Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Gossip Girl in the Shell, part I

Skinned -and- Crashed
by Robin Wasserman

New York: Simon Pulse, 2008 and 2009

Skinned and Crashed are the first two parts of an intriguing new teen-cyberpunk trilogy by Robin Wasserman, which follows the postmodern cyberpunk identity crisis of a young girl whose life is rapidly destroyed by the technology that saved her in the aftermath of a car crash.

Lia Kahn is the rich, white, blond-haired, blue-eyed ubermadchen daughter of an upper upper class family. Lia goes to the most exclusive school, surrounded by the most exclusive friends, and access to the most exclusive technology available in a story set in a distopian future world still recovering from the horror of nuclear fallout. Lia has everything genetic engineering can provide: perfect looks, perfect mind, perfect life. She and her friends define culture, and walk in luxury.

Like this, but with better wi-fi.

Then the worst happens; Lia's body is destroyed in a freak car crash, forcing her parents to have her mind downloaded into an advanced prosthetic body made to resemble a human being as closely as possible. The story begins with Lia waking up, and follows her through the horror of losing everything she has ever had, and ever been.

In Skinned, Lia and her family are forced to confront the reality of her new situation. Has Lia truly been saved, or is she merely a facsimile of a girl who is now dead? Like all the best stories, the book provides no real answers. In Lia's world, Faith is a quaint concept held only by the delusional, and Lia herself has been raised to believe only in power and will. In fact, she and her family are terrifyingly fascist, and her father has raised her on Nazi slogans; literally, his motto is "work will set you free" - the words written over the gates of Auschwitz.

"Arbeit Macht Frei" = "Work Will Set You Free"

After the accident, Lia's connection with family and friends breaks down in a series of revelations which drive Lia away from her life and into the company of a group of fellow "skinners", other teens who've been downloaded (voluntarily or not) and exist outside of human society.

Some of the themes dealt with in this book are staples of modern cyberpunk and culture. Lia's friends' revulsion is tied to the "not-quite" effect, known as the uncanny valley, in which people are repulsed when confronted by something that very closely resembles a human face, but isn't quite there. This effect is the reason some recent CGI movies and video games haven't fared as well as expected; people just freak out when they see something close (but just not) human.

Feel that chill? That's the Uncanny Valley

As the people around Lia attack or abandon her, Lia herself is forced to deal with the loss of what she has always believed to be "herself". No longer able to "feel" as she once did, Lia experiences a series of emotional responses which are sneakily reminiscent of the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and (ultimately) acceptance. In the process, Lia comes to realize that she no longer belongs in the life she once led. By the end of Skinned, she has literally been stripped bare, and discards the identity of the girl whose life she has failed to replicate.

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