In Karen Sander’s dystopian young adult book Tankborn, the world is a stringent caste system where race and origins determine all status. Tankborn was a hit and the sequel, Awakening, just came out this April, which means now is a great time to discuss the race and gender angle of the book.
Tankborn’s futuristic world of Loka contains a strict hierarchy of trueborns, demis, lowborns and Genetically Engineered Non-humans (GENs), that has been compared to India’s caste system. Sandler herself has stated that a colleague’s descriptions of growing up in India under the caste system influenced her first draft. We see traces of Indian culture throughout—from the curry and saffron used to spice otherwise-futuristic foods to names like Devakl, Ved and Pitamah.
While reading Tankborn, I immediately thought of not India (whose caste system I know little about), but the United States’ own shameful history (and continuing practice) of pitting low-income whites against people of color in ways that prevent unified resistance to the ruling class.
Sandler builds a world which recreates that system. In the book, Earth’s climate has collapsed, rendering it uninhabitable. The trueborns, or most affluent class, escaped to the planet Loka. Trueborns have their own hierarchy: high-status, demi-status and low status, but they are all considered better than those who could not afford passage, or lowborns, who bought their way to the new world with servitude. Then the GENs were created. Created in tanks and raised to be poorly-paid workers to trueborns, GENs become the most-despised underclass. GENs who anger trueborns can be reset—their minds, complete with memories and personalities, are wiped clean while their body and skillsets are preserved.
If your high school history class somehow skipped this segment, here’s a short refresher: When Europe began colonizing what would become the American continent, lower-class white people were able to buy passage to the New World by becoming indentured servants. The terms of indentured servitude were defined and indentured servants could look forward to the day when they would be free from bondage. When Africans were brought over as slaves, white indentured servants were allotted a few more privileges than the slaves to prevent unity from forming between the two groups.
Similarly, in the world of Loka, the creation of the GENs sixty-five years earlier, has freed the lowborns from their servitude. Kayla, a fifteen-year-old GEN, notes the happiness of the lowborns she passes on the street. “Why shouldn’t they be happy?” she reflects. “They were free. They might not have the status of a trueborn, but they were natural-born. Not something fermented in a tank. They weren’t tattooed, weren’t Assigned, weren’t monitored on the Grid like a GEN was. They could never be reset or realigned. They picked their own jobs and earned ten times the dhans a GEN would for the same work, even when they worked right alongside GENs.”
In addition, the GEN religion urges GENs to accept their servitude as both a trial and a way back to the hands of the Infinite. Again, for those who missed it in history class, slavemasters and preachers frequently used religion to persuade slaves to docilely accept their oppression in life, promising rewards in the Hereafter.
GENs have been created in all different shades. Kayla’s friend Mishalla has pale skin and red hair. Kayla’s nurture-brother Jal is black-skinned while Kayla is a paler brown. The one unifying feature is the tattoo on their cheek, linking to their inside circuitry. Trueborns and their enforcers use these tattoos like USB ports, uploading or verifying a GEN’s date. If they decide a GEN is too rebellious or even just irritating, they use the tattoo to reset them.
For humans, however, skin color indicates social standing. Kayla recalls what she learned in the Doctrine school, which every young GEN attends: “Darker color was better, but only to a point. Devak’s [rich medium-brown] skin was perfect…but more than a few tones in either direction could mean demi. Someone as dark as Jal would certainly be minor status if they were trueborn at all—more likely they’d be lowborn. And too-light skin would bump a trueborn into minor-status as well unless, like Livot’s family apparently had, they’d bought their way into a demi status.” Devake’s friend Junjie Tsai has skin “a shade or two too pale and tinged with gold.” The Tsai family’s pale skin places them on the lower edge of demi status.
All of these systems have been firmly entrenched by the time Kayla has turned fifteen. While these injustices frustrate her, she doesn’t challenge them. She is assigned to the house of the high-status Trueborn Manel family, where she engages in spirited debates about the oppression of the GENs with Devak, the Manels’ teen son. Some of Kayla’s points mirror arguments about the humanity of African slaves and their descendants. When Devak attempts to defend GEN enslavement by pointing out their animal DNA, Kayla responds, “But the animal part of me is so small. The tiniest scrap. Why is the whole GEN non-human when such a small bit is animal?” These arguments echo the “one-drop rule” adopted in the United States South—if a person had even one drop of African blood, they were considered black and subject to all race-based restrictions and legalized injustices.
The debates about status continue in Sandler’s newly-released sequel Awakening. Within the movement to liberate GENs, trueborns make decisions on behalf of their GEN comrades. They tell the GENs only what they feel they need to know while uploading secret packets of information for them to pass along. It makes me wonder if this is how some of the American abolitionist groups functioned. I certainly know of many contemporary political groups that work this way today.
While Sander may not have intended to link Loka’s hierarchy to American history, I hope that readers of Tankborn and Awakening can draw connections to the ways that race and class have been—and are still—used to pit people against each other in their own home countries. We all know this shameful history—and present-day practice—isn’t limited to India and the United States, right?