Before the book opens, Earth was invaded—and decimated—by aliens. They were eventually expelled, but at devastating cost. Nine-tenths of the few survivors were women, and of those women many had been augmented by technology in an agonising procedure that both stalled the aging and mortality process and left them sterile.
There is rebuilding. The non-enhanced survivors are able to have children, although lack of men ensures that those males who do exist mostly act as donors and have little relationship with their offspring. The technologically enhanced majority take a pivotal role as both leaders and guardians, and the slow claw-back of civilisation continues. It's fascinating to see the outcome of all this as it stands upon the novel's opening, and we see it all mostly through the eyes of Lo—the enhanced leader of the small town of Saugatuck.
Of particular interest are the results of the skewed gender ratio on the resulting society. The Saugatuck community, like all others we see, is a happy and well-ordered one for the most part, given, as each of the communities we encounter are, to consensus building, long meetings, and the promotion of social harmony.
Yet all is not well with the reestablishment of the human race. Youths feel disenfranchised compared to the highly experienced, never-aging women who survived the invasion enhanced. Some are augmented children, frozen at young ages and with their minds altered to have more in common with the invaders, and are in need of care and protection whilst proving to be increasingly dangerous. Roving gangs raid settlements . . . and there's about to be a second invasion. Some people have no luck at all.
The impending invasion is not another by that first set of aliens, either. This is a second wave from another part of the galaxy, and one that hopes to be on friendly terms—even if they don't bother to ask permission to start exporting various sections of their society to Earth: their religious fundamentalists, for example, or those who make trouble for the government and are forcibly relocated against their will; drug addicts and dreamers; idealists, those with frontier spirit who look forward to a new life on a backwater planet; administrators, ambassadors, diplomats.
The second invasion is being helped along by Lo's brother Will, thought to have been killed in the first. There are currents upon currents here. The invaders are unwelcome, but they have the technology to cure the infertility of the enhanced women . . . at a steep price. They can be productive workers and good friends, or isolationists obsessed with purity and the cleansing power of bleach. They can come to the town next door. They can roll up in boats, refugees with weapons and reasonable requests. They come with men, and companionship, and the prospect of a little sexual variety.
They still come unasked.
And all of this turmoil is taking place in a society that still bears deep physical and emotional scars from the first invasion. Initially the prospect of colonisation is greeted with fear and anger:
"Ladies," shouted Will, but the women didn't stop.
"We don't want to live on the planet of the apes."
"They'll overrun us within ten years."
"It's just another way of invading."
"I've had a lifetime's worth of aliens." (p. 124)
But it doesn't take long for the situation to become fiendishly complex, and to add yet another layer to the complexity of the feminised, consensus-building environment that is the post-invasion Earth.
Science fiction has a long history of allegory, and how Hatton explores the multitudinous effects of colonisation, forced and otherwise, is really wonderfully good. Not only is there dissent between the humans and the colonists, but there's dissent within the human faction, and within the alien faction, and the shifting discussions and alliances and betrayals are all explored by her with fascination and genuine empathy. It's clear how much thought has gone into this, how the history of invasions linger and influence, how the scars never really go away.
It is uniformly excellent.
And then that excellence ends.
I'm not sure what Hatton intended with her ending. I'm not sure if it's meant to set up a sequel—the problems with the ending might be less glaring if so, but I've never been one to think that the future presence of a sequel, or of a continued story, somehow excuses the flaws of an earlier contained narrative. Each book should be able to stand on its own. Endings should be satisfying. Even cliff-hangers, in their way, should be satisfying.
Cliff-hanger or not, sequel or not, this ending did not satisfy me. And it's unsatisfying in regards to both of its two main characters. Warning: here be spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.
Will, whose role in the text has, by virtue of being politically outplayed by his seemingly idiotic sidekick, been sympathiser and betrayer at once, dies due to stray projectiles. He dies knowing that, had he lived, he would have been stranded with the very same human population that he had wanted to escape and sell out, regardless of the very real connections he's made with some of them—and despite the good intentions which mitigate, in some ways, if not all, the self-interest that propels most of his actions.
This is a position rife with potential conflicts, with balancing acts. And it's a position in which he has only just found himself. Will discovers that he has been betrayed—and understands the subsequent consequences—twelve pages before the book ends. He's shot five pages before it ends. In the seven intervening pages, so much is going on that there's no time to give anything but the barest acknowledgement of his new position, and how it affects him. Instead it's skipped over because, hey, he's going to die in very short order anyway, so why bother.
Now, I don't want to give the impression that I think books can't close with deaths. There are a lot of classics that would fail under that criterion, and as readers we'd be poorer for their absence. By necessity some stories will be cut off just when they get most interesting, and there's realism in that which shouldn't be lost. Not to mention, from a practical point of view the story is about to end regardless, so the cut-off of a particular narrative is sometimes of less moment to the reader than if that cut-off occurred earlier in the text.
So by itself, Will's ending may be disappointing but not problematic. It's the combination with the ending of his sister's story, however, that prompts the throwing up of hands and general dissatisfaction—at least from my end.
Will is less important to the book, his relationships less central, so his role as primary supporting character can reasonably be disposed of—especially if that disposal comes from accident or outside source, as indeed it does. Lo's ending, however, is entirely voluntary . . . and entirely out of character.
This is a woman who is shown to be desperately, passionately committed to the needs and survival of her local community. She's at the centre of the social ecosystem and knows it, certain of her place as leader, in her ability to provide sense and security and scepticism. Lo has had opportunities to retire and hasn't taken them; she has had opportunities to move to larger communities with more luxuries and options, with people she likes and admires, and she hasn't taken them.
She's given decades of her life to Saugatuck, has sacrificed friends and even her marriage to it. Her relationship with her wife is over, and that with her son is in tatters. Her relationships with the women and men of Saugatuck may not be as they once were—the new threat of colonisation has opened up new potential futures, and there's dissent within the town as to how to cope with this—but even so she is deeply, often lovingly, respected for her drive and ability, even by those who disagree with her. That the inter-community conflict so rarely sinks to the personal is perhaps her greatest achievement, a personal triumph of stake-holding and community building and inclusive politics.
And then, essentially, she thinks, "Fuck it, I've had enough of you lot." Like some arse-backwards deus ex machina, Lo decides on the spur of the moment, seven pages from the end of the novel, to ditch all these ties immediately, to get in a spaceship and make the long journey to the home planet of Earth's new immigrants, to try and persuade the authorities there to alter their approach.
This isn't a bad strategy. Will had soft-soaped everything, had refused to include sensible immigration policies in his betrayal, and so Earth, and Lo's local communities, are being overrun with more aliens than they can absorb: with religious zealots obsessed with purity, with immigrants who are totally unsuited to frontier life. An ambassador better able to talk plainly is clearly needed, and Lo very sensibly realises this.
That ambassador, however, has been picked. Adrianna, ready and willing, is forcibly removed from this opportunity, this strategy, at the last possible minute. Lo tries to justify this publicly:
"It has to be me—the leader of Saugatuck—who goes. I think I've known this ever since we decided to send one of us, but I couldn't face the thought, so I let Adrianna volunteer. But Adrianna is not enough. Only an official Earth leader will have the impact we need. And you know I will fight for Saugatuck like no other. I will stop the boxes!" (p. 321)
Again, there's sense behind the strategy.
I just don't buy a single word of it.
Lo is possibly the most complex character I've read in the last year. As so often happens, however, "complex" does not mean "likable." Lo can, in fact, be downright unpleasant. Her one saving grace, however, is her total unwillingness to lie to herself. This self-awareness, both in her reactions to others and her reactions to herself, is invaluable in a character. And, at the end, it all disappears.
The substitution, in fact, is an excuse. Plausible, but barely. Lo is stretching quite a bit by trying to sell herself as one of Earth's leaders: she is the leader, admired and competent, of a relatively small settlement, but even in her own region there are women equally capable, if not more so, who hold higher leadership positions and have greater responsibilities. Lo is the leader of Saugatuck, and the most equivalent position I can think of is that of local mayor. A leader, yes. One of Earth’s leaders? I don’t think so. (Candace, in IBM City, is more likely to fulfil that role and even then she is limited in scope and power.)
No. Lo is going because she's fed up. That's the sense I get, anyway. Staying is just too much fighting—too much familiar fighting, that is: the dissolution of old relationships, a groundswell shift of responsibility. Going has its own share of difficulty and conflict and challenge, of course, but there's an identity there that she gets to keep: Lo, the leader of Saugatuck. Fighter. That Lo avoids the messy complications of divorce and sullen teenagers by leaving it all behind. She avoids the debates over the change in power structure, the trial of the friend who by getting involved with a human agent of colonisation is thought to have betrayed them all. She avoids the complications her brother has introduced to all their lives, the familial taint of treason. She avoids dealing with alien immigrants, alien zealots, boat people. She avoids it all, abandons, in all practical respects but one, the community she's held together by force of personality for decades. This is grossly out of character, but I could just about make a good-faith effort to swallow it down if it weren't for two things. First, Lo's total dishonesty about the reasons for her departure, which simply piles more out-of-character behaviour on top of the pile; and second, the death of her brother. One get-out-of-relationships-jail-free card I’m prepared to accept. Two I am not.
Flesh & Wires is a book that lives and dies by its relationships. The way that the characters interact is nuanced and complex and almost extraordinary. It's been a long time since I've read character interaction that is this original in its tone, so weighted against traditional forms of conflict resolution. And at the heart of this book is the relationship between Lo and Will, and the network of fluctuating relationships around them. Their sibling bond, stretched and broken and ignored as it sometimes is, sends every relationship the two of them have with other people into flux. It's a catalyst, and, in the abrupt, dissonant, final twenty pages of this book, not only is the catalyst destroyed, but the entire web of relationships sparking around it are discarded as though they simply don't matter.
These interpersonal conflicts—centred about immigration and illegal aliens, around the preservation of culture and the long-term consequences of invasion and of war—are the major concern of the book. And it is these conflicts that, in the last few pages of the book, are suddenly booted offstage by the removal of both central characters from the immediate theatre. Lo removes herself from the community to travel for (potentially) years among the stars; and Will is removed from it violently.
In the end, by this removal, Lo reduces herself to an isolated figurehead, the absolute antithesis of her life's work, and it is deeply, deeply frustrating that such an intelligent book ends in such cheap melodrama. I'd recommend Flesh & Wires anyway, for the nuance of argument, for the depiction of a positive, post-apocalyptic society formed after hideous invasion; but watch out for that irritation of an ending.