(Note: This article contains spoilers.)
On a high school debate team trip, Reese Holloway and David Li find their world thrown into chaos when flocks of birds start attacking airplanes, grounding their plane and causing widespread panic. Reese, David, and their teacher try to get home by car, but their teacher is shot in a carjacking, and then another bird strike causes them to crash their car.
Reese is in a coma for nearly a month, and when she wakes up, something has changed. Suddenly she and David have strange new abilities, including rapid healing and telepathy, and suddenly the U.S. government is very interested in both of them. And a strange girl shows up in Reese’s life who just might know a lot more than she’s telling.
“Adaptation” and “Inheritance” by Malinda Lo combine conspiracy thriller, science fiction, and YA romance. In all three areas, they’re really not much more than average. Lo’s descriptive writing is fine and she comes up with some interesting ideas for the Imrians, her aliens. But her characters, despite the various changes and traumas they undergo, are rather flat, and the plots occasionally grow tedious. Even a sci-fi thriller can drag when the author spends too much time on her characters’ clothes, makeup, and hair.
Of even greater concern are some of Lo’s ideas about teen sexuality. Over the course of the two novels, Reese ends up in love with both David and Amber, the strange girl who turns out to be an Imrian, at the same time. Though no one actually has sex, some of the love scenes get a little graphic. But the larger issue is how this unconventional love triangle turns out: with Reese in a polyamorous relationship with both of her love interests.
It’s important to draw a distinction here. In books with sci-fi or fantasy settings, there’s nothing inherently wrong with exploring the idea of different kinds of relationships being morally acceptable on different planets. (C. S. Lewis, Kingsley Amis, and Brian Aldiss expand on this in a conversation called “Unreal Estates” in Lewis’s book “On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature.”) At the same time, it’s important to look at context. Lo wrote these books for teenagers, at a time when many believe it’s important to teach teenagers that, sexually speaking, anything goes. And she’s pretty clear that what she’s describing is polyamory and that there are those who advocate its acceptance right here on Earth. (Reese’s best friend, Julian, who’s gay himself, enlightens her about both polyamory and “open relationships.”)
As Amber tries to talk Reese into being involved with both her and David, she discounts human emotions like jealousy, explaining that Imrians don’t have that problem. “It’s not like you have a limited supply of love. You can love more than one person at once,” she tells Reese. “. . . It’s not fair to shut yourself off. That’s what’s unfair. To know that you have these feelings and then deny them.” She herself has three parents, she tells Reese, thanks to a procedure that allowed her mother and the two men in her mother’s life to contribute their DNA to her.
In short, to anyone who follows the news, it’s clear that there’s more going on here than just imaginative exploration — that Li is actively promoting a worldview.
Other content issues include profanity, underage smoking and drinking, and occasional violence. Reese sees and hears people using racial slurs about David, who is Chinese-American. Religion is mentioned now and then, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively, but ultimately ends up being something of a moot subject when the Imrians reveal knowledge of humanity’s origins that prove all religious theories wrong.
Li’s ideas as presented here could easily be seductive to a younger audience. If their kids are reading this book, it would be wise for parents to explain to them that human limits and emotions like jealousy (within reasonable bounds) aren’t something to transcend, but God-designed measures to protect and preserve us.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.