YA novels can, I think, be usefully divided into two categories: books that are merely targeted at teenagers, and books that are about being a teenager. If, like me, you found adolescence a deeply painful experience, then you will probably want to avoid the latter category, especially if the book in question is described as a “screwball comedy”. This is a code term for, “putting characters in deeply embarrassing situations and laughing at them.” However, if you have an interest in gender-swapping themes in SF then Cycler by Lauren McLaughlin is a necessary read; and an interesting one too.
At heart Cycler is a werewolf story, but instead of turning into a ravening, hairy, be-fanged beast poor Jill McTeague turns into something infinitely more gross and shameful: a boy. Nor does this hideous transformation only happen under a full moon when there is unlikely to be anyone there to witness it. No, Jill’s change takes up four whole days of every month; a time when normal girls have the much easier problem of dealing with a period.
McLaughlin makes no effort to justify Jill’s “condition”, so it is no great surprise that Jill manages to hide it from her school-mates by claiming illness. Indeed, once we have been introduced to Jill’s terrifyingly ambitious and controlling mother, we rather suspect that the teachers will do anything they are told just to get Mrs. McTeague out of their hair. Home, however, is a different matter. Jill and her mother cook up ever more desperate and bizarre schemes to keep Jack, the unwanted alter-ego, under control and under wraps.
By treating the shape-changing as matter-of-fact, McLaughlin neatly steers her way through allsorts of minefields. As what she’s writing about isn’t identifiable as an actual transgender experience, she can claim innocence when confronted with ideologues of all stripes from religious fundamentalists to radical feminists to angry transgender activists. Meanwhile the reader is free to approach the book in whichever way she desires.
The most obvious explanation, if you want to concoct one, is that “Jack” is a psychological escape valve created by Jill’s subconscious in response to her mother’s attempts to turn her into the perfect daughter. Alternatively, “Jack” might be code for an actual transgender condition. It may seem odd to have a personality that veers dramatically between the excruciatingly girly Jill (Hello Kitty make-up bag and all) and the unreconstructed bag of testosterone that is Jack, but many transgender people spend a long time in denial, desperately trying to brainwash themselves into becoming “normal” before they get up the courage to face the world as themselves (and accept the social exclusion and discrimination that brings). The fact that Jill has a policy of hypnotizing herself into forgetting everything that happened to her as Jack when she changes back is, I think, significant.
Whatever reading you choose to place on the book, however, there is one message that comes over clear. Adults, especially parents, tend to be hopeless when confronted with gender issues, and many kids can be horribly cruel, but the smart kids are cool about the whole thing. They know that being true to yourself is what really matters. And in pushing that message McLaughlin has produced a book that is trans-positive even if she didn’t intend to do so.