Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz leapt onto my radar when it won the Tiptree this year. Award-winning novel about a trans kid? Right up my street, I would have thought. It is certainly interesting, though I found it more frustrating than anything else.
I should start off by saying that it is beautifully written. I have no complaints on those grounds. It is the structure and the argument being made that left me floundering.
Let’s start with the setting Kivali is a young non-binary person in a world where being binary-identified and trans is perfectly OK, but being non-binary is deemed very wrong. Can you hear those alarm bells ringing immediately?
Kivali gets sent to CropCamp, a sort of summer camp for teenage citizens of this world that appears to be designed to teach them to be better citizens and to weed out those who are unwilling to conform to social rules. Those who fail badly are sent to somewhere called Blight which sounds like a forced labor camp.
Very early on in Kivali’s stay at the camp a young person who is very obviously non-binary goes off into the woods. Kivali sees them vanish. Not run away and not be found or anything like that, straight up vanish. This is known as “vaping” and was apparently quite common before the camp system was introduced.
Kivali is an obvious misfit, but they are also an orphan, found abandoned at an early age. There are suggestions that Kivali was abandoned by alien lizard people. Their nickname at the camp is Lizard.
Almost all of this set-up is not followed through. The book eventually turns into a story about the adults, their long-ago disagreements on politics, and how they are using Kivali as a weapon in their ongoing conflict.
Some of this is a good thing. I kept waiting for the book to kick in with the polemic about how awful binary-identified trans people are, and how we “reinforce the binary”. Thankfully it never happened, though given that it didn’t I can’t see why the society in the book is set up in the way it is.
The rest of it: the vaping – the alien lizard people – it is almost as if Schmatz is saying that by the end of the book Kivali has grown up and put away all of this childish nonsense so let’s not talk about it any more.
By the end I found myself thinking, “Well that was an nice little book, but why?”
Then again, at least it wasn’t awful, which I had expected it to be given the set-up.
Well, I say “not awful”, but please, why is it always the black character who has to die?
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