on September 8, 2015
Genres: dystopian, science fiction
Pages: 288 pages
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads
Fifteen-year-old Kivali has never fit in. As a girl in boys’ clothes, she is accepted by neither tribe, bullied by both. What are you? they ask. Abandoned as a baby wrapped in a T-shirt with an image of a lizard on the front, Kivali found a home with nonconformist artist Sheila. Is it true what Sheila says, that Kivali was left by a mysterious race of saurians and that she’ll one day save the world? Kivali doesn’t think so. But if it is true, why has Sheila sent her off to CropCamp, with its schedules and regs and what feels like indoctrination into a gov-controlled society Kivali isn’t sure has good intentions?
But life at CropCamp isn’t all bad. Kivali loves being outdoors and working in the fields. And for the first time, she has real friends: sweet, innocent Rasta; loyal Emmett; fierce, quiet Nona. And then there’s Sully. The feelings that explode inside Kivali whenever Sully is near—whenever they touch—are unlike anything she’s experienced, exhilarating and terrifying. But does Sully feel the same way?
Between mysterious disappearances, tough questions from camp director Ms. Mischetti, and weekly doses of kickshaw—the strange, druglike morsel that Kivali fears but has come to crave—things get more and more complicated. But Kivali has an escape: her unique ability to channel and explore the power of her animal self. She has Lizard Radio.
Will it be enough to save her?
Do you want to read a dystopian novel with a genderqueer protagonist who may or may not be part lizard? If this sounds like something you didn’t know you wanted, Lizard Radio is the book for you.
It’s a hard book to describe. Our protagonist, Kivali – familiarly known as Lizard, was abandoned as a baby (wrapped in a lizard t-shirt!). Lizard is adopted by Sheila, a human woman who becomes her foster mom and sends her, at the opening of the novel, to CropCamp. The novel takes off from there – CropCamp is all about teaching teenagers how to be good citizens of an oppressive totalitarian government; teens have to attend CropCamp or one of the many other strictly regimented government-run camps and, if they fail, risk being sent to Blight. At CropCamp, a camp focused on developing agricultural workers, group conformity is prized; state-sanctioned heterosexual relationships are supposed to emerge organically from the process; same-sex contact is forbidden. Lizard is thrown into this mix.
My favorite part of this book was its exploration of Lizard’s gender identity. In the world of Lizard Radio, Lizard is a bender; someone whose gender is indeterminate according to the rules set up by SayFree Gov. (Which are as follows! Children are tested and forced to settle on a particular gender expression according to those test scores. Children who fall in a certain middle range are benders, and made to choose a gender – and are forced to undergo gender training in accordance with that choice. But you have to choose – you have to conform to a gender binary. And benders are at risk for becoming samers – people who might experience same-sex desire – another undesirable identity in SayFree.) Anyway, so, much of the book is spent exploring this – what does it mean for Lizard to have a nonbinary gender identity in this society? How is this related to Lizard’s feeling of connection to the saurians? and connection to Lizard Radio, a sort of universal lizard hive-mind, that lets Lizard know things through trances? I really loved that the book drives home the importance of not-choosing in a world that wants to confine you to a particular set of identities. (There’s a great moment in one of Lizard’s trances, where Lizard describes how “each step, each motion, feeds my komodo heart and fires a fierce love for the world, for the sky and the dark and the night and the rain. I roar from the core of my soul, my boygirl humanlizard bender-comrade soul.” And if this is the sort of prose you enjoy – it is for me! – then you’ll like this book a lot.)
It’s not a perfect book, though it is a really interesting one. For one, it’s a hard book to get into. The book just dumps you into a world that’s unfamiliar to you, complete with vocabulary you don’t understand (“bender,” “vaping,” “samer,” “jazz,” “Cleazies,” “mealio,” “Pieville,” etc). This isn’t a bad thing – I actually like that it forces you as a reader to question and constantly redefine your terms. And it works really well in a novel that is about indeterminacy and the importance of *not choosing* to have the reader undergo this experience. (Like, I kept on having to redefine words based on new context clues, so my definitions for words and understanding of the text kept shifting). But all that said, it doesn’t make for an easy read.
Additionally, some of the plot twists in Lizard Radio seemed unnecessary View Spoiler » i.e., that Lizard is actually the camp director’s biological child. Why does this matter? « Hide Spoiler, and the world-building wasn’t as satisfying as I wanted it to be. This was a big problem for me, especially because the book is fairly brief (coming in under 300 pages). For example, if you set the novel in a dystopia that may or may not feature space lizards who may or may not have left tiny baby Kivali up for adoption, I want to know more about SPACE LIZARDS. But we don’t get much about SayFree Gov, and it seems like what we get in place of a fully fleshed out world are the sort of conventional trappings of a dystopian novel. (They’re given kickshaws, for example an opiate that makes them feel connected to each other and disinclined to resist; deviants get sent to a horrible wasteland called the Blight.) Additionally, though lizards are present through Kivali’s connection to the lizard hivemind and such, they don’t really move beyond being more than a symbol in the text. So, again. I wanted to know more about these lizards from space outside of Lizard’s sense of them. (Are they responsible for vaping people? Why are people disappearing? Are space lizards taking them? Inquiring minds want to know!)
So. Lizard Radio isn’t perfect, but I liked it anyway – the dystopian future world is potentially interesting, though not fleshed out enough for me, and I really loved Lizard, its genderqueer protagonist. Has anyone else read Lizard Radio? What did you think?