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Lizard Radio

April 25, 2016

I searched out a copy of Lizard Radio, by Pat Schmatz, after it won the Tiptree Award, along with Eugene Fischer’s The New Mother. It’s an absorbing little book with a great opening sentence—“I do not believe”—but I never did figure out exactly what the title refers to.

The main character, Kivali Kerwin, is fifteen years old, was adopted by a woman named Sheila who found her in a t-shirt with a lizard on it and who gave her the middle name of “Sauria.” Along with her acquaintance Korm, she encourages the girl to think of herself as a lizard and try to tune in on the outer space frequency of the alien lizard race who must have brought her to earth. It’s mostly a joke, you see, except that everything in this alternate reality world is deadly serious.

Like “vaping.” Sometimes people in this world just disappear. Kivali says “benders and samers, defectives and defiants and violents, that’s who vapes” but then she sees it happen on her first night at the place Sheila has brought her to, one of the “camps” that everyone in this society has to go to between the ages of 15 and 17. Not having the special skills necessary for other camps, Kivali goes to crop camp, where they help to raise food. Evidently, “before they started the camp system, lots of teens vaped….SayFree Gov called it a growing epidemic and set out to cure it, first with the strict bender regs and then with the camps.”

The camp director says
“With a cert from this camp, your chances of ever landing in Blight are less than three percent. You’ll enter the adult world ready for further education or a fulfilling career in agriculture.
The regs are strict here. I suggest that you comply and let us make this a good experience for you. If you leave here certless, you’ll face consequences that your MaDa cannot fix. If you are of age, you’ll go directly to Blight. If not, you will be relocated to fosters who can prepare you for a RepeaterCamp.”
“Blight” is where non-conforming former citizens of this country get sent: “SayFree Gov took a whole city, surrounded it with a biosensor fence, and chucked all the problem people in there.”

One of the purposes of camp is for the teens to “meet the opposite sex under controlled conditions and form unions. SayFree Radio is always talking about how stable camp-formed couples are, and how they either beat the low fertility rates or provide stable homes for adopted Blight babies.”

The words are part of the fun of this story. The teens eat in a structure called the “Mealio.” Kivali sees a person across a campfire and says “he’s a midrange bender” which we come to find out means he identifies strongly with neither male or female, but has been assigned male. Kivali herself, we find out, is a midrange bender who has been assigned female. Her new friend Sully says they’re a “bunch of burby kids dropped in the middle of agriculture,” meaning “from the suburbs.”

When her new acquaintance Rasta criticizes the bender Kivali saw across the campfire, saying “he didn’t even try to hide it” and “he screams bender,” her new friend Sully defends him (and Kivali in the process) by asking “what if everyone suddenly started telling you that you’re a boy and you have to act like one?” Then she tells a story:
“My little cousin was born a he, and now she’s a beautiful she. They tested her up before Grade One and she scored in the midthirties. Girl for sure. Transition complete by Grade Three, and she passed through PDGT in about six weeks. Easy for her. That guy last night is probably around fifty. I saw some of those midrangers in my cousin’s cohort. They have it rough.”

It turns out that a “samer” is someone who falls in love with someone of the same gender, and Kivali doesn’t want to be one—“it’s bad enough being a bender. I won’t be a samer, too. I just won’t.”

In her (required) weekly sessions with the camp director, who she calls “Machete,” Kivali thinks about being a leader or a follower, either having to follow the “regs” or making them change those “regs.” The camp director tells her that she should be a leader, someone who can know the truth but commits to telling only carefully selected bits of the truth to others. Kivali, of course, can’t commit to being one or the other, or to selecting from the whole truth. She finds out that the drug they’ve been given orally in camp is implanted when the campers graduate, unless they agree to take on a government position of authority. The implant “suppresses aggression, violence. Eases anxiety.” Rasta’s father tells Kivali “if you take it, things are easier,” which is ironic, because it was Rasta who taught her to refuse it.

It’s hard to know what the mysticism about Kivali hearing “lizard radio” is supposed to mean, in this novel. To the extent that it’s explained, she has been taught to enter into a trance and hears it there. The purpose of her trances under this kind of oppressive government control is not clear to me, however. What happens to Kivali and Sheila at the end of the story may not be entirely clear, but they are making their own way on the outside, no longer part of “SayFree” but finding their own freedom.

I would be pleased to mail my copy of Lizard Radio to anyone in the world who would like to talk about it with me in more depth, either on your own blog, or by email. If you’re interested, leave your name and how to contact you in the comments, and if there’s more than one person interested, I’ll pick a comment by number, at random.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 25, 2016 8:35 pm

    Jeanne, when I saw this post title in my feedreader, I was SO SURE that you were referencing this extremely weird kids’ book I own called Lizard Music. But actually it turns out that there are two books in this world relating to lizard radio. What an unimaginably vast and glorious universe we are in.

    • April 26, 2016 11:44 am

      I have read Daniel Pinkwater’s Lizard Music–is that the kids’ book you mean? Walker had a phase where we had to find and read everything by Pinkwater.
      It is a vast and glorious universe!
      Ron met one of our best friends in college because they were talking about children’s books and had read the same one–I think it was The Secret Sea, by Robb White.
      If it wasn’t, she’ll probably correct me here!

  2. April 26, 2016 3:49 pm

    Lizard Music! One of my grade school teachers read that to the class and I loved it and all its weirdness.

    Not sure about Lizard Radio though.

    • April 27, 2016 8:56 am

      I can see you liking this one. Crop camp gives you a tantalizing view of the dystopian adult society.

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