Please check the box and return to the secretary as you leave: The Earth is dying. The size of the human population has outstripped available resources. You may choose one option. Reducing the population could increase the quality of life for humans and stop the extinction of the species. You would rather: 1. Be killed in a plague spread by environmentalists. (Or, perhaps, be left alive with the loss of many friends and family members.) 2. Have your fertility neutralized so as to drastically reduce the birth rate. 3. Do nothing and let the quality of life slowly deteriorate until it is no longer sustainable and the species goes extinct.
Without your consent would your answer change? Is the health and happiness of many worth the lives of many more? Is non-consensual birth control more horrible than death? While we’re asking hard to answer questions: what makes us human? What is gender? And how does it define who we are and how we live? These are the questions around which Deb Taber‘s book Necessary Ill centers itself.
Nutshell review: This book is excellent. It is tightly written. It contains wonderful characters both intensely foreign and familiar. It contains complex answers (or further questions) to complex moral questions. There is interesting science. It centers around Big Questions that I personally find intriguing.
I have not read a book in a long time—possibly ever—that so intimately, so successfully brought me inside the mind of a person so foreign to me. Jin is a neuter, called “neuts” throughout the story, a person whose body contains no reproductive organs or their corresponding hormones. Neuts are highly logical, generally highly intelligent, and capable of perceiving the inner workings of their own bodies (for example, being able to identify the cause and location of sickness immediately). They prefer to be refered to as “it”—something that was inordinately jarring and utterly alienating at the start of the book, before we’ve had a chance to get to know the neut characters personally. Neuts are also capable of a highly empathetic activity called “ghosting” during which they are able to feel what another person is feeling. They use this both as a communication tool—to learn about the experience of someone else or instead of telling a story, for example—and a social tool—a way to share something intimate with another person.
Because neuts‘ brains work slightly differently than those of gendered people, they also speak differently, leaving out words they consider unnecessary. In order to interact with gendered people, they have to train themselves to use what they call “gendered” language. Though it could have been, this was in no way disruptive for me as a reader, and it helped to cement the ways in which the neut characters differ from the gendered characters, from myself. It may have even added to the book’s fast-paced readability. “Brain works different. Faster, more efficient. This way more natural for us. Gets point across, not fancy,” Jin explains when a gendered character asks about its speech patterns. The blurb on the book cover about this book being like a window into Spock’s world? Very accurate. Except of course Spock was gendered. But the highly logical, highly intelligent neuts have very similar habits.
I keep saying person in reference to neuts, but that’s not a given: one of the central themes in the book is the question of whether or not neuts are human at all. Ah yes, one of the age-old questions of science fiction—what makes us human?—but examined from a very different angle. This time it is not a line in the sand between human and machine, but one between people with genitals and people without. The answer is a resounding yes. It is not gender that makes us human or not human. Again and again we see gendered humans attacking neuts, calling them inhuman, and reacting in much the same way that an unfortunate number of people react to gay people, even today. In fact, the book points out the parallel several times. For example, two characters are attacked and have to leave their home, not because they are neuter (nobody knew about that), but because the community thought they were a same-sex couple. Because of the fear-based violent and discriminatory reactions that the neuts are used to encountering—whether because of the truth or perceived homosexuality—they have kept themselves secret, creating an underground (literally and figuratively) network to allow them to support each other and live without constant fear of violence or discovery.
But—and here comes one of the twists that makes this book such an interesting examination of complex moral issues—the network also has a crew of people they call “spreaders.” The job of these neuts is to create plagues that will keep human population growth down. The environment is deteriorating quickly and resources are scarce. Shanty towns full of houses built out of old septic tanks have sprung up in abundance, the air is polluted, the desert spreading. The quality of life is sinking fast and the human species is heading towards extinction. Neuts, logical as they are, see it as their mission to keep this in check through plagues designed not to discriminate against any one social, racial, or ethnic background. “Spreading is a miserable life sometimes, but to maintain the health of the overall species, a certain amount of culling must be done,” we are told. Then later, “Some people of the late twentieth century thought that the major diseases of the time were nature’s way of curbing the population. One neut decided the times were desperate enough that nature ought to be helped along.”
Jin muses on the morality of its task often and because of these qualms its plagues always contain a way out. For example, a plague strain planted on the doors of bathrooms is neutralized by soap. Wash your hands when you leave the bathroom, and you won’t be infected. Ignore this basic hygienic habit, and you will be culled. Another of its plagues is neutralized simply by the will to live; the brain chemistry of those who give up compels them to commit suicide. Its last and most wide-reaching plague is designed to target people with an attacker mentality—rapists and other ill-intentioned, violent people. I’ll let you read the book yourself to find out the details of that doozy, except to say that Taber does a very convincing job (says not-a-scientist) with the science that backs up both the differences between neuts and gendered people and explains the chemistry of the plagues.
With so many moral questions about its work, it is inevitable that Jin consider another way. How do you control population without killing? With birth control. This, interestingly enough, it finds more disturbing than spreading a disease that will kill thousands.
“Everybody dies someday. But regulating birth means making a decision that affects the living, taking away a choice they normally have. Someone would have to decide who gets to have children and who doesn’t, and Jin doesn’t want to be that person. No neut should. No gen, either. That has happened in the past, and always with a biased focus and results ranging from disagreeable to reprehensible and disastrous. But if that is the way for the species to survive, then maybe somebody has to make that choice. Someone who will better balance the factors, not favoring one ethnicity, gender, wealth bracket, or any other group above another.” Death is not something anybody gets to opt out of. We are all in. By Jin’s logic, this makes death, even by a plague it created, a constant, an inevitability, not something it is taking away from someone. Hmm. Is it right? Is it wrong?
These two questions are the focal point of the book, yet I find them far easier to answer than any of the others it poses. The idea that birth control in and of itself could be considered as reprehensible as killing fully formed people is not one I can relate to. That comes too close to the pro-choice logic that the rights of a few cells win out over the rights of an adult human for me. But this is where the idea of consent comes in, and reproduction is a highly emotional issue for many gendered humans. Even without consent, I find the idea of birth control, of never conceiving, vastly preferable to potentially watching my partner and children die, to have had them in my life and then to have them taken away from me. The right of an adult to not be killed purposefully strikes me as far more important than the right of an as-yet-unconceived child to be conceived. The problem that remains is the right of said adults to attempt conceive. Which right is more important if the survival of the entire speices is at stake? Who gets to decide? It’s a real Rubik’s Cube this one. (A metaphor appropriate because I can’t solve those things for shit. If you find them easy, please adjust your understanding of the metaphor accordingly.) The point is that we don’t have to choose between these two options; these are two options manufactured for us in the story by Jin’s own brain, its own moral compass. People like Jin could lay down their plagues and let people decide for themselves. Its way of thinking backs humantiy into a very uncomfortable corner.
Once the gendered world at large finds out about the existence of neuts as well as about the job of the spreaders, the backlash is huge. The human perspective we are given on the plagues is predictable: they are outraged. Taber gives us the gendered human perspective largely through the words of the mother of one of Jin’s high school friends: “…some of us prefer an insane life to none at all,” she tells it. When she finds out that Jin is responsible for the recent 50 percent drop in the birth rate—something she initially mentions positively—she again becomes angry, adding “…you are not in charge of other people’s destinies. … Damn it, Jin, your so-called helping is nothing bit interfering with people’s lives.” It is a hard call, and an issue I find it easy to see both sides of. Consent is one of the most important foundations of my own personally morality. At the same time, too many humans + too few resources = misery, then potential species extinction. When a lack of population control is making the world shit for everyone—both people who would rather have it that way than be subject to birth control and those who would rather try something, anything to improve the quality of life—then you still have a situation in which not everyone is giving consent. When the situation expands to that size is consent on a large scale even possible? I loved this book for posing these questions and for making me think very deeply about them. Taber presents no straw men, just a clear vision of the complexity of the problem and the enormity of the stakes.
When the neuts birth-control plague turns out, due to a few built-in-fairness factors, to just be free birth control nobody knows they are on and that allows those who want to conceive do so, I found myself wondering: why can’t Jin do this with consent? Put the birth control agent in the water with the stupid fucking flouride and then inform the world about how to counteract it. It seems to me there is a middle ground that Jin should have been smart enough to see. This specific suggestion opens up further cans of worms and is just an example, but if birth control is the answer, then there must be a consent-based solution. I found myself wondering why Jin didn’t think to look for it. Perhaps because throughout the escalation of this situation, Jin finds it harder and harder to understand the perspective of the gendered people who react so negatively to its work. It was only trying to help. Yeah well so was Hitler buddy, so was Hitler.
Often while reading I was reminded of the work of Derrick Jensen, an environmentalist writer and Deep Green Resistance member who is all for the end of industrial civilization as a way to facilitate environmental healing. He advocates actions like blowing up damns to help decimated wild populations to thrive. (Note: He is also deeply transphobic, something that has alienated me from his work. You can read about the series of events that brought his views on trans people right here.) He and his followers call for a large reduction in population. The philosophy behind spreading reminded me of this viewpoint which, more than anything that happened in Necessary Ill—Taber’s spreaders are all sympathetic and easy to empathize with—helped to alienate me from their perspective.
Oh dear. This review has already become rather long, and I haven’t even told you about the woman Jin saves from rapists who murdered her mother and who lives with the network underground, the neut actors or artists who we meet, the movie they make to get out the story of neuts, the neut who takes hormones in an attempt to be gendered, the long walking trips Jin takes to research for a new plague, or the hate groups agitating to kill all the neuts KKK style. There is so much to unpack in Necessary Ill that I could probably write another 20 pages. That is one of the reasons that I liked it so much.
One pacing element worth mentioning, and the only bump in the book: After the climax of the main story thread the book contains for almost 100 more pages. Yes, there are things to wrap up. No, Taber really couldn’t have ended the story there. But the tempo and my interest slowed, and I found myself less motivated to keep turning pages. The question of how Jin would ultimately deal with the morality of its life did motivate me to finish. That answer turns out to be interesting and ultimately felt right for this story.
That Taber makes it so easy to empathize with a character who has committed mass murder is an interesting feat. But it isn’t hard. Jin is only human and almost nothing in its world or ours is morally clear-cut.
Nine out of ten antidotes.
Where I got it: Sent by the publisher for review, epub