Reviews 2015

Technology and Identity in Young Adult Fiction: The Posthuman Subject

Technology and Identity in Young Adult Fiction: The Posthuman Subject. Victoria Flanagan. London, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 205 pages. $90.00 (hardback).

In 2001 Philip Reeve published his acclaimed novel Mortal Engines. The climactic scene depicted a battle between the righteous historians—book lovers and tea drinkers, and the villainous engineers—power craving technology worshipers. The boundaries were clearly drawn, the message clearly technophobic. Fourteen years later, and Reeve’s new novel, Railhead (2015), features intergalactic trains with a mind of their own and a romance between a boy and an android who insists she is human. Such a change in attitude is at the heart of Victoria Flanagan’s study exploring new representations of technology in fiction written for young people in English-speaking countries.

With the ever growing presence of technology in our lives, and particularly in the life of children and teens, its depiction in the books aimed at this audience has already been the topic of several monographs and essays, including my own (Representations of Technology in Science Fiction for Young People, 2009). Flanagan’s book is original in two ways. The first is that she focuses mainly on novels written in the last decade, which, as she argues, reflect an "ideological change" (3). The second is that she does not engage in an overview of themes and plot analysis, but rather explores the "strategies that can be used by authors to explore the effects...of technology on human identity and society" (34). As the title suggests, the discourse that Flanagan traces in her sample novels is that of posthumanism, which she describes as offering "a new and expanded understanding of what it means to be human in the modern technological era" (40). She is careful to highlight that posthumanism does not mean a negation, but rather a "reformulation of human subjectivity" (40). It is a discourse which seeks to deconstruct and question the way we define our human identity based on the understanding that our "boundaries with the world, with other life forms and species, are porous" (Nayar 30). Flanagan explains that opening up these boundaries also broadens "the categories of subjectivity to which agency can be applied" so that it also includes technology itself, in the form of intelligent machines (21). As she argues, humanism that underpins the majority of children’s literature is "fixated on the needs and desires of the individual" (72), while posthumanism, inspired by the presence of the internet in our lives, conceptualises subjectivity as "networked and collective" (8).

The study sensibly opens with a chapter which deftly unpacks the posthumanist discourse, its relationship to the humanist paradigm, and the sometimes subtle, yet crucial differences between posthumanism and fellow theories of transhumanism and antihumanism. Setting out the critical terrain, including a review of any previous, albeit scant, engagement with posthumanism within the field of children’s literature, is a helpful, though slightly dense, introduction to the subsequent chapters, in which Flanagan applies the theories to a range of YA texts.

The second chapter is dedicated to narration as a strategy through which authors explore post-human subjectivity. To illustrate the way texts have ideologically shifted from humanism to posthumanism, Flanagan compares two novels by science fiction and fantasy author Tanith Lee (The Silver Metal Lover, 1981, and Metallic Love, 2005) which were written twenty five years apart yet revolve around the romance between two different girls and the same humanoid robot. This fascinating exercise reveals how the "utopian dream" of a loving robot partner is later replaced with a vision of "a futuristic society where binary distinctions between human and robot have been erased" (54). Such a vision is reinforced through the focalisation of the narrative through the point of view of posthuman subjects as cyborgs and robots. Exploring the posthuman body in two radical adaptations of fairy tales, Flanagan also highlights the intersection between posthumanism and feminism.

The third chapter examines the way contemporary novels construct cyberspace as an empowering political arena for young people, and the way this interaction ultimately shapes the characters’ identity as citizens of a networked collective. Flanagan contrasts Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1991) with the more recent texts by Cory Doctorow and Ernest Cline, arguing that in the former the rights of children are shown as eroded by technological advancement, while in the latter group it is technology that destabilises social hierarchy and enables the young protagonists to become agents of change. The argument is compelling, and there is much evidence to support Flanagan’s claim that an ideological shift has occurred, though I felt that the importance of the embryonic elements of Card’s novel, which do depict children as influential through their networked presence, have been downplayed. Another early text that already anticipates Flanagan’s posthuman digital citizenship is Lesley Howarth’s Weather Eye (1995), a novel which could have also increased the number of British novels, currently underrepresented in the study.

The fourth chapter returns to feminist theory and in particular to Haraway’s cyborg as Flanagan discusses novels which "use advances in biotechnology and the concept of body modification as a context for exploring the relationship between subjectivity and the body" (126), with a focus on female protagonists. She concludes that while all texts still endorse humanist notions of the self as unique, they do reflect on how technologically altered bodies impact on feminine identity, resulting in empowerment.

The fifth chapter looks at the way five different novels respond to the growing prevalence of surveillance technologies in everyday life. Awareness of being watched "necessitates the realisation that several versions of the subject simultaneously exist" (150), and thus any notion of an essential, fixed self is destabilised, resulting in fragmented posthumanist subjectivity. This subjectivity, however, need not be passive or lacking autonomy, and indeed, argues Flanagan, the novels discussed show that through knowledge and awareness the surveyed subject can also achieve agency.

In the final chapter Flanagan turns her attention to technorealist texts—novels which "employ a range of linguistic and graphic techniques that mimic the use of online social media" (155). Her analysis of a range of such novels shows that these present cyberspace as empowering adolescents, allowing them to "participate in their own self-styled representation" to create a posthuman subjectivity, "digitally mediated, multiple and fluid" (185).

One of the most telling signs that Flanagan’s assertion that YA fiction is gradually moving towards a more complex and often positive relationship with technology is the fact that some of the texts discussed were published online. On the other hand, while the books selected for this study are clearly aimed at and read by teenagers, a significant number were not published by children’s literature imprints, which raises the question of to what extent traditional gatekeepers acknowledge and endorse the winds of change that Flanagan’s book celebrates.

Noga Applebaum
Independent Scholar, UK

Works Cited

Nayar, Pramod K. Posthumanism. Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press, 2014.