Indie Feature Friday: YA Sci-Fi Book Review – The 716 by S.J. Pratt
It’s Friday! I haven’t done a book review in a few weeks, but I’ve got a great one for you today. I try to beta read or join the Advance Review Copy (ARC) team for as many other indie authors as I can throughout the year, and my first ARC read of 2021 was The 716 by New Zealand author S.J. Pratt!
The 716 just went live this week, which I think is the perfect time for me to rave about this fun, thought-provoking YA Sci-Fi debut.
I made up this teaser caption, and I hope S.J. Pratt won’t mind… 👀
The 716 by S.J. Pratt
A vivid coming of age story filled with feminism, engineering and the courage of everyday heroes.
Olivia is destined to be the future leader of Meliora. She’s smart, rich, and innovative, and she has a pink Identifeye light.
Andy is destined to be a waiter and househusband. His blue Identifeye light prevents him from pursuing his dream of becoming an engineer. After all, who ever heard of a male engineer?
But when Andy’s life becomes entangled with Olivia’s and he gets the chance to prove himself on the female stage, everything starts to change.
In a society where men are second-class citizens and only binary gender norms are acceptable, Andy and Olivia must confront their own beliefs and decide what kind of world they want to live in.
Will they do what is expected or what is right? And will the wrong choice spell disaster?
Fans of The Lunar Chronicles, Divergent and Noughts and Crosses will enjoy this original and thought-provoking sci-fi adventure with a touch of romance.
I don’t read a lot of YA, so I haven’t read any of the comp series referenced in the blurb. I do, of course, read a lot of sci-fi, and I think The 716 holds its own even if we don’t call it YA.
The fact that I phrased that statement like that probably tells you that I hold some preconceived biases against YA fiction and I’m not the target audience.
To be honest, I don’t even know what YA means anymore. Is it just books with young protagonists? A way of categorizing coming-of-age novels across genres? I don’t know. I just associate the term with cheesy teenage romance novels a la Twilight and I avoid them.
Is this wrong of me? Probably.
Am I going to change? Probably not.
Unless it’s a YA book by an indie Sci-Fi writer, that is, in which case I will happily read and support and, in the case of The 716, be pleasantly surprised by the fact that all my silly notions about YA are totally wrong.
The 716 is an engaging, funny, and light-hearted sci-fi read that tackles some pretty heavy issues. I admire Pratt for taking this topic on in today’s “Culture Wars” environment where it seems like cultural divides are becoming more and more entrenched and issues of identity and discrimination are usually associated with hot-button politics rather than civil discourse. She took a risk, and I think it was well worth it.
At first, the gender swapped setting of Meliora seems a bit comical. It’s a retro-futurist vision of tomorrow with an anachronistically backward take on sex and gender. Think The Jetsons, except it’s Jane Jetson hopping in the hovercar to scoot off to work while George is stuck at home fussing over what to prepare for dinner.
It’s funny to see all the ways that Pratt has come up with to justify the notion that men are sub-par members of the human species, only good for looking pretty and occasionally lifting heavy objects. The ridiculousness is heightened because we know that women have been treated the same way and – while many of the beliefs Pratt is playing on are outdated by todays standards – it wasn’t that long ago. In fact, some of the discomfort in reading The 716 is that many of us still internalize these archaic messages, and being forced to confront them in inverse creates a kind of dissonance that, for me, lingered after I finished the book.
The main plot of The 716 is a fairly standard boy-meets-girl type coming of age set up. Olivia and Andy have to figure out who they are and whether or not their friendship is viable in a world that doesn’t approve of Andy’s refusal to bow to gender expectations. Olivia has to fight a lot of social conditioning in order to accept him as an equal. And then they have to figure out how they’re going move forward, together or apart?
There’s a hint of romance in the air, but for the most part their relationship is about friendship and the mutual respect of intellectual peers.
But the most interesting part of the novel, for me, was the relationship between Oliva and her mother (and where this is going to go in future books as Olivia becomes more comfortable pushing against authority) and the stories of the marginalized male and non-binary characters.
The most uncomfortable part of this book, for me, was actually that by flipping the gender roles to critique the way our society still treats women as second-class citizens it effectively reinforces a lot of the gender norms Pratt appears to be pushing back against: the only completely likeable characters and the heroes end up being men, one of the main characters is a man who – despite all his disadvantages and lack of education – still manages to be smarter than most of the women, there’s an air of frivolousness to the world that seems to imply that women can’t really be taken seriously as leaders.
It becomes difficult to distinguish between ones own biases as a reader and the statements about gender being made in the book. For example, I found it weird that powerful political figures in this world wore dresses with cute animal prints on them, little whales or pink leopard spots. Do I feel that clothing choices of these women are silly and a bit childish because they actually are? Or is that something I’m carrying over from real life notions about women and femininity and forcing them onto this fictional world? The lines become blurry.
I understand the choice to present a very clear gender binary in this setting (Pratt does include non-binary characters to show that she’s thinking beyond the binary even if the society of Meliora is not yet) but I feel it’s a bit too imbalanced to be realistic. There are no male characters who have any negative traits, and only two female characters who show any hope of not being completely beyond redemption.
I hope that this is because book one is just the set up for a much deeper exploration of these themes to come. I hope that we will see male characters who demonstrate the same negative characteristics that the female characters do, and vice versa. I hope that we will see a rebellion that encompasses, male, female, and non-binary people taking action to achieve a more balanced, fair, and equitable future for these characters.
And I think Pratt is leading us in that direction, even if The 716 left me wanting to see a bigger change and more development and growth in this society. I look forward to reading the other books in this series and I hope we won’t have too long to wait!
Overall, I think this is a deceptively simple premise that could turn into a complex and in-depth exploration of our beliefs about sex and gender and I’m very curious to see where Pratt takes this story!
I recommend it to readers looking for a unique introduction to approachable science fiction, and YA readers who are looking to explore a more sci-fi setting with culturally relevant issues. And to anyone looking for a light, easy read with great emotional stakes and some fantastic characters (and baddies).
Do you read YA? What’s your favourite YA book? Maybe I’ll become a convert yet…