Necessary Ill is set in a future that does not feel like the future. There are no flying cars; no aliens; no sardonic AIs offering a wry commentary on the foibles of humanity. Instead, there is a grinding sense of poverty, pervasive and intimately connected to present-day crises surrounding food, water, and resource depletion. This world feels as though it is ripped from this morning's headlines. Even its minutiae feels incessantly contemporary; Taber's characters worry about money and running into high school acquaintances, even as they plot progressive social revolutions or design targeted epidemics in order to reduce the populations of major metro areas. At the fulcrum of these two extremes is Jin, a neut. Neuts are genderless, sexless people who face extreme prejudice from gendered peoples—in part because they are associated with the outbreak of plagues. This association isn't entirely false; some neuts, like Jin, are "spreaders," people who design and then disseminate targeted pathogens whose extreme virulence is meant to reduce the population of a particular area. Jin, and others like it, view this targeting as a radical act in defense of humanity's future. Population reduction, by any means necessary, is the only way to save the world. Necessary Ill is driven by the moral quandary this presents; is it acceptable to kill tens of thousands so that hundreds of thousands can survive? Is humanity itself—and its potential to be humane—worth such a sacrifice?
Taber's narrative argues that the answer to that question is a qualified yes. This version of the United States relies on class demarcations between haves and have-nots to continue functioning; some people are worthy of clean water, sturdy houses, varied diets. Others make do with houses built from used septic tanks, tires, scraps. Some children are mutilated, either because they stand in the way of people in power, or because their bodies do not match adults' preconceived perceptions of what these children's bodies should be. Taber's treatment of these issues centers on children whose gender is forcibly assigned at birth, as well as the emotional and physical violence such children face as they come to adulthood. Unfortunately, she does so by positing "neuts"—people born with absolutely no sex hormones or organs, the absence of which gives them super-human control of their bodies as well as near super-human intellect.
Neuts are universally loathed; some gendered humans blame them for the bioengineered plagues that strike major metropolitan areas with scary regularity. These prejudiced "gens" are, sadly, correct. Many of neuts are actively in support of "spreaders," those neuts who design and disseminate plagues. This is not like the European anti-semitic blood libel, where Jews were accused of stealing Christian babies for blood sacrifice, or the racial paranoia of the American South over black men's imagined overpowering and rapacious lust for virtuous white women. Neuts are actually engineering and spreading plagues across the world in an effort to curb overpopulation. Those neuts who aren't spreaders are willing to work in the research and design of these plagues. Because of this, I found myself torn over the novel's allusions to anti-Semitic propaganda via pamphlets, and the reference made to the anti-Semitic redemptive narrative of the Wandering Jew in the form of Jin’s repentence, where it wanders the world volunteering and helping others until once again is called home to arrive in time for its own funeral.
The novel primarily follows the adventures of Jin, whose experiences as both a spreader and a forcibly gendered body make for some of the novel's most dramatic scenes. Like other neuts, Jin refers to itself as an "it" and also prefers to structure its sentences to avoid pronouns and state of being verbs. The former appears to be related to neuts' understanding of their own gendered identities, as well as in response to the English language’s insistence on gender's permeation into sentence structure. I'm not sure why Taber chose to use "it" as her gender neutral pronoun of choice. Many feminist and queer writers have proposed gender neutral pronouns more intimately connected to a sense of personhood. Using "it" instead of something like "zhe" or "e" suggests that the author is less interested in conversations about gender and performance and more interested in conversations surrounding personhood and objectivity.
As a spreader, Jin goes in and out of towns, restaurants, and bathrooms, spreading plagues whose antidotes are built into the disease's structure. For example, one particular plague makes the victim physically and emotionally drained, but as long as they truly want to live (whatever that means?) they can recover. Another can be cured by consistently washing one's hands after using the bathroom. Another is designed to target the neurological structure of someone willing to do violence, someone with malice in their heart. This one is hidden in the bass line of several popular songs and causes heart attacks in people willing to do ill to their fellow human beings. One of the stronger moments in the novel comes when Jin itself encounters one of its songs on the radio, and has to "ghost" (mimic the pulse, body language, and endocrinology of another person) Pelin, another neut, because Jin itself is a murderer.
As Jin moves through this world, it encounters threats of rape and sexualized violence. One frequent threat neuts face is that before being raped, their rapists will use a knife or a gun to make a rapeable hole mimicking the vaginal opening. Though Jin and other neuts are not women or girls, rape and the threat of gendered violence frames their experience of the world. Because Taber is committed to analyzing the ways in which Western society victimizes those who are perceived as "not-male," she is less invested in discussing oral or anal rape.
Rape and sexual violence frames Sandy's story as well. The novel's second protagonist, Sandy is a young woman who is saved from rape by a spreader. This spreader takes Sandy to the sanctuary of the underground neut colony as she recovers from the emotional effects of a near-rape, but upon her return to the surface she must once again face threats of rape and sexual violence from one of her roommates. Through Sandy's eyes, we encounter the wonder of the neuts' art colony, and discover that some neuts are interested in reconciling with the larger world of gendered humanity. Unfortunately, Sandy's plot strand feels separate from the novel as a whole. Her life as an actress features little to no discussion of resource depletion or overpopulation, and the novel does not highlight the connections between Sandy's childhood as a relative child of privilege (her family owns a farm, they have ready access to clean water, they have a house that's not a reclaimed septic tank) and her adult life, where she's once again insulated from the material effects of overpopulation, drought, and worldwide famine. When this narrative is somewhat forcibly connected to Jin's growing emotional complexity and its own understanding of itself as both a crusader for humanity's survival and a killer, it distracts from the overall impact of Jin's witnessing a First World nation's death, the collapse of government infrastructure, and the continuing efforts of corporations to build malls on top of much-needed farmland.
Sandy's storyline is not the only flaw in this provocative novel. I found the author's discussion of gender and biology problematic, to say the least. In Taber's construction, gender is destiny. A gendered identity and the sexual hormones associated with it slow down one's thoughts and cause irrational behavior. Gendered humans are unable to see that the fate of humanity depends on controlling reproduction, as the neuts have concluded. There are no transgendered characters—just cisgendered characters whose messy thoughts, desires, and feelings are directly contrasted to Jin's emotional purity. Jin only experiences the messiness of humanity through its interactions with neuts like Brat, who passes as a man, neuts from the arts colonies like Brat's sibling Pelin, and gens like Sandy. Both Brat and Pelin are failed spreaders; overcome by guilt for having spread a plague, Pelin throws itself into admiring others' art and Brat orchestrates anti-neut campaign of pamphlets and propaganda. While Jin's encounters with these characters may be taken as a criticism of its emotional detachment, the growing complexity these characters introduce comes so near the end of the novel that it feels less like a revelation and more like an underwritten epiphany.
Brat in particular is a troubling character. He hates both gens and neuts, and takes hormones to appear male. Other characters view him with hatred and contempt; his performance of his chosen gender identity is seen as a sign of his own larger dysfunction. While he begins to work with Jin and Sandy on a publicity campaign to change the public image of neuts, later discussions of his chosen gender identity treat it as a form of passing. Brat is really an it just playing at being a he. Again, in the context of this work, gender is destiny. Brat, who identifies as a he, who actively takes hormones to present as such, is consistently misgendered in the text as a neut only playing at masculinity. In fact, when Sandy, a neut ally, discovers that one of her neut friends is passing as a cisgendered woman, she thinks of it as a "poor thing," shifting mid-thought from the "she" of Lynette’s gender presentation to the "it" of Lynette's real identity. In-text, gender is not a site of play or performance or choice; gender is definable, nameable, and inevitable. Neither Lynette nor Brat can choose to be other than what they are—neut. This bodily identity is their real self. This would not be as problematic if the text included some references to trans characters or acknowledged that femininity and masculinity are a performance, even for cisgendered bodies. Instead, this is a world with no butches and no femmes, no queer selves treating gender as a site of play and resistance.
Finally, Taber also draws no connections between perceived gender identities, perceived racial identities, and perceived class identities. In an interview with Publisher's Weekly, Taber talks about the social understandings of gender as being more about "male" vs. "not male." I would argue that race and class complicate the question of whether bodies are read as masculine or feminine. This is important to me because Jin's birthname is Jen Morales, and there are several allusions to other neuts being of color. Black gay and lesbian couples are more likely to live in poverty. Black queer women are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses than their white counterparts. Trans and queer youth of color are more likely to experience homelessness and more likely to experience bullying at school. Given all this, it's disconcerting to read a book about gender and identity featuring a Hispanic surnamed main character where ethnicity and race are rarely mentioned, particularly when that novel is set in Texas, the American Southwest, and St. Louis, where immigration has been such a hot button issue.
Necessary Ill is a novel driven by the ethical issues at its core (is mass murder ever a necessary ill?) as well as its intriguing treatment of gender. Sadly, the novel's potential is hampered because of its flawed treatment of oppression and gender, as well as its disconnected parallel storylines. Neuts are presented as a super-powered yet oppressed minority whose actions harm those members of majority culture whose other intersectional identities make them uniquely vulnerable to death-by-disease, such as children, the elderly, and those unable to afford good food and clean drinking water. The novel is ultimately unable to satisfactorily resolve this contradiction, and never addresses why a super-intelligent narrator of color is itself unconcerned with these same issues.
Maria Velazquez is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research interests include constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality in contemporary media, as well as community-building through technology. She serves on the board of Lifting Voices, a District of Columbia-based nonprofit that helps young people in DC discover the power of creative writing, and blogs for The Hathor Legacy, a feminist pop culture blog. She recently received the Winnemore Dissertation Fellowship from the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.