Sci-Fi YA Series Tankborn Imagines Caste, Class, and Skin Color in Dystopia

Victoria Law
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Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women

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This month, the final book in Karen Sandler’s dystopian young adult sci-fi series Tankborn hits the shelves. I profiled the series last year on Bitch as part of a series on portrayals of girls of color in dystopia and eagerly awaited the series’ third-and-final title, Rebellion

In Sandler’s series, Earth’s climate has collapsed, rendering it uninhabitable. Some people have escaped to the planet Loka, creating the new society’s strict caste system in the process. The “trueborns” are the most affluent class; they paid for the ships that brought everyone to Loka. Those who could not afford passage  bought their way with servitude and, in the new world, become “lowborns.” Then there are the GENs. As “Genetically Engineered Non-Humans” bred in tanks and raised to be poorly paid workers, GENs are the most-despised underclass.

The story centers on Kayla, a fifteen-year-old GEN who is assigned to be a caretaker in the house of an influential trueborn family. But her assignment sets into motion a series of events that threaten to topple the entire hierarchy. The book was influenced in part by India’s caste system and we see traces of Indian culture throughout—from the curry and saffron used to spice futuristic foods to names like Devak, Ved and Pitamah.

Karen Sandler answered a few questions about her trilogy and the social issues she references in the world she’s built in the far-off future. 

VICTORIA LAW: What made you decide to write Tankborn? How did it grow into a trilogy?

KAREN SANDLER: I spent the first dozen or so years of my writing career penning romance novels. I had started writing romances because I loved reading them, but after 17 published books, the work was starting to feel stale. My editor at Harlequin rejected five proposals in a row and I decided I needed to start fresh somewhere else.

As it happened, I’d just read two or three YA books and loved them. I also had tucked away a screenplay I’d written in the mid-80s. I started thinking about how to adapt that screenplay about genetically engineered slaves into a young adult science fiction novel. Tankborn was the result.

You’ve stated that the first draft of Tankborn was influenced by a colleague’s stories of growing up under India’s caste system. But Loka’s caste system also closely resembles the class and race hierarchies in U.S. history. While writing Tankborn, did you see that connection as well?

I absolutely saw the connection. And unlike some elements of the story that grew organically in the course of writing the book, I intentionally wrote Tankborn to reflect a connection to our slavery system in the U.S.

As someone who is from a privileged class (white), I couldn’t write the oppression of the GENs from personal experience—I could only imagine it. But having grown up in the turbulent ‘60s and ‘70s and having a diverse set of friends who revealed their stories to me, I could at least describe the oppression from an observer standpoint.

While skin color is a marker of class in Tankborn, it doesn’t follow the same pattern as the skin color hierarchies in the Americas: in Tankborn, if a person is too dark OR too light, this was an indication of lower social standing. What made you write this skin color hierarchy?

Honestly, I just wanted to mix it up. I wanted skin color to be an issue, but not necessarily on the divisions we have now.

However, in contemplating your question, it struck me that the way I ended up writing the various characters, the trueborns who are light-skinned/white are the most arrogant and feel the most entitled (although they are all minor-status, at the lowest rung of the trueborns). I don’t think that was a conscious choice. Maybe it’s my involvement in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and greater awareness of my own white privilege that made me notice it now.

What made you decide to write Kayla as a brown-skinned protagonist? 

First I want to say I did hesitate because I didn’t want brown-skinned to equal slave. But while I had a person of color as my “male lead” (to use movie parlance), had my female main character been white, it would have weakened my intent to have person of color front and center. Since Kayla ended up being the most important character in the trilogy, it turned out to be key that she not be white.

Mishalla, Kayla’s best friend, has red hair and pale skin. Was it a conscious decision to have the protagonist’s best friend read as white?

It was a conscious decision because I wanted it to be clear that the GENs were created in all colors, sometimes even in near high-status color. Again, I didn’t want darker skin to equal enslavement.

In the movement to liberate GENs, trueborns make decisions on behalf of the GENs they are supposedly working alongside of. They tell GENs only what they need to know while uploading secret packets of information for them to pass along. What made you decide to write such an unequal (and paternalistic) relationship into the movement for liberation?

I’ll admit that part of that was an analogy to the way teens, who certainly feel that they should be free actors, are often at the mercy of the adults in their lives. But I also wanted to emulate the “we’ll take care of you, we know what’s best for you” attitude that slaveholders in the U.S. often held regarding their slaves. [Trueborn character] Zul is just as caught up in his high-status privilege as some of the low-status characters. He’s not very self-aware about it either—Zul should know better, since he was there at the beginning of the GENs. But his paternalistic attitude toward the GENs is just too ingrained for him to see clearly what he’s doing.

What do you hope for readers to take away from the trilogy?

First, I’d want them to enjoy their immersion into Tankborn’s world. While I think the books have strong themes, the trilogy is not meant to be any kind of moralistic teaching tool. It’s fiction, and it’s to be enjoyed.

But if readers are open to delving into the many layers of Lokan society, there are some realizations I’d like them to take away. Certainly that slavery is wrong, no matter what kind of reasoning a society might make to justify it. Humanity is innate, not something decided on by the dominate class and imposed or withheld from the non-majority class. Tinkering with human genes is a road studded with moral landmines. And even the most oppressed can rise up and demand an equal place in the world.

Writer Victoria Law read nearly 40 books for her blog series Girls of Color in Dystopia

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