Let it not ever be said that kids have it easy. Youth is a wonderful thing, but a thing so wonderful that everybody wants a piece of it. If it’s not Fox pumping Shirley Temple for dimples and giggles, it’s Lady Bathory bathing in the blood of virgins. We’re obsessed with the ideal of able-bodied vigor that is thought to accompany youth. It is those who possess it who are at the most risk from those who would exploit it – and that’s just in real life. Fiction, at least, lets us explore the costs and consequences of that obsession.
The Lion and the Unicorn by A.C. Wise
“The Lion and the Unicorn” by A.C. Wise (Lackington’s #5) dives right into Bathory territory with the most awful kind of youthful exploitation: a child sex-slave. The Unicorn Boy epitomizes the horror of innocence exploited – not only is he a child, but a unicorn, a symbol of purity. He understands that he is irresistible to the “hands and mouths” who arrive at the room he is held captive in, just as his father was before him.
It is not in the Boy’s nature to fight against his captors. He projects a kind of hopeless acceptance of his exploitation and suffering, appropriate to a child or a being incapable of being anything but innocent, despite what is done to him. He is kept on display for his supernatural purity, his unicorn’s essence, but this is as much a quality of youth. Wise problematizes the idea of purity by painting a figure incapable of desire: desire requires the freedom to choose to want something. We make a virtue of innocence, but are we also making a virtue of slavery?
When the Boy becomes sick, they send another “monster” to tend to him: an ancient lioness. The lioness is old, fierce, and with plenty of blood on her hands. Her age makes her useless in the eyes of her captors, freeing her to help the Unicorn Boy. She would have him become “terrible,” to run and fight like a more bloody-minded thing than he is. The only escape from the prison of innocence is to become less innocent – to grow up. It’s hard to see how that will work for the soft Boy. Wise leaves us with some hope for him, but that doesn’t erase the tragedy that he could not be both soft and safe. Our awful obsession with youth would not allow it.
Meshed by Rich Larson
“Meshed” by Rich Larson (Clarkesworld #101) offers us a near-future of professional sport, ever a theater for our collective obsession with young bodies. Oxford Diallo is just shy of 18 and a basketball phenom. The narrator wants to sign him, but only on the condition that he will get meshed – implanted with a neural device that will allow his games to be recorded as experiences. But Oxford doesn’t want the mesh.
What follows is almost a game of chicken. Oxford’s talent is big enough that the mesh isn’t a deal-breaker, per se. They want him badly. But professional sport, in this future, is all about marketing, merchandising, and nervecasts. They want him, but they also want to be able to sell the experience of him, his body, playing his games. The narrator is told unequivocally that he must get Oxford and his father to sign off on the mesh, no matter what it takes.
The Diallos know, however, what Oxford’s worth to these corporations, even without the mesh. The Diallos are truly compelling characters: smart, honest, and savvy next to all the narrator’s corporate slick. As the narrator unravels in the face of their legitimate concerns and private dramas, the relationship between father and son comes to the story’s fore. This is about a father trying to protect his son from a system he knows will devour him if it can. The story of the Diallos is so honest and on-point, it hurts. Larson is showing himself to be a master of relationships.
Red Planet by Caroline Yoachim
“Red Planet” by Caroline Yoachim (Lightspeed #57) is a more problematic portrayal of how bodies are valued. Tara has been accepted into Mars’s Xenobiology program, the culmination of a life-long dream. The only catch is that Mars’s governing body won’t allow her to make the trip to the red planet unless she can prove she is fully “able” – and Tara is blind.
“Red Planet” is an uneven read on a lot of levels. The plot jumps forward in fits and starts, key moments passing in moments of exposition. Tara is abruptly offered an experimental process to restore her blindness, but she doesn’t want it. She is happy blind and has never wanted to be able to see. Nevertheless, within a page she has signed off on it, had the surgery, discovered she doesn’t like it, and procured a therapeutic wand which I first took to be an instrument of self-harm. After balking at pulling the trigger on the wand (which it turns out can eliminate her sight again,) Tara has to decide if she wants Mars’s Xenobiology program badly enough to change her whole way of being for it.
Tara is cornered by the narrative pretty thoroughly. Mars is run by “ableist jerks” and that’s all there is to it. The surgery works in a predictable way and neither lends nor denies Tara much other than her identity, leaving that the story’s sole question. Tara spends much of the story lamenting society’s attitude towards the blind, but ultimately, the story doesn’t do much more than dwell upon her blindness either. Readers waiting for the part where she experiences something wonderful on Mars or anywhere else will find themselves waiting still.
“Red Planet” is meant to demonstrate that a blind girl can have her cake and eat it too, but the angst and sly around her journey feels instead like she has swallowed the line her world has fed to her. Mars only values her because they think she can see. She played their game to win. That a blind girl doesn’t need to be able to see to be a scientist is not a story. It’s barely a premise. It should be a given, and the starting point for a more challenging tale.