2020’s Young, Gifted & Queer is the second volume in SJ Whitby’s Cute Mutants series. The first volume was reviewed here.
Imbued with superhuman powers, Dylan “Chatterbox” Taylor and her friends saved New Zealand from a supervillain. Collateral damage was light: only a few lost limbs. Their exploits were sufficiently public and their efforts to conceal their identities sufficiently inept that the government easily tracked down the so-called Cute Mutants to offer them a choice: submit to sanctioned training or face prison.
Dylan and the Cute Mutants chose training. It’s not clear that this was the correct choice.
One might expect a parliamentary democracy like New Zealand to have an inefficient, bureaucratic government-run program like Canada’s Department H in various Marvel comics. In this efficient, privatized world in which we’re living, the task of training “extrahuman” teens has been seconded to Yaxley Corporation, no doubt after a grueling selection process.
The Cute Mutants do not care for Yaxley. Yaxley sees the Cute Mutants only as a potential profit stream for the corporation. Having the upper hand as they do, Yaxley are not especially diplomatic when informing the Cute Mutants of their new constraints. The Cute Mutants must train as commanded and carry out whatever missions the government assigns.
Yaxley is not the only company in the extrahuman resources business. Jinteki Research Laboratories is also keenly interested in superpowered people. Cue intercorporate negotiations, gossip, and corporate espionage. Jinteki learns that Cute Mutant Emma Hall possesses the ability to kindle superpowers in other people. Emma vanishes.
This would no doubt have turned out very badly for Emma were it not for the fact Emma shares a directional psychic link with the rest of the Cute Mutants. Using a mysterious ritual known as “triangulation” , the other Cute Mutants locate and rescue Emma from Jinteki.
Emma is not the only person Jinteki has kidnapped. The company has a whole secret medical prison full of unwilling subjects. What the company doesn’t have is a security system sufficiently compartmentalized to prevent Dylan from inadvertently freeing the angry, superpowered prisoners when she and her friend rescue Emma. A violent, carnage-filled escape follows.
Jinteki wants its subjects returned or dead. Yaxley wants the Cute Mutants to start following orders or else. Dylan is reflexively anti-establishment and so are many of her friends and allies. Conflict is inevitable, a conflict that not all of the Cute Mutants will survive.
The implications of Dylan’s power to animate inanimate objects are, if anything, even more disturbing than they are in the first volume.
When I first started reading this series, I completely missed that it is set in New Zealand. Generally speaking, of the Anglophone settler nations, New Zealand is perceived as being the least unpleasant, at least compared tof Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. Clearly, this is a matter of degree, as New Zealand’s methods of managing superhumans are as dubious as Department H’s in Marvel comics’ version of Canada. For non-comic book readers, Department H is spectacularly bad at their job.
The novel demands the reader accept that profit-oriented organizations could embrace short-sighted policies that end up costing them dearly. Surely, if this were possible, there would be real-life examples.
Aside from pursuing HR policies seemingly designed to create superpowered people with impulse control issues and enormous grudges against Yaxley and Jinteki, much of the conflict in this volume arises because various players are looking at superpowers from the wrong perspectives. Dylan, an ardent X‑Man fan, insists on calling herself and her chums “mutants.” Their antagonists insist on similar terminology, classifying the extra-humans as something categorically different from baseline humans. This leads to the world view that conflict between human and extrahuman is inevitable.
However, none of the superhumans are mutants in the sense of being genetically distinct from baseline humans. Although research is in its early stages, it seems that powers are something that are imbued, not inherited. Everyone exposed to the source gained powers. For all the characters know, the chemical basis for empowerment may be mass-produced in a few years. It’s not even clear if their powers could be inherited and if so how (given that each person has a unique power ). There isn’t an us and them here, except to the extent that the companies (and the government) insist on it.
Alas, I didn’t love this instalment of the series.
- Characters made a lot of bad decisions, decisions that made me like them less. Yes, this is about hormone-addled teens dealing with profit-deranged oligarchs, so … prone to bad decisions. Still, one has to like at least some of the characters to keep reading.
- The plot seemed repetitive, with raid after raid on Jinteki. On reflection, the first book also featured repeated attempts to deal with a particular challenge.
On the plus side, the kids deal with their complicated romantic lives with a lot less drama than they bring to bear on other issues, so go them for being reasonable about that one thing.
I have purchased the next two books. I hope things that annoyed me in this volume improve in the next.
I wonder why, whenever I visit Barnes & Noble, my laptop fan activates?
1: Dylan has taken math classes but math is not her strong point. She doesn’t grasp the idea behind Triangulation until her friends demonstrate it for Dylan.
2: Note that none of the empowered teens have also been given improved durability. They are fragile superhumans.