As a kid, my grandmother would take me to the library and, mostly based on covers and titles, I’d borrow an armful of “young adult” books to get me through the next couple of weeks. The ones that made the biggest impression on me, that introduced me to complicated adult subjects but in an accessible way, that shaped my thinking the most, were science fiction and fantasy. Some of them left such indelible marks on me that, upon finding the books years later, I realized I’d completely forgotten they existed but incorporated their ideas into my thinking. The best example of this is a book called House of Stairs, which is about five children trapped on an endless staircase as part of a bizarre science experiment; flash-forward twenty years and I work with classical and operant conditioning (the same techniques in the book) in my professional career, and I wrote a novel where passive resistance, rather than violent confrontation, defines the main character. This shit sticks with you.
So it was with great pleasure that I read Kate Blair’s Transferral and imagined kids reading it and having their minds blown.
(Fair disclosure: I met Kate on a roller coaster, then we bonded in some haunted houses, and then more or less we disappeared from each other’s lives. A decade or so later, and despite never talking about an interest in writing, we both happened to have debut novels published within a year of each other.)
At the heart of Transferral, like all the great Young Adult books I used to read, is a central conceit that separates the world of the novel from our own: all disease can be cured, but only by transferring it to another person. Instead of prison sentences, criminals receive diseases, thereby leaving the upstanding citizens disease-free. Unlike most utopia/dystopia books, Transferral shies away from a bird’s eye view of the society and instead stays tightly focused on Talia Hale, the daughter of a candidate for prime minister in England. This is a great narrative choice, as Talia gives us an understandably privileged and naïve point of view which to begin.
Talia’s father’s party is strongly in support of the transference of diseases to criminals, more or less a “tough on crime” stance that will be familiar to anyone who has ever paid attention to politics; his opposition, on the other hand, are labelled as soft on crime and wanting to change the status quo. What’s great is that Talia’s father is given credible motivations, ones that Talia shares at first. But when she has a chance encounter with the other side, with the people who have these diseases thrust on them and the families that are irrevocably affected, it challenges her simplistic beliefs on transference.
Soon Talia is spending less time on the posh side of London and more time in the abject social housing where ex-convicts and their families (as well as rampant sickness) are relegated. Here she is introduced to complicated societal topics (social stratification, poverty, institutional bias) without beating the reader over the head with them. No one would have taken Blair to task for making the book overly simplistic on these topics, but she’s willing to make it a little messy and complicated and the book is better for it.
What’s especially great is that Transferral doesn’t deal in “good guys” or “bad guys”. While Talia’s father’s stance is obviously set up to be callous and cruel, he is never the villain, only a man who is driven by principles that don’t take others’ lived reality into consideration. This makes Talia’s decision of whether or not to betray her father all the more difficult and agonizing. As an adult I found this a refreshing change from stories with clear-cut good and evil; a younger me would have been floored by the idea of a completely understandable antagonist.
While Transferral may not catch an adult reader as off-guard, it was still a satisfying and brisk read that was made even better strong plotting and no wasted words. Couple that with a great sci-fi premise, and this is a book I’m excited to keep on my shelf and share with my son when he’s old enough to understand a bit more of it. We need more stories that, while not of our world, help us understand how to be good in our world. Go give Transferral to a kid, but make sure to read it before you do.