As an artist of sorts, I know that there is a cost to artistic expression. Sometimes art comes easily, at least parts of it, but over the long haul it is exacts different forms of cost in terms of time, money, sacrifices such as limited social life or limits in other areas. The artistic temperament can also extract a high cost in terms mental peace.
The new YA release, The Summer Prince, explores the cost of art in the extremes that science fiction can take you in... and explores types of art that I've never given much thought to before: body art and graffiti.
Body art includes everything from tattoos, piercings, brandings, and scarrings. My teen stepdaughter recently told me how dermal anchor piercings, often combined with tattoos (to add texture and sparkle to a tattoo) are becoming very popular at her school.
Sometimes there are cultural reasons behind body art, and sometimes it is purely personal expression. I think temporary body bling is really fun, but I've never loved anything enough (like a tattoo, for instance) to get it done permanently. But it's always interesting when you get to hear the stories behind other people's tattoos.
Some piercings just blow my mind. Mostly I end up thinking: wow, that must be painful, and I wonder what makes a person want to express themselves that way? (This book sort of helped me understand it better, but I think it will also get teens thinking more about body art than just the short term fun/thrill of it).
Any type of art can be controversial, but extreme body art and graffiti seem definitely fall into controversy because of health issues and alteration of public and private spaces.
The Summer Prince dives into both these controversial areas head first. June, the main character, uses the advanced tech available in this futuristic SF world to do extreme graffiti and body art, as seen in the cover of the book: she implants lights in her skin to form patterns, though an unintentional byproduct of this body-modding is that the lights start to reflect her moods. So cool!
But even more wild, in this book nanotech has allowed for such extreme body modification that it can turn living humans into immortal data streams.
Extreme body modification results in so much controversy that some cities have outlawed it, which forms the basis for the plot and the conflict in The Summer Prince.
In the beautiful pyramidal Brazilian city June lives in, body modifying tech is severely limited, but on the other hand, the city's election of a new Queen every five years is heralded by human sacrifice. And you thought the Hunger Games touched on controversial subjects! The Summer Prince also frankly deals with same-sex marriages, homosexuality, casual sex and voluntary euthanasia. Because it's YA it doesn't get explicit in any of these, but this is still not a book I'd recommend to just anyone. I struggled through reading this book at times, but in the end I'm so glad to have finished it, because it does have strongly redemptive ending (like the Hunger Games series).
Here's five things that stood out to me about this book:
1) In the author's words: "it envisions a future that's not just about the US or about white people, that is cautiously optimistic, that is neither utopian nor dystopian" - neither utopian or dystopian: finally, yes!!! That is what this book is: complicated and hard to categorize, crossing boundaries, controversial, dense and rich, sharp and confusing - this book totally pushes the edge of YA.
2) June's city is governed by a matriarchal system: it's ruled by women called Aunties. I find that title very amusing and ironic. And talk about an ironic twist at the end that made me sit up and go "wow!"
3) the city has an A.I. (artificial intelligence) system that makes it somewhat alive and sentient. It's illegal to for individuals to interface with the city, but of course breaking the rules is all part of the story.
4) the setting was in South America, and very rich with Brazilian culture intermingled with other cultures such as African and Japanese. Multi-cultural science fiction! It stretched me: I love to see the world in new ways and this book certainly delivers that.
5) Technology allows people to live up to 300 years, with the result that there are many more adults (grandes) than children and teens (wakas) and there are some complicated dynamics between the two. Also, the extreme body-modifying tech - this raises so many questions that the book explores.
Characterization: June, Enki, Gil and Bebel are memorable characters, if not exactly likeable (they are all vain, in different ways). But they all have fascinating character arcs. June goes the furthest in her arc, and her perception of her art, especially as she strives to win the Queen's prestigious art award, reflects her changes. This is her at the beginning:
I'm an artist, after all, and I live for spectacle, for the construction of emotional states and evocation of suppressed feelings.
Let me tell you, she has quite a different perception of being an artist by the end.
Setting: The setting was tremendous. I could totally visualize this world and I want more of it. I want to visit more of the cities mentioned, with all their outrageous architecture and AI.
Plot: This is the kind of book that challenged me to slow down as I was reading it and digest everything, and an ironic twist at the end that made me sit up and go "wow! I didn't see that coming, but of course I should have; how brilliantly it was set up!" There were some morally controversial elements; this book is definitely not one that's meant to be swallowed easily.
Thoughtful elements: The implications of using nanotech to alter our bodies; implications of slowed aging, increased life spans; the cost of artistic expression, implications of matriarchal rule.
What's the last really controversial book you've read... what made it controversial?