Re: Isher and Polymorph

J. R. Molloy (
Tue, 15 Jun 1999 09:22:09 -0700

Polymorphic reviews of the cyberpunk novel _Polymorph_:

A young woman is gifted with the ability to change her body to any race, appearance, and gender. Living in New York in the near future, she moves effortlessly across tribal boundaries of class, ethnicity, and sexuality. But her explorations are interrupted when she fleetingly encounters another polymorph, and realizes that a "tribe" of her own exists. The novel recounts her search for this invisible tribe, a quest that illuminates
the tenuousness of social and sexual markers in an age of identity politics.
(Hmmm... sound like anyone we know?)

"Living in a post industrial world, Lee can change her gender and ethnicity at will. She only uses this ability to make her life easier, until the discovery of another "polymorph" makes her realize that she is not the only one. Unfortunately, the other is plotting to control the information technology of this broken world, and Lee finds herself a reluctant warrior trying to stop the other. But during the struggle, she finds herself transforming in ways she never expected, inwardly instead of outwardly. "

Lee is a shapechanger, a "polymorph" who can change her shape and gender at will. She thinks she's the only one until she discovers that the guy she met at a bar is also a polymorph. Not only that, but the man Freddie is plotting the absolute control of information technology. And only Lee can stop him. Readers should be aware this book contains implications of homosexual intercourse in more than one instance.
(Ha-ha! What a shocking revelation!)

Some first novels burst onto the SF scene like a supernova. Some sneak onto the bookshelves like a whimper, afraid to be heard. But most are in the middle, showing some promise but having some problems.

"Polymorph" is one of the latter. There are good parts and not-so-good parts, but the real question is, where will Scott Westerfeld go from here?

Lee is the title creature, a woman who can change her looks -- not only her body, facial features and race, but also her gender -- at will. There's nobody she cannot be. For the most part, she is content with her life, visiting various clubs and bars, seducing men and women alike, living off government welfare.
(Of course! She can impersonate the President, so naturally she lives off
government hand-outs.
Yet another indication of the political naivete of SF writers?)

One night, she meets a being like her, and learns that there are still "others" out there, as well. Lee swings between attraction to this society and revulsion to the other polymorph, who is at first glance sadistic and cruel. She winds up following the other, and learning some of its plans ... nothing less than replacing the world's richest and most powerful man.

Of course, Lee feels she must stop the whole thing, and she recruits some new-found friends to help. But her opponent is always one step ahead of her, and the outcome looks grim.

For the most part, Westerfeld's prose flows with the action, stumbling only occasionally. The story's primary problem is that this idea is old. True, we've never been inside a polymorph's head before, but we've seen plenty of bad guys just like this. (Remember "Terminator 2?") But the real stinker is the ending, where Westerfeld introduces a nasty, bitter plot twist.

Still, the rest is a rollicking ride through Westerfeld's created world, and you could always skip the last chapter, and leave happier.

Scott Westerfeld's New York City of the future is wired -- and I'm not talking stuff like Ethernet and plain old telephone system. Caffeine, morphine, adrenaline, amphetamines -- all these sluice the synaptic juice racing between dendrites. All around town, you can hear the sound of nervous systems locking and loading. A neurotic free-fire zone.

For a polymorph like Lee, gender and ethnicity, bone structures and muscles mix and meld and dance, obeying her will. One day she can be a nondescript but lovely Asian female, and at the moment of danger, a fanged avenger with a taste for blood.

For other characters, identity shifting is just as easy. Freddie, hired to "animate" text-based chat rooms, can manipulate his gender and personal background to anything that'll keep the marks on the money meter. All hail the anonymity of the command line interface -- none of this fancy video over the Net. He is a charming throwback to a simpler day when multi-user systems relied on utilities that sound more like gastronomic noises than high-powered filters: grep, awk, chown. Outside, the transvestite prostitutes stalk the street corners, adding further layers in the game of identity seek-and-destroy.

I asked Scott Westerfeld what was the driving force behind the creation of Polymorph. His answer was very illuminating:

I guess that the landscape of New York in the 1980s created the character. When I first moved to New York in the 1980s, I was amazed that it was such a richly textured city: layers of graffiti, legacies of immigrant influences, overlapping strata of big money and extreme poverty. I was obsessed with the fact that so many lives went on behind the vast grids of tenement windows. Especially since I had friends who lived in the big buildings on the Lower East Side, with their Yiddish and Ukrainian old folks, Hispanic families, and young Asians just then moving in. The same kind of multiplicity existed in nightclubs, where expatriate Euroriche, the kids of Asian immigrants, and suburban-born American transplants like myself mixed. To explore it all, you'd have to be a polymorph.
Polymorph really swings into action when Lee meets a second polymorph, and she realizes that she is not alone, that there are other polymorphs. This discovery ratchets quickly into a plot of revenge, ultimately transforming the most changeable, dynamic character you'll meet in a long while.

And did I mention the oh-so-cool Payday club, that every week moves to a new locale, mirroring the protean twists on selfhood, where hackers, slackers, and slummers caress the infrabass hip-hop? Or the epic operas based on international energy treaties, sung in Esperanto, and staged on giant chessboards?

And the sex! Brawny and flavorful like high-impact afterburner, except add

the napalm. ---------------------------------------------------------------
Westerfeld's first book is a gender-bending tale whose main character is Lee, aka Milica Raznakovic, who lives on welfare and frequents gay and lesbian nightclubs in New York some 20 years hence. Global warming has arrived, the homeless are legion, but the largest change is the Universal Computer Code (UCC), which links all computer systems worldwide. Lee is a polymorph: born female, she is able to change her sex and hide as a human in the Raznakovic identity; her wild sex life is an attempt to discover what she is and whether there are others of her kind. There is at least one like her--the monstrous Bonito, who has mastered impersonations of those he has murdered and is after control of the UCC. Lee allies herself with Freddie Smith, a nimble hacker, to defeat Bonito. They make a sort of twenty-first-century couple, except that Bonito morphs into Lee's nervous system, turning her into a monster, too. Westerfeld is clever and trite simultaneosly, but with a feel for the genuinely alien, he is a writer to watch.
(Imagine: Lee can change herself into any form she wants, but she has to
survive on government welfare?! Yeah, right. Sort of like someone who can change lead into gold, but has to live on food stamps.)

No matter how ROC may try to hide it, Polymorph is cyberpunk, and it sometimes veers awful close to the kind of cynerpunk I hate. I mean, there are long stretches of members of the underground twiddling keyboards to look at holographic representations of data--the sort of thing that makes me leav e well enough alone. Which is sort of sad, because Scott Westerfeld has his moments, and has created some characters that are engaging and intriguing, even for my cyberpunk-indifferent soul.

Polymorphis the story of Lee. A Dominican by birth, she soon learned she had to ability to change her appearance, which she does to survive in a New York whose infrastructure is failing (something I thought was pretty cool until it started actually happening in the last few weeks). Lee thinks she is unique until she meets Bonito, who not only is a polymorph like her, but is a lot more proficient at it. Lee, along with her new boyfriend Freddie, soon learn that Bonito is a lot more evil in using his powers, morphing to gain political and financial power.

One of the things I liked about Westerfeld's prose is that a lot of these characters breathe. Lee and Freddie, as well as some of the ancilliary characters are vividly alive, and monitoring their thoughts is fascinating. I was particularly taken by the relationship that develops between Lee and Freddie, which is based just as much on mutual respect as on lust. Also fun are some of the ancilliary characters, including a performance artist who makes lifesized parodies of stores and an opera composer whose supposedly deep operas have very simple, very blunt meanings. On the other hand, Bonito is pretty weak for a master villian, and he does not have enough 'face time' to establish him as anything other than a cinematic boogeyman.

Because Westerfeld's strength is in his characters, I wished he had the confidence in them to avoid the kind of faux cyberpunk secret agent stuff most of his peers indulge in. Scenes conveying just how painful it is to transform to me were much more engaging than the chases and fights and computer twiddling that take up the bulk of the book.

I'd still like to recommend Polymorph, because I respect what Westerfeld's done with the characters. But what he needs to do is trust in his own skill and not give up and give us cyberpunk cliches so quickly.