Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Kea's Flight - in a ship of imperfect children

Kea's Flight
by Erika Hammerschmidt and John C. Ricker

Reviewed by Deirdre Murphy

“More. I want more food.”

A boy nearby was dawdling, taking forever to eat his energy bar. Two whole bites’ worth of it were just sitting there uneaten, and it had been bigger than mine to start with. The boy wasn’t skinny like me. He had extra fat on his sides and his neck that wiggled a little as he moved. It wasn’t fair.

“You. Give me that bar now.” I walked toward him, reaching out for his food. “I’m still hungry. They give you more food than me, and you don’t need as much. So give it to me right now.”

He made eye contact, curious, holding out the bit of energy bar as if to ask me if that were really what I wanted.

Beep. Beep. Beep. One of the cafeteria robots rolled toward the boy, taking away the morsel. I looked at the bot expectantly, wondering if it would correct the unfairness and give it to me. But it simply opened a compartment in the front of its body, inserted the food, and then grabbed the boy and held him down. A tube emerged from just above the compartment; one of the robot’s steel claws helped push the tube up his nose and down his throat, force-feeding him the now-dissolved energy bar.

Kea’s Flight
by Erika Hammerschmidt and John C. Ricker

I loved the opening scene of Kea's Flight, which features a very young Kea stuck in a situation that’s strange to the reader and incomprehensible to her. She’s real and vivid, her Asberger’s perfectly depicted, and Kea herself is sympathetic in her imperfection. I wanted to know more about how she got into such a predicament, and what would happen to her.

Kea was raised on a spaceship, gestated in an artificial womb and destined to help colonize a planet. Kea and all of the other children on the ship were genetic rejects, removed into artificial wombs by parents who didn’t want to keep them and a government that forbade abortion.

I know that in our world, parents with one socially-challenged child have their hands full—imagine surrogate parents, assisted by robots, who must somehow raise dozens of children with handicaps, all the same age, decanted from their artificial wombs in the same year! Kea’s early life was not easy.

I was sucked in by that first scene, thankfully before the too-long exposition about autism and Asbergers that lurks near the beginning of the book. I think those paragraphs should have been cut completely, or at least been relegated to an appendix in the back. It wasn’t anything new or ground-breaking, just real-world background information—and information that is mentioned in the book as it is needed in any case, since the “rems” are brought up with knowledge of their prenatal diagnoses and what those diseases do to the people who suffer from them.

Happily, the book quickly returns to Kea and her slowly growing circle of delightfully quirky friends. Kea invents a game that allows them to speak with each other freely about things their caretakers would punish them for, and her first friend finds ways to access information that their caretakers don’t think the flawed children in their care can handle. Together, they face threats from their caretakers (themselves misfits who were exiled from Earth for one reason or another) and from the ship itself, which they come to understand was put together as cheaply as possible while still keeping up the appearance that these “removed” children will have a chance at a good life.

If all goes well, they’ll reach their destination planet on their collective 21st birthday, at which time they will, according to the learning tapes, be granted the rights and privileges of adults, and allowed to make lives on the planet’s surface. But the planet was chosen from afar, more than 1000 planet-years ago, by scientists who had incomplete information. If the planet isn’t suitable, or if something happened to it while they traveled at relativistic speeds through deep space, what then?

The author also reveals glimpses of the spaceship from the other side—the grownups on the ship have fallen under the control of a dangerous psychopath, and many are convinced that Kea, her friends, and all the children living in Kea’s side of the ship are all defective children, who will never be capable of assuming the responsibilities of adults.

Everything comes to a head when they are 19, and the ship reaches the point where the computers can get a visual of the planet, and the programs scan for the elements in the new planet’s air, triggering a computer bug with dangerous consequences for everyone on the ship. Kea and her friends must act fast, for the lives of everyone on the ship are at stake, grown-ups and rems alike.

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