Review for Exo by Fonda Lee

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

Note 2: My review is based on the text in the ARC that I received in exchange for an honest review. The book will be go on sale on January 31st, 2017 and is published by Scholastic Press.

My Summary: It’s been over a century since the alien zhree colonized Earth. Donovan Reyes is the son of the Prime Liaison, the one of the highest positions that a human can hold in the colonial government. He has the benefits of erze status that sets him apart from most humans and has been through bioenhancement that equips him with an exocel, which acts as armor and weapon alike. However, his stable life and bright future as a government security officer is thrown into chaos when he is kidnapped by an anti-zhree revolutionary organization, Sapience. All of a sudden he is a bargaining chip in a political crisis and must find away to escape with his life.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book.

The worldbuilding is great, with the right amount of detail to breathe life into the political system, social stratification, and scientific advancements that shape life on this future Earth. People of color actually exist (it’s sad that this is a remarkable thing because POC are so often erased in scifi) and they aren’t “othered,” they’re just there, being people.

In terms of plot, this book is filled with twists and turns, action and suspense, climax and denouement. The stakes are high on both a personal and big picture level for Donovan, so I was invested in everything that happens.

The action and suspense are balanced by character growth, relationship developments, and thought-provoking themes. Donovan’s worldview is challenged by the things he learns from Sapience. The book explores his complicated relationships with each of his parents, who stand on opposite sides of an ideological conflict. Multiple times, he’s forced to make tough calls on who to defend, who to side with, and the bigger question of whether “peace” among humans is worth the cost of their freedom.

Despite the gray areas presented, however, I found it difficult to sympathize with Donovan for various reasons. One of the biggest ones is that he’s part of a privileged class that reaps the bulk of the benefits of the alien colonizers’ regime, so of course he’s more inclined to think of the zhree as good for humanity.

Also, I also can’t help but make connections to real life political situations, in which colonizing powers rationalize their subjugation of indigenous peoples through the “we brought them technological advancement; they’re less civilized” argument. There was nothing stopping them from introducing technology through equal cultural exchange except greed and ruthless, self-serving ambition. The idea that any culture is inferior to another is based on racist (in this case, speciesist) standards of evaluation and serves as a convenient rationalization of subjugation.

I don’t believe the so-called benefits of colonization can erase the violence that it perpetrates. Superficial peace isn’t justice. Branding anti-colonial movements as terrorism is a dangerous twisting of reality that ignores the violence of colonization itself. Although Donovan comes to understand Sapience and its members and ideology better, and he does genuinely care about the future of humanity, it still feels like he clings to his internalized zhree colonial mindset.

The  other major issue was the cis/heteronormativity. You’d think a futuristic book would feature more queerness and all, given all the gains we’ve made in recent years toward visibility and acceptance, but there is a glaring absence of any non-cishet characters. I’ve gotten to a point where any speculative fiction set in the future that doesn’t have LGBTQ+ characters reads like a dystopia to me because it implies either we’re all dead/locked away out of sight/mind or we’re all deeply closeted out of fear–or both. Given that we’re at a flashpoint in history regarding LGBTQ+ rights, this erasure, however unintentional it may be, is honestly upsetting to me.

There was also this low-key sexism toward Donovan’s love interest, Anya, who was initially described as “too young and pretty” to be a terrorist…like, what? What does your age or physical appearance have anything to do with your political ideology…? I also didn’t really buy the romance that happened; it felt rushed and forced. I could sort of see why Donovan liked Anya because she’s loyal, brave, passionate, and caring, but I didn’t really get what Anya saw in him given how arrogant/disdainful, self-righteous, and privileged he acted around the Sapience members at the beginning. Thankfully the romance wasn’t the focus of the story.

The last thing I didn’t really like was the ending. I can appreciate open endings if they’re executed well, but the ending here left me unsatisfied. There were too many questions left dangling. As far as I know, this is a standalone novel, but it feels like there should be a sequel to resolve those loose ends. But maybe that’s just me.

ETA: I just found out that there’s a sequel coming, so I guess I’ll actually get some closure. I am planning to read it when it is released.

Recommendation: It was an entertaining story, just not quite the diverse/inclusive scifi that I was looking for.

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