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Team Human

April 8, 2013

In her article on Fantasy, Reading, and Escapism at Tor.com, Jo Walton says “if your life is bounded and restricted, seeing that more options exist helps, even if they’re all theoretical and imaginary,” and this is certainly part of why, as a mother-figure to a group of female teen readers and movie-goers, I have enjoyed discussing issues that have come up because of the Twilight books, why I have a page on this blog for Twilight Commentary (see it at the top), why I watched the movies even though I could only stand to read through about a third of the first book, and why I once bought a hooded jacket for Eleanor printed with the words “Team Mike Newton.”

The idea of teams—that readers of Twilight had to be either “team Edward” or team Jacob” and readers of The Hunger Games had to be either “team Gayle” or “team Peeta” was quickly sidetracked by the invention of many other team names, with “team Katniss” being the loudest and most vociferous (I think that Bella didn’t have enough agency to make shouting “team Bella” seem very effective). For many of the teams, you could buy a lapel button at Hot Topic and advertise your OTP (one true pairing).

Into this fray came Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan with their 2012 novel Team Human. I first heard about this book in the comments to a post by Jenny on her “nearly unified theory of everything that makes me enjoy a book.” The Literary Omnivore referred to the “lightly snarky and weepingly beautiful friendship in Team Human” as something in the continuum of everything that makes her enjoy a book, and I got intrigued.

As in the movie satire of Twilight that Eleanor wrote when she was still in middle school, during its first burst of popularity (The Elf and Blade Vampire Movie), Team Human starts out by ridiculing the very idea that a vampire would want to appear in broad daylight at a high school, of all places. The vampire Francis, when introduced, “looked like a crazy astronaut suit full of trouble” because he wears a special suit to be able to walk around in daylight, and he is on a secret mission that requires him to feign an interest in returning to high school. He inclines his head in a way that the first-person narrator, Mel, knows that her friend Cathy “would shortly be describing as ‘courtly’ and when one of the many girls he attracts puts her hands on him somewhere that Mel can’t see, she says “I’d never seen anyone look scandalized before.” Mel asks “does anyone else think it’s a bit ridiculous that he came to lunch when he doesn’t eat?”

Rather than remaining at this level of parody, though, Team Human begins to satirize some of the main ideas in the Twilight novels. “These days,” Mel says,
”all vampire transitions are voluntary. What kind of person would take the risk of becoming a vampire? There’d have to be something wrong with you. Because the process can either kill you outright or turn you into a drooling, mindless monster (which would lead to you being put down almost instantly), or, if you’re superlucky, you become a vampire.
Let’s examine what a prize that is one more time: no more direct sunlight ever again, no more laughter. You get eternity, but you don’t have the sense of humor to enjoy it! Also, vampires don’t eat food. You never get to eat chocolate again. Ever.”

Mel’s friend Cathy is set on becoming a vampire, though, and has fallen in love with Francis. Mel thinks that Cathy has not thought it through and is being unduly influenced by Francis (oddly, Mel also thinks that Cathy is not bounded or restricted enough by her mother, who has given permission for the transition before Cathy reaches her 18th birthday). As the story goes on, however, it is clear that Cathy has indeed thought everything out very carefully and it may be that Mel’s prejudice against vampires is blinding her.

The scene most set up for comedy, as Mel herself admits, is a double date at the beach with Cathy and Francis and Mel and a human boy named Kit who has grown up in Francis’ family (called a “shade”):
“You might think I’d suggested the idea of a beach date with a vampire in the spirit of terrible, unholy mockery.
But no: That was just a bonus.
I wanted Cathy to see what she would be missing out on: a day in the sun, blue ocean, and silver sand….I may also have been hoping that a date with a sulky undead astronaut outside during the day would take some of the shine off her romance. But Cathy’s attention was fixed with dreamy happiness on Francis’ helmet, so I had obviously—once again—underestimated the strength of her delusions.”

What happens instead is that Francis and Cathy slip into a cave, where Mel and Kit spot them looking like “storybook lovers with their mouths about to meet” and Kit and Mel also share a first kiss, immediately followed by him telling her that he does not want to have sex, even though he knows that “humans are always up for it.” Mel blows up at him, informing him that he thinks this only because the humans who hang around his shade are “vampire groupies. They are there because they want to have sex with vampires! They are not how all humans behave.” Mel then informs Kit that a guy is “an enormous jerk” anytime he assumes a girl wants to have sex with him “before she says, ‘Yes, sex sounds terrific!’”

By the end of the book, Mel has to admit “that Cathy could tick the three boxes…essential for successful vampire transitioning: not much of a sense of humor… true love…being more in love with death than life.” Thinking about that last, Mel remembers that “Cathy had long been obsessed with Thomas Chatterton, John Keats, Wilfred Owen, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.”

The main force of the satire, of course, comes from Mel’s view of Cathy and Francis’ relationship. The biggest laughs comes from other, more human things, like the way Kit drives, what he means when he says “I’ll call you,” how he got his name, and how his mother reacts when he tells his family that he isn’t going to go into the family business when he turns 18. The main plot involves a mystery that it takes the combined forces of most of Mel’s friends and Kit’s shade to solve.

It’s a fun mystery, full of amusing situations and a not-forbidden-enough love affair between a 17-year-old human girl and a forever-17-year-old vampire boy. And it’s another brilliant salvo in the war against the idea that a high school-age girl’s options consist largely of the choice of to whom she will succumb.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2013 4:40 am

    This sounds fantastic! I was a bit confused to begin with, thinking it was non-fiction, essays or something, but I love that it’s a novel and that it appears to answer all the questions that you have when reading vampire books as well as fulfilling those wishes you might have for people to think more clearly about their choices. Even if Cathy does go along with Twilight in the end.

    • April 9, 2013 11:20 am

      This novel certainly answers all the questions a woman should have when reading the Twilight books, but part of its charm is that it doesn’t try to answer all the questions about how the genre has evolved since Dracula made its appearance. It’s an addition to the genre, a very amusing one because of the way it plays on the traditions, but it’s not trying to be anything more than that.

  2. April 8, 2013 7:24 am

    This has been on my wishlist for a long time. It just sounds so interesting and who doesn’t love a little Twilight deconstruction?

    • April 9, 2013 11:22 am

      I guess the only people who don’t love Twilight deconstruction are people who have no exposure to the issues raised by the books. They are so infinitely easy to parody, and not all that hard to satirize, getting at some of the more important issues (like female agency).

  3. April 9, 2013 9:58 am

    i feel thoroughly out of my depth here, not having read any vampire books since “Interview with A…” in the mid 80s.

    • April 9, 2013 11:31 am

      The Anne Rice vampire books center on questions about the nature of evil. The Twilight books focus on a “Lucy” character (if you’ve read Dracula) who swoons and gradually–over the course of the series and her human/vampire romance–learns that what is important about being human is getting married, having sex, and giving birth. In that order.
      You may feel out of your depth here, but any mother of girls should have an idea of how ideas from this series have permeated teen culture. A lot of reaction has been rejection, but you can still find backwaters of contented female readers who say it’s good “escapism.”
      (That last image–the contented female reader–is the focus of the book face-off in the movie Liberal Arts, shot at Kenyon and about Kenyon culture.)

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