Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Microreview [book]: Assimilation, by James Stryker

An intriguing premise that turned out to be an explosive disappointment

Stryker, James. Assimilation. Momentum, 2016.
What if you died, and were floating on towards the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, your soul gearing up for a major change of pace as you are about to be reincarnated…but were sucked away from that light by being reanimated? (I’m not spoiling anything here, as this is like the first two pages of Assimilation.)

It might be a bit bizarre, but that’s just an awesome premise, if you ask me. Stryker had me at “about to be reincarnated”, in fact, even without the intriguing cryogenic pseudoscience that explains the mechanics of the main character’s reanimation. And I was even more excited when Stryker revealed that the soul in question, formerly belonging to a woman (mangled in a car crash), had formed quite a firm identity as a man, only to find itself back in the woman’s reconstructed body! It sounded mesmerizing to me—the sort of story that Self/Less should have been, adding a bit of Tiresias-style wisdom on the matter of biological sex and gender into the mix.

Yeah, it sounded mesmerizing, and parts of it were—but the extreme hostility shown by the character (Andrew) towards the idea of being a woman was nothing like Tiresias (who, you’ll recall, used his experience at having been both a man and a woman to conclude that women enjoy sex more than men, and for this answer was rewarded with a face-full of going blind from the irate Hera). Without presuming to know anything about the author, I can nonetheless conclude that he has neither interest in nor empathy for heterosexual women or their troubles. Is it really that awful to imagine being a woman that Andrew (trapped in his soul’s former body, and known to everyone as Natalie) has absolutely no interest in it at all? Stryker indicates that Andrew has lost all but the faintest memories of being Natalie, so it’s not like he’s bored of being biologically female. Speaking for myself, if Hera or Zeus or whoever cursed me to forget what it was like to inhabit a body whose biological sex was consistent with my own gender identity, then zapped me into a body that did not match said gender identity, I’m sure I’d be upset, but hopefully without oozing visceral disgust for everyone of the biological sex to which I’d been transplanted!

Moreover, the protagonist shows basically no empathy at all to Natalie’s son (or the admittedly kind of horrible husband). The kid looks at Andrew and sees his mother, but Andrew is so uncomfortable at this that he starts lacing the kid’s drinks with sleeping pills. Natalie’s former BFF, who has several of her own kids, comes in for particularly scathing monologue/description from Andrew, who, it seems, is openly contemptuous of women who choose to have children.

This brings us, finally, to the husband. Without giving too much away, I can say that the husband is definitely the antagonist, the greatest obstacle preventing Andrew from self-realization. And as readers, we are obviously meant to sympathize with poor Andrew while hating the controlling micromanager of a husband. Stryker stacks the deck with signals of the husband’s ‘evil’, and to a large extent they’re effective in preventing the reader from identifying with the husband. But the thing is, for most of the story the husband is extremely understanding, and only goes bonkers right near the end (or in other words, viewed from his perspective, he was extremely slow to anger, and only ‘snapped’ after an incredible accumulation of slights by Andrew/Natalie). Andrew is even worse than the husband, in fact, displaying an almost ludicrous single-mindedness about getting what he wants at any cost.

For example, in the beginning Andrew thinks all he will need to do is pacify the husband for six months before declaring himself desirous of a new identity…and can’t/won’t even do the bare minimum required to pass this threshold despite thinking it’s in his own self-interest to do so. Being with Natalie’s former BFF repels him so thoroughly he avoids her completely after a single queasy encounter, but keeps up a steady stream of lies to Natalie’s husband about seeing her all the time so he can instead do whatever he wants (despite the incredible danger of this, since the husband, in a sense, ‘owns’ the reanimated Natalie). To sum up—Andrew’s a selfish, irrational dick.
He monologues about how repelled he feels when Natalie’s husband touches him, no matter how fleeting or innocent the contact (and keep in mind, to the husband all he’s doing is touching his own wife’s body!). Probably many readers will assume this is a sort of homophobia on his part, a sense of discomfort at physical intimacy with a man given that he is identifying as a man internally (very much despite the female body). But later he falls in love with a man, so that certainly complicates the ‘homophobia’ diagnosis, leaving one more puzzle at Andrew’s core. And his reaction when the female friend jumps to the conclusion “Natalie” is pregnant was probably the most misogynistic thing I’ve read in years: to paraphrase, the idea of a baby growing inside him was so repugnant he was physically sick, etc., etc. (way to take a dump on gazillions of women and their experience there, Stryker!).
The story also takes aim at the very idea of cryogenic reanimation, introducing several other characters who suffered brain damage during the painstaking procedure and strongly implying (in the absence of a single ‘success story’) that radical personality changes are the norm, not the exception. So a remarkable (if decades distant!) technology is being denounced, Michael Crichton style, because of the risk that it might lead to personality change in some of the people who are freakin’ being resurrected? Stryker’s denunciation notwithstanding, cryogenic reanimation sounds pretty awesome to me, and I fail to see how being alive—and in a perfect, problem-free reconstructed body, no less!—could be worse than being dead. Stryker suggests the process would interfere with reincarnation, but this all really boils down to a “it ain’t natural” sort of objection, to say nothing of the (ahem) lack of compelling evidence on reincarnation. In short, Andrew et al should focus on the positives: they’re alive!
And speaking of being alive, the ending of the story, which I can’t discuss in detail for fear of spoilers, was a big, explosive disappointment. Still, at least Styker thoughtfully brought Andrew’s constant and rather shockingly selfish monologues to a merciful end…

In short, if you want to read about an intriguing premise, only to have the story derail into a frustrating pity party by one of the 21st century’s least likeable characters—you’ve picked a winner!

The Math

Objective Assessment: 4/10

Bonuses: +1 for wonderful premise

Penalties: -1 for rampant misogyny, -1 for creating a main character so unlikeable he might be able to outdo Donald Trump

Nerd coefficient: 3/10 “not at all what I’d call ‘good’”

This review is by Zhaoyun, a regular contributor at Nerds of a Feather since 2013 and usually a gentle soul who dislikes scathing reviews but had no choice but to scathe in response to this.