And yes, I did still have questions at the end, as the jacket copywriters so cleverly foresaw. Did May’s uncle and his friend die in the shipwreck? Why were Irene and Robbert the ones on the plane with the girls when they were taken to the island, and the other 16 scientists on a different plane? Were Caroline’s dreams a ghost-in-the-shell sort of occurrence, or was their prophetic nature related to her AI analytical capabilities? But these questions didn’t bother me—I enjoyed having thoughts to carry with me and ponder after the last page. I was okay with some things being left to mystery and imagination.
Overall, a really great book, and really different from most other things I’ve been reading lately. I’ve said things like exploration of cognition and the book requires work to get the most out of it, but it isn’t dense or difficult to read like that might suggest. It’s not like reading a textbook or some self-important specimen of literary fiction. I didn’t feel like it had an Agenda or anything like that. It explored the ideas of humanity and hatred-ignorance-intolerance vs. curiosity-acceptance in a microcosm of the greater world in which the story is situated, and did it in ways that I found compelling. The simplicity of the story and writing belie its depth and emotional resonance, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ll go all in and recommend this book to everyone (especially sci-fi fans) to at least try, unless you know you don’t like vagueness or being left with unanswered questions at the end of a book. You may find it’s not your cup of tea, but then again, you may end up really enjoying it.