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The Enhancers coverAnne K. Yoder’s debut novel, The Enhancers, tells the story of three teen girls navigating life in the dystopian near-future town of Lumena Hills. Organized around the Lumena Corp pharmaceutical plant and the drugs it produces, the town is flush with pills that can do everything from enhance brain structures and decrease unpleasant feelings to erase memories which the swallower (or the pharmaceutical company) wish to be forgotten.

While the novel occasionally dips into other perspectives, it centers on Hannah, who has just started taking Valedictorian (V)—a pharmaceutical to boost cognitive ability and increase mental storage capacity. Along with the medication, Hannah and her friends Azzie and Celia are instructed to take in as much information as possible in multiscreen, day-long marathons meant to push them to achieve a level of genius inaccessible to the unmedicated. This was a scene that was hard not to read as a drug-fueled hyperbole of contemporary media consumption. Even before her experience with V takes a turn for the worse, however, Hannah’s nascent questioning of life in Lumena Hills shows up in her hobby of watching a live feed of a chimp family:

My favorite things about the chimps was what they did not do: stare at screens, put on white coats or any clothes at all, or act self-righteous AF. They didn’t take supplements, didn’t make flow charts, didn’t track happiness scores. They touched each other’s faces. They grabbed each other’s arms and asses and wrestled in the mud. I wondered, if I could find them IRL, would they take me in? (p. 9)

Along with her other hobbies—maintaining a list of extinct or nearly-extinct species that no one else seems to care about and making pre-emptive death masks of her friends and family after learning about the historical practice in school—Hannah comes across as a thoughtful and artsy weirdo, out of step with the rest of Lumena Hills.

Marketed as adult fiction, The Enhancers borrows a well-worn YA trope of students being tested and sorted into future social roles, this time based on brain structure. In this future, some brains are assessed as destined for menial work, others for more mentally demanding careers. Yoder brings an absurdist element to the trope by describing different brains in terms of fruit. There are simple apple and avocado brains, the more common pomegranate brains that store information in sectioned off compartments, and the rarer pineapple mind with its “extreme capacity for acquisition and uptake” (p. 30).

When Hannah’s test confirms her type A mother’s predictions—Hannah is a pineapple—she finds herself among elite students dosing themselves on all manner of pharmaceuticals to keep from feeling anything unpleasant, most especially the institutionally downplayed side effects of V.

I was now one of them—the ambitious kids, the factory brats and bros ... I didn’t care much for them. Pineapples were the type to carry ampules of V. concentrate in their bags, along with sets of weights and scales. They walked with administration machines mounted to abdomens, slipped into pockets, inserted under skin, in an attempt to reach steady state. (p. 47)

But Hannah and Celia’s reactions to the drug are not what they should be. Celia has a breakdown that lands her sedated in the hospital. Hannah, already a bit slippery-brained regarding reality thanks to V, witnesses a traumatic event at school and undergoes mind erasure to eradicate the troubling memory. When a fire at the Lumena factory destroys the town’s drug supply, it offers the girls a chaotic moment to slip into the unknown beyond Lumena Hills, where a group of off-grid rebels show them a different way to live.

Throughout the narrative there are brief forays into the lives of Hannah’s parents, Judy and Harold. The former is a driven, company-minded acolyte of the pharmaceutically enhanced life, while the latter struggles with his own mental drifts and the side effects of an over-medicated life. They both come off a bit two-dimensionally—Judy as the ambitious woman who is a bad mom and a bad wife, and Harold the soft-hearted, ineffectual cuckold. Still, their chapters provide a welcome, if dismal, glimpse into the lives of adults in Lumena Hills.

On its face, The Enhancers is a critique of a healthcare industry that prioritizes profits over the well-being of the human beings it purports to serve, and of the mechanisms through which it hides or manipulates inconvenient data about side effects. Yoder, a trained pharmacist, scatters drug information, advertising copy, and warning labels throughout the text. Their appearance, so ubiquitous off the page, is striking in the novel, heightening the surreal, off-kilter feel of the story and its young protagonist:

XTRA-lyfe is your plus one when life turns lackluster and you’re just going through the motions. Take XTRA-lyfe to revive. (p. 89)

There were, though, times when the book felt like it didn’t know what genre it wanted to be. This sense was fuelled mostly by a teenage protagonist who proceeds through all the harrowing plot and themes discussed above, but also finds things sus and obvi, who goes to the mall to confront her friend’s ex-boyfriend and possibly spread a gif of his junk around school, and hallucinates chimps dancing out of teeth and dashed pomegranate brains spilling their seeds. Part satire, part YA, and part weird fiction, the novel does not fully harness the power of any one of its modes.

That said, I found the narrative most compelling whenever Hannah grapples with the question, “What do we lose when reaching an internal ‘steady state’ is prioritized over encountering the world?” The answers are as varied as the contexts in which she asks these questions. Out in the woods with the rebels, Hannah wonders who she is, who anyone is, without the supplements designed to make them happy and productive no matter their actual circumstance:

I wanted to know what was real and what was synthetic, not that I could tell the difference or why it mattered to me. In Lumena we relied on manufactured feelings to make life palatable ... There was no incentive to care about the state of the planet or the nature of our natures. It was a downer. (p. 246)

Hannah has an artist’s mind, pineapple-shaped or not. Underneath the sharp critique of the pharmaceutical-industrial complex is a quieter, though for this reader more devastating, examination of how out-of-place the weird, the artsy, and the deep-feeling are in a society that valorizes profit above all else. There is a sense, too, that in the end these very minds are absolutely indispensable for avoiding our bleakest possible futures.

E.C. Barrett (she/they) writes folk horror, fabulism, and dark speculative fiction. She is or has been an academic, journalist, bookseller, editor, and obituary writer. A Clarion West graduate, E.C. has stories in Bourbon Penn, Baffling Magazine, and elsewhere. E.C. is queer, neurodivergent, and enjoys more maker hobbies than is entirely practical.
Current Issue
29 May 2023

We are touched and encouraged to see an overwhelming response from writers from the Sino diaspora as well as BIPOC creators in various parts of the world. And such diverse and daring takes of wuxia and xianxia, from contemporary to the far reaches of space!
By: L Chan
The air was redolent with machine oil; rich and unctuous, and synthesised alcohol, sharper than a knife on the tongue.
“Leaping Crane don’t want me to tell you this,” Poppy continued, “but I’m the most dangerous thing in the West. We’ll get you to your brother safe before you know it.”
Many eons ago, when the first dawn broke over the newborn mortal world, the children of the Heavenly Realm assembled at the Golden Sky Palace.
Winter storm: lightning flashes old ghosts on my blade.
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Many trans and marginalised people in our world can do the exact same things that everyone else has done to overcome challenges and find happiness, only for others to come in and do what they want as Ren Woxing did, and probably, when asked why, they would simply say Xiang Wentian: to ask the heavens. And perhaps we the readers, who are told this story from Linghu Chong’s point of view, should do more to question the actions of people before blindly following along to cause harm.
Before the Occupation, righteousness might have meant taking overt stands against the distant invaders of their ancestral homelands through donating money, labour, or expertise to Chinese wartime efforts. Yet during the Occupation, such behaviour would get one killed or suspected of treason; one might find it better to remain discreet and fade into the background, or leave for safer shores. Could one uphold justice and righteousness quietly, subtly, and effectively within such a world of harshness and deprivation?
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