I wish I could unread this. Let us consider, for a moment, that a writer — in this case, a small press writer without professional editorial guidance — wants to do a book tackling a challenging and controversial theme. Let us say that the theme is racism. Writing a story with this theme will necessarily take readers in unpleasant directions, cause them to question assumptions, and face grim realities they do not wish to face. It requires being good enough at your craft that readers, when they encounter appalling points of view in your book, will know that the views of a character are not necessarily those of the writer, and that a statement regarding the human condition is being made.
Done well, this can lead to the very best of fiction. Done ineptly — well, you can imagine. Or perhaps you can't, which brings us to Revealing Eden. I very rarely, to tell the truth, accept review requests from the many small press writers who query me. The main consideration is usually just time, and I wish I could do better. I always worry, on the rare occasions I think I can slip a small press title into my always-overcrowded queue, that I'll have overlooked a really good and worthy one in favor of one less so.
Revealing Eden was one I chose to accept, because I thought it sounded like it had promise. Between the time it landed on my doorstep and the time I read it, the internet had erupted in outrage with accusations of blatant racism, even drawing the ire of such prominent figures as N. K. Jemisin. As it's unusual for a small press book to get that kind of attention from the public either way — good small press books can sometimes rise above obscurity and catch a buzz if they're a pleasant surprise, while the vast array of lousy ones just get ignored — the furor made me think the book would be worth evaluating, simply to see if the criticisms against it were fair, and if there were anything in the story to mitigate them. In short, yes, and no. This is the most wrong-headed SF novel I've endured since the heinous Watch on the Rhine. Unconvincing as SF and burdened by illogic and one-note characters, it is every bit as misguided as the haters on Tumblr and Goodreads say it is.
I can see, or I think I can see, what Victoria Foyt wanted to pull off here. She wanted to shock white readers out of their torpor by presenting them with a world in which roles are reversed. The white characters are treated as abominably as non-white people are today. Isn't this horrible? we are meant to realize, presumably in an epiphany of reevaluating our privilege. Fine, though it's just a tad presumptuous for someone who has never experienced racism to think she can write with authority from the viewpoint of someone who does. Still, you know what they say about the road to hell. Whatever Foyt's intent, her execution fails in every conceivable way. It fails so jaw-droppingly that the book becomes the very racist artifact it hopes to condemn. I felt like I was standing on the bank of a river, watching Foyt obliviously hurtling toward a waterfall in a barrel, unable to rescue her. Foyt's clumsy defenses of the book in the wake of criticisms — particularly her apparent sheer unwillingness to absorb what African-American readers are trying to tell her — have only stoked further anger.
It's the future, sometime, and the world has been crisped by rising temperatures and climate change. People live in underground habitats, where blacks have become the majority race and ruling class. This, we're told, is because their dark skin made them better equipped to resist The Heat, a.k.a. epidemic skin cancer. Setting aside the glaring science fail, none of that convincingly explains how it was that the wealthy, white upper classes just apparently up and died out in one big wave, thus obliterating the existing social heirarchy so completely so that a new black ruling class could handily step in. Nor does it explain the excessive hostility and rage the black characters feel towards the whites as a matter of course.
In case you just missed that, let me make this car crash abundantly clear: Victoria Foyt has written a novel she insists is anti-racist in which black characters are depicted, virtually without exception, as cruel, angry, heartless, violent, dishonest and oppressive towards any white person on sight. Such depictions, I would suggest, are . . . counterproductive to the goal of repudiating racism.
Eden Newman, our hapless heroine, is forced to — and I really, really wish I was making this up — darken her skin and hair in the presence of her black co-workers simply to keep her job at a lab where her father is working on illegal DNA experiments. White skin is considered unbearably ugly. The hue Eden darkens her skin with is called Midnight Luster, but it leaves her skin dry and parched. I am reminded of one of the more unpleasant moments from C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle, in which our hero tints his skin to sneak into the camp of the dark-skinned Calormenes, and upon removing the tint later, says to himself, "I feel like a true man again."
I have not yet mentioned the racial epithets Foyt has invented for her future, which have left readers stupefied with disbelief. Blacks are called Coals, and albinos are called Cottons, though they're extinct, leading me to wonder why they needed an epithet at all. The epithet for whites? Pearls. Let that sink in a moment. The word we are supposed to think is a horribly offensive epithet for white people is actually the name of a gemstone, while coal is just, you know, black and sooty. Can this get worse? Yes it can. Foyt, in a remarkable display of how to be tone-deaf to feedback, has tried on Facebook to defend the terms by claiming that in her bleak, apocalyptic world, aesthetic values have reversed, with coal cherished as a vital resource (not sure why) and pearls dismissed as useless frippery. But this defense is undercut by the fact that, right there in the book's first chapter, we're told it's an "incendiary racial slur" to call black people Coals. Oops. (Asians are called Ambers and Latinos are called Tiger's Eyes, which both sound kind of flattering, so it seems Foyt is piling the bulk of her contempt on blacks.)
Racism aside, the book is just poor SF, and I'll give a quick example of its senseless worldbuilding. The habitat where Eden lives has limited resources. Now see if you can follow the logic here: Eden is six months away from turning 18, and if she doesn't mate by that age (for which she has her sights set on her "Dark Prince," Jamal — feel free to facepalm), she will be cast into the deadly outside world for being a useless drain on resources. So in order not to be a drain on resources herself, she must bear a child, thus adding a new person to drain resources? Huh? Also, how is it, in this incredibly resource-poor habitat, that Eden, a member of the most despised race, is allowed to keep a pet dog?
So, to recap, we have a miserable white girl, forced to put on blackface so that she can pass privilege in a future society ruled by duplicitous, stupid black people so bigoted and reactionary that they will mob up like a ravenous wolf pack at the slightest challenge to their authority. And the only hope for her future is if a Coal boy accepts her as mate. And we are asked to accept that the very opposite of racism is intended here. I mean Jesus what the I can't even...
Followed by Adapting Eden.