Victoria Flanagan, Technology and Identity in Young Adult Fiction: The Posthuman Subject

Victoria Flanagan, Technology and Identity in Young Adult Fiction: The Posthuman Subject (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) viii + 205pp. £58.00 Hb, £43.99 eBook. ISBN 978-1-137-36205-6

Victoria Flanagan’s Technology and Identity in Young Adult Fiction offers an engaging exploration of technology in young adult (henceforth, YA) fiction, including ideas of identity, embodiment, subjectivity and individual agency in posthuman fiction. 

Rather helpfully, she begins by explaining posthumanism, a concept that does not, as it sounds, describe what comes after humanity – i.e., post-human extinction – but rather, is something that comes after and encompasses humanism itself, rearranging and realigning understandings of the self as understood in humanist readings.  In order to do this, she explains, ‘posthumanism uses technoscience as the impetus for a radical revaluation of human subjectivity’ (1).  With this established, Flanagan demonstrates how posthumanism is interwoven in her range of selected texts, reiterating its significance throughoutDifferent types of technology are used in her texts: some are used to present radically altered human landscapes, but in others, the world is strikingly similar, with one or two minor differences.  In this way she demonstrates the significance of posthumanism as a way of reading and constructing these texts for an audience who are frequently more technologically literate than their parents ever were.

Technology is, quite obviously, key in the posthuman worlds of these texts, and Flanagan indicates effectively how the world, particularly for young people, has been impacted positively by technology and thus how YA authors are able to expand their exploration of key themes, including identity, citizenship and relationships.  Flanagan notes that 'there is a growing body of children's literature that deals extensively with topics such as robotics, cybernetics, digital surveillance and the effects of computer technology on human identity and social organisation', and that since 2000 more texts have begun to focus on the positive impact of such technology on the lives of young people in providing communities that offer support and effect change (10).  Interweaving these themes, Flanagan also demonstrates how feminist theory, citizenship, digital education and the human subject’s right to be autonomous and self-defining are all present and interwoven into posthuman narratives in a way that is relevant and engaging to a younger audience.

Chapter One discusses posthumanism through the lens of young adult fiction, leading neatly to chapter two which focuses on the ‘narrative representation of posthuman consciousness and subjectivity’ (39).  Chapter Three examines the ideas of digital citizenship as explored through YA fiction and Chapter Four focuses on representations and recreations of the female body in texts.  Chapter Five examines the aim of some YA fiction in educating readers about surveillance and its purposes, and Chapter Six analyses narrative strategies used in texts which broach the subject of the increasing role of virtual reality in the lives of children and young adults today.

Flanagan consistently takes a thoughtful, considered approach to her texts and despite the ambitious coverage of texts (Chapters Two to Six cover at least four texts each, more usually five), her careful selection of elements for discussion ensure that the chapters never feel rushed or incomplete.  Her discussion in Chapter Two of Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover (1981) and Metallic Love (2005), the latter a sequel produced 24 years after its predecessor, demonstrates Tanith’s ability to avoid merely rehashing her themes by the skilful use of overt intertextuality in Metallic Love, encouraging – or even forcing the reader, one might argue – to read the first text, as the novel’s protagonist reads it.  Flanagan also notes the similarity of this strategy to the recent trend in children’s fiction that encourages readers to go away from the text and look things up.  More significantly, she notes the use of unreliability in these narratives, sometimes in the form of the narrators themselves, but also in the acknowledgement that ‘these fictions do not present a technologically sophisticated future in idealised, utopian terms.  They recognise that technology has its drawbacks, but are also aware that it has the potential to enrich human life and experience in innumerable ways’ (69).

Chapter Three’s investigation of digital citizenship offers a comparison of Ender’s Game (1991) with post-2000 texts, also exploring the relationship between virtual and material reality in a global arena.  Moreover, Flanagan draws attention to Doctorow’s approach, which engages and educates his readers into becoming informed and active digital citizens.  Chapter Four then returns from this outward-looking stance to the individual: the concept of the self as object, which is tied to feminist theory.  As Flanagan astutely points out, ‘feminine subjectivity is […] closely linked to the physical body and its cultural signification […] and women have historically been associated with their material bodies in a pejorative fashion’ (101).  What is particularly enlightening in this chapter is the idea of the female bodies discussed in this chapter as transgressive, as seen in Chapter Two’s discussion of Marissa Meyer's Cinder (2012) and John Cusick's Girl Parts (2010).  This chapter offers a particularly interesting engagement with feminist thought in posthuman texts.

Chapter Five explores the nature of surveillance and how it can be subverted and manipulated, demonstrating how authors encourage their readers to become aware of surveillance and explore its impact on humanity.  Chapter Six moves on from this to explore the way in which technology impacts positively on young lives, exploring a range of ‘technorealistic’ narratives, and the positive repercussions, including the formation of communities, particularly, Flanagan notes, ‘for young women’ (185).  These texts also afford the opportunity for new narrative styles, including polyphonic narrative, for example using a chat room style format to vocalise a range of voices.

Significantly, Flanagan reiterates time and again throughout the text that posthuman does not mean the end of humanity, but rather signifies an expanded understanding of humanity in light of technological development.  It ‘involves a reconceptualization of selfhood and social relations that fit more readily with human experience in the digital age’ (187).  Her considered approach takes in a variety of texts and this serves her well, demonstrating a breadth of knowledge and texts that support her hypothesis.  She writes engagingly, offering insight and her texts connect through this common thread.  Yet each text is read according to its own remit, and their individual approaches are indicated where they diverge as well as where they overlap.  The sum total is a convincingly written, well-argued and fascinating exploration of the use of the posthuman in YA fiction.

Katherine Ford, The Science Museum, London