December 08, 2011

BOOKS: When She Woke, Hillary Jordan (2011)

Here we have a near-future reimagining of The Scarlet Letter. It is also, though you won't see these dreaded words on the book or in any of its advertising, a science fiction novel.

A sexually transmitted plague has greatly reduced global fertility, and contributed to the rise of theocratic government in much of the United States. Abortion is banned in most states, and our protagonist, Hannah Payne, has just been convicted of murder for having an abortion. Her punishment is to be Chromed -- to have her skin color medically altered so that she is instantly visible and recognizable as a murderer. (Murderers become red, sex offenders blue, relatively minor offenses yellow, and so on.)

Thanks to Chroming, the prison system has been largely shut down, with only the most violent and dangerous offenders being jailed; people like Hannah are simply released into society to make their way as best they can, which isn't easy, given that Chromes (especially Reds and Blues) are social pariahs.

Jordan doesn't give us all that much plot; Hannah spends some time at a religious halfway house before finding her way to an Underground Railroad of sorts that helps Chromes get to Canada, where Chroming is viewed with horror. Instead, the novel is a cautionary "if this goes on" tale, giving us a glimpse into a world in which government and religion have become closely intertwined.

The notion of Chroming is the most interesting thing in the book, and it raises a lot of fascinating questions and possible stories that are beyond Jordan's scope here. I would love to see Jordan return to this world for more novels, but given how carefully the book's publicity has avoided the science fiction label, I don't expect that to happen. "Literary" authors, after all, don't stoop to writing sequels and creating franchises.

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