Wednesday, February 15, 2017

YA Guy Reviews... EXO by Fonda Lee!

Being YA Guy, I read a lot of YA science fiction. I've always loved sci-fi, and my own novels are in the genre. So I'd say one-third to one-half of the YA titles I read every year are billed as science fiction.

But you know, most of them are really bad.

Derivative plots. Weak or nonexistent science. Magic instead of logic. Zero philosophical complexity. Heavy petting and happy endings where I'm looking for ambiguity and enduring questions.

The problem, it seems to me, is that far too many writers of ostensible YA science fiction aren't really interested in sci-fi. They don't know it; they don't care about it; they don't feel it. They write it, I can only speculate, because it's popular in the wake of titles like The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and Divergent (which, whatever strengths it might have, is very weak science fiction). Instead of being lifelong lovers and advocates of the genre, they're dabblers. They write romantic fairy tales set in the future and call it science fiction, and those of us who cherish the genre are, I think, rightfully appalled.

All of this is preliminary to announcing that Fonda Lee, author of Zeroboxer (2015) and the brand-new Exo, is an exception to the above. She writes YA, but she's a true science fiction writer: in her heart, in her mind, in her blood. She knows the genre--its history, its traditions--and she pays tribute to it while extending it in exciting ways. That's what makes her so good.

Exo tells the story of Donovan Reyes, a teen soldier on a future Earth that's been colonized by an alien species. After years of war in which humanity suffered greatly at the hands of a technologically superior race, an accommodation has been reached between us and them; though the aliens effectively run the show, they've shared certain aspects of their technology with humankind, incorporated some humans into their kinship networks, and biologically transformed a select group of human beings, including Donovan, to exude an exoskeletal armor covering at will. When Donovan's captured by humans-first terrorists and forced to confront their beliefs head-on, his allegiance to the alien regime is called into question. And when he's required to choose between his father, who's a key figure in the accommodationist government, and an equally important person from his past, who's a central member of the terrorist group, Donovan's conflict comes to a head.

I didn't love everything about Exo; some of the emotional turning-points in the early going felt rushed to me, while the ending felt emotionally but not entirely intellectually satisfying. But what I did love about the book far made up for what I didn't: the imaginative rendering of an alien civilization; the plausible representation of human life under a colonizing power; the probing philosophical questions and moral quandaries; and, quite frankly, the really cool exocel armor system. There's action aplenty in Exo, and some romance too, but I never felt the way I feel about too much YA science fiction: that the futuristic setting is an excuse for lots of poorly executed fighting and smooching scenes. In Exo, the science fiction comes first, and that's the way it should be.

One of these days, I'm going to get around to compiling a list of my favorite YA science fiction books and authors. When I do, I'll share it here. And you can be sure that Fonda Lee and Exo will be on it.

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