The Skinned Trilogy on the Market: Teenage Robots and “Humanity’s Future”

First in the trilogy. The cover chooses to emphasize Lia's machine-ness by marking up this model's face with silver grace notes; however, the book makes it clear that while some mechs emphasize their inorganic nature through tattoos, Lia is not one of them.

The third book in Robin Wasserman’s Skinned trilogy, about a teenager named Lia Kahn who dies in a car accident and gets downloaded into an immortal robot body, was released by Simon & Schuster on September 14 (tag line: “Humanity is the past. She is the future.”) The Skinned books move between the romantic, forested Northwest of Twilight and the desperate, dystopian Panem of Hunger Games, proposing a deeply divided future in which some young people gain the power of technologically assisted immortality.

These books haven’t resonated with young readers in the same way that Twilight—or any of its countless vampire teen-fic knockoffs—managed to do. Cold, beautiful, powerful, and formerly human, the Skinned Trilogy’s “mechs” seem in some ways like good candidates to become the next teenage fixation. Lia Kahn, the trilogy’s female lead, falls in with an ersatz family of mechs a la Twilight‘s Cullens, and shifts romantic allegiances between Jude, the group’s arrogant leader, and Riley, his taciturn deputy. If part of Twilight‘s appeal to teenagers is the drama of life and death (how will Bella handle staying the same age while her parents get old and die?), the Skinned mechs also must come to terms with biological indestructibility (can a mech ever truly love an org, who must get old and die?) The mechs experiment with their beautiful new bodies, thrill-seeking in ways reminiscent of Bella’s flight through the trees with Edward. But the series has seen little buzz (no “Team Jude” or “Team Riley” t-shirts, and no sign of a movie deal), and some readers writing online reviews seem to find it almost oppressively sad.

Book 2. Lia and...Jude? Riley?

Wasserman, who has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a masters’ in the history of science, has said that she found inspiration for this series in a class on the history of mechanical life, and was clearly using Lia’s story to explore the long-standing trope of the tragic cyborg (see: Frankenstein, “Blade Runner”‘s Rachael, “Robocop”‘s Murphy). Edward Cullen’s weepier moments, in which he mourns what he believes is the loss of his soul, are always short-lived and blunted by the love that Bella feels for him. Reading Twilight, I never really believed that Edward could be all that upset by his situation; his refusal to “turn” Bella out of respect for her always seemed like a McGuffin to me, intended to prolong the (sexual and dramatic) tension between the two characters. Lia’s grief for the loss of her human body is inescapable. Even the scenes in the second book of the trilogy, Crashed, where she and Riley finally get together, are shadowed by it; Lia can enjoy kissing Riley, but she can never fully stop comparing the sensations she feels with the way she used to feel while kissing her org boyfriend.

It’s too bad the Skinned trilogy never caught on, because it takes Twilight’s sub-sub-sub-surface commentary on the relationship between bodily power and social class and makes it visible. I always thought the most interesting moments in the Twilight books were those that turned on the physical differences between Bella and Edward — her clumsiness, versus his grace and indestructibility. Although much feminist criticism of Bella’s character has pointed at her klutziness as one more annoying facet of her general helplessness compared to her powerful suitor, I thought that these differences, when coupled with the wealth of the Cullen family as compared to everyone else in Forks, hinted at a class critique. Wasserman’s Skinned trilogy tries to make that critique more explicit–the “orgs” or organic humans resent the mechs, partially because the latter have purchased immortality through what amounts to superior health care.

Lia and her two mechs. Although by this point in the trilogy Riley has switched bodies into a model that looks more like his org body (and he was originally black), the cover doesn't seem to reflect this change.

Timothy Noah recently asked, in his Slate series on American income disparity, why we Americans don’t pay more attention to “the great divergence.” Recent discussions about the dystopian turn in young adult fiction have failed to account for the sharp class critiques present in books like the Skinned Trilogy, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, and Michael Grant’s Gone trilogy, instead focusing on questions of surveillance or asking whether or not the lead characters are feminist. Of course, these questions are valid ones, but I want to know more about the use of class inequity as a driving force in these plots.Within the community of mechs, some, like Lia, end up undergoing “the download” as an alternative to certain death, while others, like Jude and Riley, volunteer for the procedure out of poverty. Lia’s new status as indestructible/outcast mech brings her into contact for the first time with people who live in “the city”, which, in this universe, is where young people with no options grow up in anarchic misery.  Does this type of plot resonate with teenage readers more in the 00s than it did in the 1990s? And does the import of these criticisms diminish because of their containment within science fiction?