Wither is a young-adult, dystopian novel by Lauren DeStefano, the first in a series known as The Chemical Garden Triology. The blurb on the back cover summarizes the plot as:
In the not-too-distant future, genetic engineering has turned every newborn into a ticking time bomb: Males die at age twenty-five, and females die at age twenty. While scientists seek a miracle antidote, young girls are routinely kidnapped and sold as polygamous brides to bear more children. When sixteen-year-old Rhine is taken, she enters a world of wealth and privelege that both entices and terrifies her. She has everything she ever wanted–except freedom.
Soon it becomes clear that not everyone at her new husband’s home is how they appear. With the help of Gabriel, a servant Rhine is growing dangerously attracted to, Rhine attempts to escape…before her time runs out.
I thought the premise of genetic experimentation gone wrong sounded intriguing. A friend warned me that the book made her angry, but I thought it would be like the way reading about difficult or controversial subjects can get under your skin and ignite a passionate fury, (like A Child Called It, Unwind, or Room) but she was right, this book was just plain maddening, and not in a good way.
The following are specific issues I had with this story and the fictitious world it inhabits. (Warning, *SPOILERS* ahead):
The Polygamy. I just really didn’t expect that it was going to be actual, full-on polygamy. I thought it would be more like typical young-adult love triangles, only with the twist that they were technically married. But the girls’ collective husband, Linden, has sex with two of his wives, and the fact that he doesn’t sleep with all three is not for a lack of desire or effort on his part. Most disturbingly, 21-year-old Linden takes the virginity of his youngest wife, Cecily, who is thirteen. She is eager to step into the glamorized (in her mind) role of wife and woman, but she is a child. The fact that Linden impregnates her just about made me sick.
I mean if she’s going to die at 20 I guess 13 is beyond mid-life, but if the goal is pure procreation then polygamy isn’t really the most efficient method. Why have a wife when you can just have a baby factory, like the Cylons have on Caprica? (Battlestar Galactica, Season 2 Epsidoe 5 “The Farm”). There is an explanation given for this, actually; it is said that Housemaster Vaughn, (Linden’s long-living “first generation” father), believes the artificial insemination of the “first generation” is part of what unknowingly caused the virus, and that a cure can only be found in a natural-born child. Cecily explains his belief to Rhine, in chapter 25:
Housemaster Vaughn is a brilliant doctor. He’s working very hard. He has a theory that the problem is that the first generations were conceived artificially. So if a baby is born naturally, that baby can be fixed through”–she pauses, trying to remember the words, then she says them carefully, like she might break them–external intervention.”
I’m not sure how this theory makes sense, if the first generation doesn’t show any of the symptoms of the deadly virus they pass on to their children. And just how is “external intervention” of a newborn different from manipulation of an embryo before it’s implanted? I mean, yes, it’s different, but if genes are being manipulated, does it matter when or how the intervention takes place? I don’t know, I’m not an expert on gene therapy. (Sidenote: interestingly, the Cylons reach a similar conclusion to Housemaster Vaughn, that “love” is the necessary mystery ingredient to successful Cylon procreation).
Linden. I just despised him. What does he think gives him the right to multiple wives? I just don’t understand polygamy, so I guess this ties in with the issue above. But what I really disliked about Linden was the attempt to paint him as an innocent victim, lied to by his father, cruel only because he is truly unaware of the truth. Yes, Housemaster Vaughn manipulates and lies to his son, but to blame Linden’s faults on someone else is bullshit. Human beings are responsible for how they treat other humans. And Linden never once acts like he considers his wives as fully human–he treats them more like pets or objects that he wants to take care of. He’s gentle, he’s superficially worried about their well-being and respectful of their preferences, but he is never genuinely concerned about who they are or what they want. I don’t think he sees their perspectives as equal to his. I don’t think he perceives them as fully human. I mean, he’s confused as to why Rhine doesn’t want to sleep with him and tells her “I want to have a baby with you” on the same day that his son with Cecily is born.
The worst part about Linden is I think he could have been a redeemable character. If Rhine and Jenna had been honest with him about their forced captivities, if they had enlightened him to the way they were actually prisoners, if they had confided their suspicions about his father’s manipulative secrecy, I think Linden would have become their ally, not to mention a better, more thoughtful person. (It’s possible that DeStefano plans to mature Linden in some of these ways in the sequels, but I’ll probably never read them to find out.) But Linden as he is portrayed in Wither is despicable.
The domestics. If they are going to die in a few short years as well, why would “the domestics” or any of the servants in the mansion be so eager to spend their brief lives slaving away for their masters? Why and how would they be so skilled? The explanation given is that they are trained at orphanages, and sold off to the highest bidder. I suppose that if servant-life at the mansion is substantially better than orphanage-life, it might be motivation to want to do a good job as a servant. But Dierdre, Rhine’s personal “domestic,” is supposedly an amazing seamstress, and a talented beautician, (which seems so cliché , like why do the heronies always have to look stunning in the hands of their beauty team? I want to read a book where the make-up artist is only so-so, and the narrator feels self-conscious about her sub-par hairdo.) Dierdre is portrayed as someone who’s biggest thrill and life’s reward is seeing her charge primped and pressed and dressed in her best. It’s patronizing and insulting and I didn’t like it.
Lack of voice. For that matter, I didn’t really care for the narrator herself. She almost felt more like a plot device than a person. I never got the sense that I knew who she was or could understand her or her motivations. She kept telling me statements about herself or her goals, but I never felt like the story really showed me her personality.
Too much homogeneity. If the technology to create super-babies immune to disease were possible, not everyone would take advantage of it. Partly because it would undoubtedly be expensive, and many people would be unable to afford it, and also because I guarantee there would be some who were ideologically opposed to tampering with human life and “playing God” in that way. Here is the explanation, in chapter 2, for the origin of the “first generation” (emphasis added):
Seventy years ago science perfected the art of children. There were complete cures for an epidemic known as cancer, a disease that could affect any part of the body and that used to claim millions of lives. Immune system boosts given to the new-generation children eradicated allergies and seasonal ailments, and even protected against sexually contracted viruses. Flawed natural children ceased to be conceived in favor of this new technology. A generation of perfectly engineered embryos assured a healthy, successful population. Most of that generation is still alive, approaching old age gracefully. They are the fearless first generation, practically immortal.
There is just no way it could become that widespread, that there would be no more “flawed natural children.” (I mean, hasn’t DeStefano seen Gattaca?!) In real life there are class differences and there are philosophical, religious, and ideological distinctions between different groups of people. In this book, the two ideological camps mentioned are reactionary to the virus, and there is no mention or allusion to society being made up of multiple viewpoints before the scientific breakthrough. It’s absurd.
The extreme homogeneity of the world of Wither is exacerbated by the fact that not a single non-white character populates the narrative. Even if North America was the only continent in existence, (see below), it is not a land mass populated solely by Caucasians! But the most “diversity” to be found here is that Linden’s wives include a blonde, brunette, and redhead. Of course.
North America is the sole remaining continent. This one is a real head-shaker. The explanation given is preposterous, and the implications downright offensive. I think I gasped out loud in anger when I read this, (emphasis added):
…a third world war demolished all but North America, the continent with the most advanced technology. The damage was so catastrophic that all that remains of the rest of the world is ocean and uninhabitable islands so tiny that they can’t even be seen from space.
First of all, you know it would be the countries with “advanced technology” that got taken out first in what sounds like the nuclear war being described here, right? If such a “catastrophic” war really took place and countries were destroyed or obliterated, it would be the less-developed countries that survived, the rural areas that were never a strategic target, the frozen mountains with impassable trails, the thick forests and jungles and swamps. (This already sounds like a more interesting story to me.)
What kind of weapon is even capable of reducing an entire continent to tiny islands? Assuming such destruction is possible, it would most definitely mean that sea levels would rise, which would affect the supposedly sole-remaining continent’s coastline. Guess what two specific locations are mentioned as settings in this story? Manhattan, New York…and Florida. Two places that would almost certainly not exist under the circumstances described. It’s so dumb. And it’s not even really necessary! There is enough catastrophe with this inescapable early death, you don’t need to add a world war and global destruction too, especially if it’s not going to make any sense. Just say that the characters don’t know anything the rest of the world because they don’t live long enough to travel and see it, or don’t mention it at all. Definitely don’t mention the global community by saying, as Rhine does in chapter 6 (emphasis added):
I have always been fascinated by the ocean, to dip a limb beneath its surface and know that I’m touching eternity, that it goes on forever until it begins here again. Somewhere beneath it lies the ruins of colorful Japan, and Rose’s favorite, India, the countries that could not survive.
I actually like imagery in the first sentence, but it’s marred by this offensive, repeated assumption that Westerners are somehow superior to the rest of the world. If only everybody else was white, and had the advanced technology that North America enjoys, (because there are no impoverished areas on this whole continent, you know,) they might have been able to survive. What’s that you say? Other countries do have advanced technologies? The best innovations don’t always originate in English-speaking parts of the world? I know. That’s why this made me so angry; it just showed a complete lack of international awareness or sensitivity. Like, “sorry, rest-of-world, you don’t matter.”
Nonsensical elements. Really, why would the kidnappers shoot the rest of the girls in the van they rounded up, that weren’t chosen as wives by Linden? If working female wombs are so valuable, couldn’t they have found someone else to sell the remaining girls to? Or just abandoned them? Why is it necessary to shoot them? Is it just so Jenna knows without a doubt what happened to her sisters? It just doesn’t make any sense, in a world that’s supposedly so preoccupied with preventing the extinction of mankind, to arbitrarily kill people like that.
How are Rhine and her brother able to find “work” so easily? I mean why do factory production and shipping and things like that still exist? Who is running these complicated infrastructures? It seems like there would be a lot more crumbling of the social infrastructure than there is. At one point Rhine and Jenna watch a soap opera together, and “the actors are all teenagers made up to look much older,” (chapter 17). When reminiscing about her limited schooling, Rhine says that the children present all have first-generation parents who think education is important, or they are orphans who want to learn how to read scripts so they can become actors. Who is producing these shows? Is the writing, directing, and producing all done by first-generations? If this culture is so obsessed with the glorious old days when people lived longer, why don’t they just air re-runs??!
When Rhine goes on her first public outing with Linden as his ‘first wife,’ she meets a man wearing a suit that she describes as “more expensive than a month of electricity in the mansion.” But how would she know? How does she know how much electricity costs in general, how does she know how much it costs for a building she’s only seen a few floors of, and how does she know that the suit in question is expensive? Is she an expert in fashion or wearable materials? (Hint: she isn’t.)
Why does this future have such advanced holographic technology, yet still use an old-fashioned card catalog in the library?! This makes absolutely no sense.
Confusing and contradictory references. The text mentions a celebration of the winter solstice, which nobody has called “Christmas” since before the first generation was born. But then at one point Rhine describes colorful frosting as “like Dorthy’s Oz;” please explain to me how a pop culture reference like The Wizard of Oz survives if all references to and understandings of Christmas die out?
Also, Housemaster Vaughn has to explain to Rhine what the idiom “apple of one’s eye” means, (chapter 11), and he says it’s “an expression we old people have.” But why wouldn’t she know this phrase? Her parents were also first-generation, and supposedly told her so much about the world and things they remembered that didn’t exist anymore (kites don’t exist anymore, but kite string does, which is another ridiculous detail because you can make a kite out of newspaper and sticks, so, I’m not sure why they are ‘extinct’). In any case, if two of the major sources for Rhine’s linguistic input as a child were from the same generation as Housemaster Vaughn, why wouldn’t they incorporate the same phrases and slang into their daily discourse? I’m not sure what language change in a population such as the one described in Wither would look like, but it seems like the language might actually become less fluid overall since the most consistent speakers would be the persisting first generation, and any youth trends that arose would literally die out every decade. And I assume the orphanages are all being run by first-generations, (who else would be capable? Orphans caring for orphans? Maybe the fact that orphanages would even exist is unlikely,) so it seems the majority of the population would in fact have opportunity to be linguistically influenced by the “old people.”
I would not recommend this book. I don’t know that I even care to read the sequels. I just don’t care enough about these characters to worry what will happen. The flaws in the world-building are too obvious and distracting to ignore, and the story itself is largely disappointing.
Consistency and logic are key to good world-building! It doesn’t have to be absolutely factual, it just has to make sense.