I’ve never been attracted to books set in a world in which women have been stripped of their reproductive rights and function mainly as breeders.
After all, I live in a very real society in which women’s rights over their bodies are constantly being eroded. The right to family seems to not apply to those who are poor, of color and/or incarcerated. So why escape to a world in which all of these injustices have been magnified?
The cover of Dan Well’s Partials depicts the back of a dark-haired girl of ambivalent skin color looking out over a wasteland. Nothing in the summary indicates that there are people of color in the book. To the jaded reader, Partials might very well be yet another book in which people of color have not survived the apocalypse. I wouldn’t have picked up Partials for this blog series on race and gender in dystopia had my twelve-year-old daughter not read and recommended it, letting me know that the main character is <gasp> a girl of color. And she’s not the only girl of color who’s survived dystopia.
The premise of a future in which birth rates have declined and women are forced to act as baby vessels isn’t new. Margaret Atwood explored such a world in her now-classic The Handmaid’s Tale. But the dystopia in Partials which forces women to breed non-stop isn’t motivated by religion and, with the exception of having no control over their reproductive rights, women aren’t subjugated to the men around them.
The Partials are artificially created beings with superior strength built as military weapons. When the story begins, the Partials have gone to war with their human creators and won. Humans have also been decimated by RM, a mutated virus against which no newborns are immune. The surviving humans have fled to Long Island where the Senate has passed the Hope Act, mandating that all women over the age of 18 be pregnant or actively trying to become pregnant. In fourteen years, no baby has survived; the youngest human is fourteen years old.
Sixteen-year-old Kira is a medic-in-training in the maternity ward. She barely remembers her deceased father, a dark-skinned Indian man with messy hair. She has no memories of her mother. Instead, Kira’s childhood memories center around Nandita, a woman who wore brightly-colored saris even when gardening, and Nandita’s three other foster daughters—Madison, Ariel and Isolde. Not much is described about them except that, of the four, golden-haired Isolde is the “lone light-skinned outlier in Nandita’s makeshift foster home.” Nandita’s also becomes home to Xochi, who appears to be Mexican. Xochi’s original foster mother is Senator Erin Kessler, described as “a proud Irish woman” who attempts to culturally indoctrinate her new daughter. “When Xochi got mad, she even slipped into an Irish brogue,” the author notes.
Not everyone agrees with the Hope Act. A group of rebel humans, calling themselves the Voice leave graffiti demanding the repeal of the Hope Act. Even among those inside the settlement, opinions clash. “We’re talking about institutionalized rape,” Xochi argues. “We’re talking about the government taking full control over your body—what it’s for, what you do with it, and what other people can do to it. I’m not letting some horny old dude screw me just because the law says I have to.” (It remains unclear as to whether this is one of the times that Xochi slips into an Irish brogue)
Kira too is frustrated by the Hope Act, but is less vocal than Xochi. When Madison announces that she is pregnant, Kira resolves to cure RM so that the baby might live more than 56 hours. To do so, she needs to capture a Partial. And to do that, she and her friends need to sneak out of the heavily-guarded Long Island community and into the long-abandoned borough of Manhattan.
Madison’s biological brother Jayden and her husband Haru assemble a small team to help Kira navigate the bombs and boobytraps of Brooklyn and Manhattan. While most of the team remains undescribed, the other young woman (Yoon-Ji Bak, a small-framed girl who became a soldier because her mother, whom she barely remembers, was one) is also a young woman of color. Both she and Kira are capable of holding their own in a fight—and, to their (and the author’s) credit, none of the men on their team question their ability to do so.
In Partials, the decimation of the human population seems to also have eradicated racism. Strangely, aside from Senator Kessler’s attempts to indoctrinate her Mexican foster daughter, no one seems to show any vestiges of racism. Compared to the constant threats and racist bullying from whites in Shadows Cast by Stars, the survivors in Long Island seem to live in an astonishing racial harmony. How much does the author’s race influence how he imagines humans interacting post-plague? I imagine that Dan Wells can imagine an end to racism during extreme times because, as a white man, he’s never been on the receiving end in the same way that people of color have been. In contrast, Shadows Cast by Stars author Catherine Knutsson, a Métis woman, has most likely had experiences that give her a more jaundiced view of how dire circumstances can exacerbate generations of institutional and personal racism.
Of course, this is all speculation. I’d love to hear others’ opinions on these two different takes on post-plague racial relationships.