September 27, 2013

Review: Unremembered

Unremembered by Jessica Brody

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book started out so promisingly...and was such a disappointment in the end.

For quite a while now, the trendy thing in young-adult novels is the first person, present tense point of view. I personally think this POV is a bit problematic; I've written stories using it, but it's very easy to go over the top. There's a reason the past-tense POV is pretty much universal: it stays in the background and allows the story and characters to take over, rather than focus the attention on the author's hip, pretentious, artsy-fartsy style of writing.

That being said, this book's first-person, present tense, stream-of-consciousness POV is perfect for this story: a teenager waking up in the middle of the ocean, floating on debris, with absolutely no idea of who she is or how she got there. We learn what happened the same instant Violet (later Seraphina, her real name) does. She is, we come to find out, an unnaturally beautiful, unnaturally strong, unnaturally intelligent (she has a savant-like way with numbers) and unnaturally fast person who...isn't a "natural" person at all.

This is all revealed like a slow peeling of a tasty, sharp red onion, layer within layer. She wasn't actually on the plane she was supposed to be on. There's a boy following her around who tells her she's in danger, there are people hunting for her. Said people do show up, whereupon she finds out she can kick car doors clear off their hinges and outrun racehorses. The boy tells her she actually comes from a lab called Diotech. (The boy, Zen, also claims to have been her boyfriend and soul mate.) She's kidnapped by the bad people and meets another man, Rio, who tells her she is indeed an artificial person, created by the Diotech corporation. She and Zen get away from Rio, and Zen tells her all her still-vanished memories have been downloaded onto a tiny cube. He hooks her up to so-called "cognitive receptors"--tiny disks attached to her skull--so she can access them.

The story progresses, with Seraphina and Zen now on the run from the bad guys. Then the bad guys catch up to them and take Zen. This is definitely a turning point for Seraphina; she is determined to free him and is willing to sacrifice herself to do so. Going on the Internet to find a clue where he might be, she runs across Maxxer, a former Diotech employee who is willing to help her get Zen back. By this time, I realize we must be moving into far-future territory: nothing remotely like all this technology exists today. Sure enough, we find out Diotech actually exists about a hundred years in the future. Okay, so time travel is involved: a genuine science-fiction trope, along with genetic engineering and downloading of memories. (This doesn't come out of the blue, by the way; the idea has been well planted, with the repeated clue of the number "1609", which turns out to be the year.) I do pause when I read it; it's a bit of a heavy lift for a YA novel, but the story has been progressing so well to this point, I'm willing to continue. I wonder what machine the author will use for the actual time travel; the heart-shaped locket found on Seraphina seems altogether too flimsy to accomplish such a thing.

But when a final clue is revealed, the time-travel device isn't a machine at all; it's a gene, and an artificially created gene at that, which allows the bearer to "transesse" (short for chrono-spatial transession. I give the author credit for trying to create a sufficiently scientific-sounding term, but this simply doesn't work; it sounds like a brand of intersex cosmetic).

At this point, the story collapses under its own weight, and takes my suspension of disbelief with it.

Look, this simply isn't plausible. At all. Catherine Asaro and Julie E. Czerneda, two of my favorite authors and an actual physicist and biologist respectively, would not dare write such a hackneyed explanation as this. How the hell would you create something like this in the lab? What combination of DNA and proteins would you even use? There's at best a feeble attempt to explain it, which amounts to a lot of frantic handwaving. And only one gene, one artificial gene, can accomplish such a thing? Why wouldn't you need an entire artificial genome for something as monumental as time travel? How could you use such a gene to travel into the past? Just pick out a year and project yourself there, knowing nothing of where you might end up? If Seraphina got separated from Zen during their attempted flight to 1609, how the hell did she end up, all-too-conveniently, on a piece of floating debris after a plane crash? Why didn't she end up five miles into the atmosphere, or five miles under the surface of the ocean for that matter? And Dr. Maxxer says you can implant this artificial gene directly into yourself? Where, pray tell? Is it just floating around in her bloodstream? Seraphina gets the gene by drinking a liquid containing it. Why doesn't her stomach acid destroy it? How does she access it?

As you can tell, I'm very irritated by this entire concept. To put it bluntly, it ruined the book for me, and I came near to smashing it against the wall. I forced myself to finish the story, mainly because by that time I was so invested in the characters. Seraphina does rescue Zen, and uses her lone artifical gene to get them out of the cave where they're being held. Even this, the way it's described, seems more like simple teleportation--another established science fiction trope--instead of this "transession" nonsense. They end up jumping off a cliff and supposedly finishing their aborted journey, back to 1609.

Bah. I'm sorry, but this is just stupid. It's really sad, because the book was so good. I can't imagine why the editor didn't demand this gene business be dropped. I could actually accept the time-travel idea if it had been done by a machine instead of how it was presented, but I suppose that would have made it too easy for the bad guys to follow our heroes. At any rate, be warned. Needless to say, I'm not reading the sequel.

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