Pros: Fascinating characters and original plot
Rating: 5 out of 5
Deb Taber’s Necessary Ill is an unusually intriguing and original book. It’s set some indeterminate time in the future, when resource depletion and waste disposal have become even greater problems than they are now. The population of the planet is unsustainable. Although people as a whole haven’t caught on yet, more and more people are being born as neuters, or “neuts”, with no reproductive organs, no puberty, no gender, little to no estrogen and testosterone. They’re gathering in the Network, and working to make the Earth’s population sustainable. They research medicine and waste disposal, and–they spread plagues to drop the population. Jin is a particularly clever and creative neut who is trying to come up with a plague that will affect only malicious people. We also get to see the neuts through the eyes of Sandy, a “gen” (gender), who is rescued from rape and possible death by one of the “spreaders” (neuts who spread plagues) and taken in by the neuts.
The neuts tailor their plagues to target people of all “racial, religious, social, and economic” groups. When that’s not possible, complementary plagues may be released to restore the balance. Regardless, Jin is a mass murderer, and herein lies the genius of this book: we’re made to sympathize with a mass murderer, and see those who try to stop him as the bad guys. Don’t worry though–it’s never made out to be black-and-white. The situation only gets more complicated as the book goes on, and even tries to tackle how one might lower the birth rate without selecting for race, socio-economic class, religion, etc. There are no easy answers here. Even other neuts aren’t always so sure about the spreaders, despite the fact that the Network supports them explicitly.
At first the neuts seem to be described fairly monolithically. They’re relatively unemotional, they have a particular pattern of speech, they’re unusually focused and intelligent, they don’t like to be touched, etc. However, the author quietly introduces us to neuts who break each of these types, thus keeping things from seeming stereotyped. It would have been nice, though, to see a neut who was capable of feeling romantic love even if they can’t feel sexual attraction. We do get to see an artist’s enclave, and we meet musicians and actors as well as the scientists.
The only (very mild) negative I had was one woman’s reaction to finding out some of what Jin had done. She accuses Jin of “nothing but interfering with people’s lives,” which seems like an awfully mild way to view mass murder.
Content warning for rape and attempted rape, although most of the gory details are elided.
This is a brilliant story with utterly fascinating characters, amazing worldbuilding, and an intriguing plot. I highly recommend it.