Let's talk about sex, because there's nothing like a bit of sex to get the judgmental juices flowing. Here's the protagonist-narrator of Jillian Weise's The Colony, thinking about the man she's just met, and the long-distance relationship she's about to leave behind:
I heard Grayson's voice: "Don't kiss any dudes." I was only smoking a cigarette on a dude's porch. Though granted, I had already imagined this dude in his straw hat, slo-mo, with his hands on my ankles in a violent manner, the type of manner Grayson could not provide, having graduated summa cum laude, poli-sci and art history, and so knowing the whole story from Margaret Sanger to Guerilla Girls. He could not say suck my dick or its compatriot phrases that tend to pitch me from cool beans to hot damn the world is ending. When I'd begged it of him, he'd added please with a vigilance that made me, during my turn, fake an orgasm. (p. 18)
What do we make of the two parties here described, m'lud? We might not particularly like Grayson, the sense that he's nervously controlling outside the bedroom and hopelessly uptight in it; or we might feel he's caught in a bit of a catch-22, required to be both enlightened and primitive. We might admire the narrator's forthright attitude to sex and confidence in her own desires; or we might feel disappointment that her desires seem specifically tied to being instructed. (We might feel that this is degrading, that she degrades herself.) It's safe to say that we conclude the pair are not a good match (unless we feel they deserve each other), but beyond that I suspect our judgements say as much about us as about what's on the page.
But of course it's what's on the page that forces those judgements, the candidness of the presentation giving us little chance of remaining neutral, even as the novel itself scrupulously avoids taking a stance. It's also an approach to character that Jillian Weise carries through the rest of The Colony. It ensures that the novel is compelling even when we're disagreeing with Anne Hatley's choices (as we almost certainly will at some point or other), and even when there doesn't seem to be much in the way of forward momentum to the plot, which has to do with Anne's stay at Cold Spring Colony, an adjunct to the main Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory established in the autumn of 2015 to study individuals with "renegade genes," and develop related treatments. Anne is one of five people in the first intake, recruited for a three month stay at the Colony. She is the youngest (25 years old), and the one with the most uncommon genotype. Her companions have the obesity gene, the suicide gene, the bipolar gene, and the Alzheimer's gene; Anne has a mutation in PRX1, and is the only known adult survivor of a (made-up) bone development defect that affects only one in fifteen million people. She shouldn't be alive. It's a miracle that all that's wrong with her is that she's missing a leg.
Does any of this information change our earlier judgements? Does it lend an undertone of obnoxiously careful charity to Grayson's attentions, do we welcome Anne's frank sexual appetites, and the fact that the novel never questions that she's a sexual being—as she falls pseudo-reluctantly into a relationship with cowboy, suicide-gene-bearer, and ankle-grabber Nick Burkowitz—that bit more? We might; we are, at least, encouraged to ask such questions, because much of The Colony is occupied by what seems (to me at least) a deft and perceptive exploration of Anne's experience, the ways in which her physicality inflects others' relations to her, and her own sense of self. She describes an English class in which she "began to suspect [the author] of thievery, stealing a very real physical condition and using it to sell his stupid book of stupid fiction," and the sense of crushing burden on realizing, after the teacher asks for her perspective, that "I would always be called upon" (p. 14). Later, ex-cheerleader and obesity gene carrier Mercedes Minnow artlessly notes that "For you to cheat on someone is way different than for me to cheat on someone" (p. 201), because after all, in stories, cripples like Anne don't get any action. The coup de grace: "Am I offending you?" (p. 202). There is much more in this vein. Frustration at "touchers"; envy of those who don't have to be aware of the difference between left and right; anger at the thoughtless assumption that of course Anne's not going to have children. All (as it should be) exhausting, but all enlivened by Anne's caustic commentary.
And all of this takes place around the obvious plot point, which is that the Colony offers to grow Anne a new leg and—after an enigmatic moment of decision, from which it remains unclear precisely how much of the impetus comes from within and how much from without—Anne accepts. The final third of the novel is then punctuated by extraordinary moments of body horror as, in painful fits and starts, Anne's stump begins to extend itself into a leg. She experiences the "mutiny of nerves" (p. 259) as something alien, invasive, other; even though she feels unprompted exhilaration at the arrival of a knee she can bend, she finds herself thinking of the leg as worse than the prosthetic it replaces, somehow "more deficient than ever" (p. 295). Most tellingly, Anne's sex drive withers as her leg extends: confirmation, if any were needed, of the link between her body and her identity.
Let's talk about science, because that's where Jillian Weise lets herself get judgmental. As I read The Colony, I found myself reminded of two other recent American novels, both for their overlaps with and divergences from their depictions of science and its consequences. First is Richard Powers's Generosity (2009) which, like The Colony, includes a central figure subject (it is claimed) to genetic predestination. The slick geneticist at Cold Spring Colony, Engel Deeter (aka The Gee), so eager to treat Anne, is a kissing cousin of Powers's Thomas Kurton, even down to the religiosity of their language about the radical potential of genetics to alter the human condition, and their tendency to see genes instead of people. And in The Colony, The Gee is representative of his profession; rankling at his attentions after a meeting, Anne writes:
It was a pet peeve of mine that doctors, upon meeting me, presumed it was as monumental a moment for me as it was for them . . . My gynecologist at college actually asked, "How did you get in here?" He'd seen my files before seeing me and was in awe that I could walk, and he expected me to be in awe too, except there was nothing awesome about him. (p. 23)
This fits clearly enough into the pattern of othering that shapes Anne's life, but since The Colony is also a novel about how scientific and medical progress happens and who it happens to, it is clearly enough more than that: a critique of abstract intellectual curiosity. It's one pole of Powers's novel, but—the crucial difference—more fully explored here, since Weise rightly gives us the reaction of the subject, rather than the bewilderment of the observer.
The second novel I kept thinking of, more and more as The Colony developed, was Lydia Millet's Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2005), for the ways in which Weise tackles the mythology of science. Like Millet's fable of nuclear guilt, The Colony is studded with interludes from the main narrative, many non-fiction, although in a more playful tone: there's a potted history of prosthetic legs, and Anne's patient chart, and the Goal of Cold Spring Colony ("to allow individuals to gain deeper insights into the ancestry, genealogy, and inherited traits" (p. 13)); but the latter is immediately followed by the Goal of Springs That Are Cold.
More fundamentally, like Millet, Weise eventually shades her science into fantasy. The treatment of one of the other colonists turns out to have an impossible side effect (that seems briefly as though it could be a figure of speech, or a figment of Anne's imagination, but which turns out to be entirely literal), which draws the great Eye of the media to the Colony and makes everyone's lives that much more fraught. Moreover, Anne's occasional consultations with a perspicacious Darwin, which appear at first to be dreams of some stripe, turn out to have a greater than expected reality. There is even, as in Millet, a dramatic transformation at the very end of the novel.
All of this could sit very oddly together, and certainly leaves you feeling rather strange, but is given coherence by a consistent focus on the ethics of Anne's situation. Unfortunately it's a unity that turns sour. The Colony is a novel in which science can be literally miraculous, and would certainly benefit many—as Anne discovers when she becomes a focus for outside attention, receiving dozens of letters from hopeful amputees. But what begins as a nuanced study of pressure and expectation becomes a forceful argument that the price will always be too high. The Colony treats its inhabitants not as pioneers, but as specimens to be cultured; and through historical sleight-of-hand, having Darwin dig up some dodgy documents from Cold Spring's past and present them to Anne, the novel implies that when science becomes institutionalized such dehumanization will always and inevitably be the case. (Rather than that it will always and inevitably be a risk.) Rightful skepticism towards the practice of science becomes unhelpful disbelief that such an enterprise can ever be worthwhile; the plot turns out to be rigged to reward cynical expectations; and there is no space for personal opinion comparable to the one so fruitfully cultured in the novel's characterizations. But that judgment, I am sure, says as much about me as it does about what's on the page.