Big Big Sky.Kristyn Dunnion.
Calgary, AB: Red Deer Press, 2008.
249 pp., pbk., $14.95.
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Darleen Golke.
Whafa like your Pod Leader?
She snaps to. She sends a picture of her red-haired, green-eyed Leader. Quiet, she sends. Efficient. Watchful, not fussy.
Ours, too. I wait a milli before adding, Ours betrayed us. She wants our whole unit replaced.
By other Scouts? She sends a shockshiver with that question. Everypod knows that once a unit fuses, we are never torn asunder, never reshuffled. Unfit.
No. By reanimated fakies. My unit discovered them in Living Lab before their escape. Rows and rows of beds filled with replacement Scout cores. They found their own empty Selves among them. I let that information soak into her mindcore before continuing. There is a mass extermination order on us, Nadya. Pod changes like mine are sprouting up all over. ScanMans use regular units to track and kill the Deformed Pods and to return the corpse cores. Then ScanMans replace that Pod with a mindtuned replica. An altered version, reprogrammed to high Obeyance.
Nadya is silent. I sense her mind churning, working through these new thoughts. If that’s true, why weren’t you our primary target? She sends. Is Loo also Deformed?
I flap and soar, tilt my wings, and circle a small descent. There is something below, a small shack maybe, and a large flesh mound resting outside. The trail I’ve been reading across the Dead Lands leads right to this shelter.
I don’t think Loo Deformed. And I was the primary target until the rest of my unit escaped from Living Lab. Our Healer is dead of an manimal attack, our other Scout drowned in the big big sea. Pod Leader wants Loo Sent Down for revenge. She lied, Nadya.
“Oh.” She chokes out an angry cough, a mourning cry that shivers my core. My Podmates were slaughtered over lies.
I’m sorry, I send. And I am, truly, for all this pain. All the unnecessary killing. Pods, trained and vigilant, turned against our own. We’re nothing but puppets entertaining ScanMans back at Central. Even now, I imagine us filling a large screen while Controller Almighty sits and laughs, sips a drink, crunches snack feed.
I am, too, she sends.
She wave-sends grief and I suck up the great aching rolls. I inhale it from her tired core and – whush! – blow it into the vast sky. She feels lighter now, and the warming winds dry her tears. They blow the badness from us, those strong gusts. We fly free and slow, circling wide but ever lower to the ground. I squint, honing in on the rough terrain, scanning for any signs of life . . .
Following Canadian Children’s Book Centre Our Choice Starred Selection Missing Matthew (2003) and Mosh Pit (2004), author and entertainer Dunnion, also known as Miss Kitty Galore, turns her talents to the speculative/science fiction genre while highlighting her concern for current social issues. In the futuristic world of Big Big Sky, an alien race, ScanMans, exterminates most humans, steals the children from “biological nests, deleting [their] human and ancestral rememories, training and tuning and modifying [them] into their own perfect elite bodyguards.” ScanMans uses them up, “one generation of brainwashed warriors at a time,” exercising absolute control under the “Decline, Deform, Disobey” rule, providing for all their needs, rewarding success but punishing failure, supplying drugs to keep them contented, and encouraging “fusing” to release sexual tension. The warriors, divided into female warrior assassin groups of five as StarPods, function under the strict control of ScanMans, each StarPod with a leader and four pods. The featured five of the Seventh Level Scout group include Loo the hunter, Solomon the healer, Roku the “chronic sharp mindcore” intellectual, Rustle the comedian and wit, and Shona the stolidly committed and obedient leader.
For some time, Rustle has experienced “strange new changes rippling through her core,” mutations that confuse and frighten her. When she refuses to execute a targeted manimal during an assigned raid, Rustle is disgraced and isolated. Roku, also mutating, invites Rustle to flee with her before their deforming results in “deplugging.” Roku flees, but Rustle, tied by her love for Loo, remains only to find their StarPod called for GeneScan. With an incomplete StarPod, the group ends in Living Lab where “ScanMans commit their scientific acts of horror” and from where “nopod” who goes in ever comes out. Realizing torture and deplugging await, the three warriors escape but not before they discover fakies, “fleshcores” with no “mindcore,” replicas of each of them except Shona that allow ScanMans to replace mindcores of pods perceived defective with “altered versions reprogrammed to higher Obeyance.” Although the trio realizes Shona is a traitor, kind-hearted Rustle urges them to take her along as they flee Living Lab. A dronebeet, one of the tiny insect-like slaves created to work for ScanMans, guides them through the underground tunnels out of the mountain that houses the ScanMans complex. Before them lie sand and a large body of water, and above them the big big sky. Fashioning a raft, they embark upon a sea journey during which Solomon falls prey to sharks and Rustle, to keep the raft afloat, sacrifices herself to the deep where ultimately her mutations that have rendered her amphibious allow her to function comfortably. Roku, mutated into a large black bird, rescues Loo and Shona, transporting them to land where she has stashed a badly injured Solomon whom she plucked from attacking sharks. Shona insists on joining a shuttle with Assassin Scouts hunting for the escapees; Loo dispatches two shuttle crew scouts before joining forces with a third, Marta, only to be captured by electrolls, trained mixed gene species designed for hard labour for humans who reside in a compound outside the ScanMans complex under the big big sky, and whose leaders collaborate with ScanMans. Loo, pregnant from “fusing” with mutated Rustle, becomes the special project of the complex leader, Volchok, and lives in luxury while Marta becomes a sex slave to Volchok’s men until Loo liberates her. Roku and the shuttle StarPod’s healer, Nadya, combine forces and successfully make their way to the Red Soil Settlement, a commune under the “big big sky” free from ScanMans. Rustle surfaces only to be tricked by Shona, imprisoned aboard the shuttle, transported to Living Lab, tortured until she suffers frontal lobe damage, sent for disposal as garbage, rescued and repaired by dronebeets and forced to “swimmy” them across the water. At the outside complex housing Loo and Marta, a full-scale dronebeet and the sex-slave scout uprising occurs overthrowing the humans and electrolls. In an ironic climax, Loo with her “podling” who sports Rustle’s purple hair, murders Volchak, assumes his identity, orders an unrecognizable Rustle imprisoned, but suffers a mortal wound when Marta stabs who she thinks is Volchak in order to save Loo. Roku rescues Rustle from imprisonment just in time for her to hold dying Loo in her arms and meet her daughter. In the “brave new world” of the Red Soil Settlement, Rustle with the podling Loo named Kalista with her dying breath, Marta and Nadya find a home, but Roku knows she must leave to find another way – “the future calls.”
Dunnion creates a futuristic underground world peopled by genetically engineered telepathic females, the ultimate fighting machines, who, when threatened with extinction, manage to escape their manipulative and destructive masters. However, the pods quickly discover danger exists in the world outside the underground complex where only their skill, resourcefulness, and ingenuity help them survive. In a CM “Profile” interview with Dave Jenkinson, Dunnion says the “book is, in part, a response to the war we find ourselves in” – the warfare itself, the military recruitment, the death and destruction. “The militaristic attitude about training and creating the perfect weapon/soldier” angers her especially because once “they’ve served their purpose” or “become too difficult to control,” the weapon/soldiers are discarded.
The pod’s language, an amalgam of kiddie talk, jive talk, and slang – whafa, pod, mind send, swimmy, blaaty, Kronk, speech, fusion, rememory, mindcore – initially slows the action until the reader becomes familiar and comfortable with it. Multi-layered and complex, the plot unfolds from three viewpoints: Rustle, Loo, and Roku. The first half of the narrative alternates between Rustle and Loo’s first person voices; the last half adds Roku’s voice. Each contributes parts to the whole to explain the evolution of the world in which they operate and its mode of functioning, and explains how the scouts, genetically designed to be the ideal warriors, become liabilities slated for destruction. The novel strongly promotes the power of the individual’s will and ability to survive even the most stringent conditioning and control, yet emphasizes the advantages of co-operation and friendship.
Dunnion writes with verve and elegance. The prose flows smoothly; the action, while at times confusing because of the multiple narrators and points of view, moves forward strongly. Engaging main characters, varied and unique secondary characters, coldly scientific villains, a well-paced plot, timely themes, graphic dialogue, a skillfully designed social structure, and detail-rich descriptions combine to present an unusual and intriguing speculative novel.
Darleen Golke, a retired teacher-librarian, writes from Abbotsford, BC.