In the 2788 of Janet Edward’s Earth Girl, humanity has colonized the galaxy thanks to planet-taming technologies and transportation portals resembling those from Stargate. Medical science provides for the regeneration of lost limbs, and many ailments exist only as descriptions in history books. However, a segment of humanity remains trapped on Earth due to an immunological defect that renders them allergic to off-planet environments. If these individuals – known as “apes,” “neans” (for Neanderthals), “throwbacks,” or, in what is considered polite terminology, “handicapped” – transport through a portal to another world they go into anaphylactic shock and will die quickly if not returned to Earth. Enter the central character, Jarra.
A bright young woman ready to start university, Jarra hopes to study history, preferably at a university not located on Earth. The problem? Jarra is handicapped, making travel from Earth impossible. This fails to stop her, however, as she enters a history program in an off-world university that requires beginning students to live on Earth. Jarra fails to plan what she will do once required to leave Earth, but for now she has matriculated with the aid of legal
finagling and by disguising herself as a daughter of military personnel, an “exo” from another planet. Throughout the story, Jarra proves again and again that she’s more than qualified for the program, but she maintains her façade to circumvent prejudices that many hold about the handicapped and their abilities.
Already this novel has been reviewed in a number of sources, where much of the criticism centers on the perception of Jarra as bitter, and whether Edward’s future world represents a utopian or dystopian point of view. As to the first question, sure, at times Jarra comes across not only as bitter, but extremely unlikable. Given how others treat the handicapped has led me to sympathize with her, however. Hospitals do not euthanize the handicapped
upon birth, nor are they herded into death camps. Indeed, society provides much for them in terms of upbringing and education. Yet imagine that you are part of this group that cannot travel the stars in a time where others take such adventures for granted. Imagine that due to your condition, your birth parents have abandoned you to foster care, very good foster care, but they have abandoned you nonetheless. Imagine that you will not attend any university other than Earth University, no matter your level of talent or ambition. Imagine that others call you “ape,” “nean,” “throwback,” or “handicapped,” and, by the way, “handicapped” is deemed polite? Really? No wonder these children automatically enter psychotherapy. Jarra, whose personality brings to mind Arkady Darell from Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation, seems much more adjusted and pleasant than I might be under such circumstances.
As to the second question of this imagined future being Utopian or dystopian, I would applaud Edwards for the ambiguity she infuses into this theme. Surely, some of us might give up a leg to live in this society with its huge advantages and easy interplanetary travel. And why not give up a leg since doctors can grow you a new one in about two weeks? Okay, onward to Utopia . . . maybe. The handicapped could see this reality as distinctly dystopian, not as dystopian as the reality depicted in The Hunger Games, but far from perfect if medical science has yet to discover a cure for the condition that keeps them trapped on Earth and perceived as substandard.
After she adopts her façade, Jarra unfortunately witnesses how others view the handicapped when they assume that she is an exo, itself a derogatory term used among the handicapped, and speak openly around her about the “apes.” A few scenes reminded me of the famous skit from Saturday Night Live starring Eddie Murphy as an African-American man who applies cosmetics to pass as White and then undertakes a satirical romp through what happens when Whites think that they are alone. A list of non-satirical novels with similar themes would feature Nella Larsen’s Passing and James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, both of which describe central characters who, like Jarra, create false identities to mingle openly among the upper caste. If I were an English teacher designing a unit on “Multiculturalism” or “Prejudice in Society,” I would note that Earth Girl fits in well with these two classics, allowing for comparisons and contrasts that emphasize differences in perceptions, possible outcomes related to these perceptions, and comings of age, Jarra’s being more positive than those of the other two characters, even if she takes her role playing to a psychologically self-devouring extreme as she confronts a moment of crisis, and consequently her own assumptions about culture and the exos.
Edwards wisely avoids becoming heavy-handed while undertaking this exploration. She includes characters that either begin with an enlightened view of the handicapped or become more enlightened as the story progresses. Rather than reading as a shallow indictment of prejudice, a portion of the novel instead reads as a constructive discussion with the characters representing the wide range of stances that people take on this issue. For example, Jarra’s instructor, who knows her secret, consistently rewards her for achievements, and at least one couple chooses to live on Earth rather than to abandon their handicapped child, showing that individuals can avoid developing unhealthy biases. And, as mentioned, Jarra herself falls victim to faulty conclusions that she makes about herself and others. So, as with the theme of Utopian versus dystopian, the author here wisely introduces a sense of liminality that forces readers to think.
Fear not, those of you who do not enjoy polemics, because Edwards includes plenty of action and old school science-fiction sensibilities. We have Jarra’s resemblance to Arkady Darell. Other influences stem from Heinlein’s view of group families, as well as from the film, Gattaca, in which Vincent Freeman’s predicament greatly mirrors Jarra’s. To appeal to the young adult audience for which the novel is intended, Edwards depicts teens who watch television shows that reflect ones aired on the CW. Additionally, just like many teens these ones make life decisions based on the plots or on the characters they so adore! Romance abounds along with quickly paced rescue scenes and a wonderfully developed history for this universe. A few sections fall too deeply into explication, and sometimes the mawkishness in Jarra’s voice veers toward the inauthentic. Nonetheless, the novel represents a fast, exciting read that should appeal to a broad spectrum of tastes.