Reviewed for Foundation in 2011.
Wither – Lauren DeSteffano
(Harper Voyager, 2011)
One might construct a genealogy for Wither that combines Logan’s Run with The Handmaid’s Tale and then pours it into the template that produces the kind of young adult dystopian novel so much in vogue at present, Suzanne Collins’s much-praised The Hunger Games being an obvious example. However, to do so would be to grossly over-read Wither and assign to it a pedigree it in no way deserves. Indeed, if one believes that a major prerequisite of science fiction is scientifically verifiable world building, Wither has already failed at the first hurdle. The world it offers the reader is so fragile, to query it even slightly is to cause the edifice to immediately topple.
Wither is ostensibly set in America, sufficiently far in the future for a world war to have completely obliterated all landmasses except America (by ‘America’, I suspect the author means the USA, rather than North America). Despite this catastrophe, America has become entirely self-sufficient as a manufacturing nation, and one is left with the inescapable impression that the war affected America only insofar as it destroyed the import business. This might in itself be enough to raise an eyebrow but America has also, thanks to startling advances in genetic engineering, eliminated disease and created a generation of perfectly healthy human beings. Unfortunately, although the first generation of ‘perfect’ humans are leading long and healthy lives, in subsequent generations females die at twenty, males at twenty-five, with a promptness that is as surprising as it is nonsensical. So far, researchers have failed to discover an explanation for this occurrence.
The corollaries of this situation are that, on the one hand, there are vast numbers of parentless children barely subsisting in government-run orphanages, and on the other, a flourishing trade in kidnapping young adolescent girls, to be sold into sexual slavery as breeding stock for (and it requires a certain amount of reading between the lines to grasp this) wealthy families desperate to continue their blood lines. Given the ready availability of young girls – who already prostitute themselves to make money – it is not obvious why such subterfuges are necessary, except to deny the girls any negotiating capability in the marketplace, that and the fact that kidnapping, coerced marriage and the prospect of forced sex might be more thrilling for an impressionable reader than a simple financial transaction.
The author has clearly not given much thought to the economic or political structure of this future America. It doesn’t so much exist as only come into view when the author needs to underline yet again the difference between the wretched world outside, where orphans starve and freeze to death, and the almost unbelievable opulence of the big house in which three kidnapped girls, Rhine, Jenna and Cecily, are imprisoned. Mostly, we learn about the world outside from Rhine, the first-person narrator. Unfortunately, Rhine is maddeningly vague about her life before she arrived at the house. She offers the reader scraps of memory and fragments of history, but is unable to provide a fully coherent account of what has happened. If one didn’t already suspect that Wither was never intended to be a science fiction novel, this would surely confirm it. No one is engaged with the world outside.
Instead, DeSteffano’s characters exist in a setting which refuses any pretence of reality, surrounded by the trappings of immense wealth, indicative of the fact that the science fictional references are purely hand-waving, the ill-chosen background for a romance novel which owes far more to the gothic creations of the late Victoria Holt. The remote manor house, the exquisite couture, the elegant social functions, the husband who is practically a stranger, the difficulty in putting an actual date to the novel’s setting, are all hallmarks of that style. Admittedly, the future setting grants DeSteffano the licence to be a little more daring in her portrayal of sexual mores, including polygamy. The wife who was a prostitute is Linden Ashby’s regular bed companion while the wife who craves a baby is carrying his child, leaving the virginal Rhine to exchange thrilling but chaste kisses with the handsome servant, Gabriel, while keeping Linden at arm’s length. At no point does anyone actively query this or ask if it is truly acceptable.
Rhine is, or so she says, desperate to escape in order to find her twin brother, Rowan, but her desperation manifests itself in a curious inertia, coupled with a vague air of anxiety about the behaviour of Linden’s father, Housemaster Vaughn. Part Victor Frankenstein, part Duke Bluebeard, Vaughn spirits away Linden’s dead wives and babies and conducts experiments on their bodies in his basement laboratory, having presented Linden with fake ashes. He is apparently seeking a solution to the premature deaths, but Rhine is suspicious of his activities. That Linden reads Frankenstein aloud to Rhine might be interpreted as some sort of clue to what’s going on but if it is, Rhine misses the hint, and it is the only indication that Linden himself may suspect that something is wrong. In fact, whatever it is that Vaughn is doing is, like everything else of interest, kept firmly off the page; with Rhine mostly imprisoned on an upper floor of the house, there is little opportunity for the plot to go beyond yet another bath or dress-fitting. Indeed, one half-wonders if, in a nod to Northanger Abbey, Rhine hasn’t entirely misunderstood what’s happening, but there is no chance to find out.
Wither expects very little from its readers. Indeed, too close a scrutiny reveals just how flimsy its premise really is. The frankly disturbing subtext, that forced sex is not necessarily a bad thing so long as it is not happening to you, lies unquestioned. The science-fictional elements of the novel are poorly conceived and poorly applied. One can only hope that the teenage girls who are its intended audience recognise Wither’s many shortcomings and turn to something more challenging.