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The Blue Kind
By Kathryn Born
Switchgrass Books / Northern Illinois University Press
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Chicago-area author Kathryn Born set her debut novel The Blue Kind in Neom, a dystopian city where the laws of physics are lax. In the aftermath of Drug War II, Allison is a "chain," meaning she is collateral after a drug deal is made. The drugs in this world are called "mugs" (mind-drugs?). Different mugs offer different experiences, usually warping the laws of physics and the realms of perception.
The novel focuses on Allison's misadventures with her husband Cory, her friend Ray, and other transients. They take different kinds of mugs in an abandoned theater, try not to get arrested, and engage in a kind of quest. This quest is to find, pay for, and take IDeath. This mug promises to give the user an out-of-death experience that she can return from. Born puts a satirical spin on this dystopia. Cory says, "They could create mugs that let you assemble objects faster, or create an emotional block to keep your personal demons at bay. So suddenly there are a whole bunch of new mugs, the Feudal Government says they're good for you, and they're all legal." He continues, "Then they start adding laws. Some mugs become illegal, and they create a whole nonsensical system of degrees ranging from mugs they call 'recommended' to mugs they label 'banned.' Once some mugs become illegal, people start hoarding legal mugs in case their status changes. Then mug formulas hit the streets, and there's an instantaneous black market." What makes Cory's diatribe so funny is how accurate it is to the drug catastrophe in the United States. This nation legalizes drugs that reward industriousness (coffee, energy drinks) and make illegal drugs that alter perception (LSD) or make one giggly and like jam bands (pot). The current state-federal conundrum created by the recent pot legalization in two states only complicates the matter.
Allison and her ragtag group confront Atom, Allison's arch-nemesis and IDeath dealer. But this description is deceptive, since The Blue Kind isn't written like a taut thriller or a docu-realistic depiction of an addict's life (see The Wire). The novel chugs along at a jangly loose pace. People talk, people sit around, and there's the occasional physical transformation. The relaxed pacing and dystopian setting reminds me of Richard Linklater's film A Scanner Darkly, equal parts hallucination, paranoid fantasy, and evil conspiracy. While not everything works in this book, this is Born's first novel and I'm more lenient with first novels. But as first novels go, she creates a unique dystopian environment and an equally persuasive writing style. She has a novel that rides the fine line between literary experimentation and one that follows every genre convention. More novelists writing in science fiction should take these kinds of chances. The Blue Kind reminds the reader that Kathryn Born is a writer to watch. On the back flap Born's profile states she "is working on a follow-up novel, which she hopes to complete in less than twenty years." Hopefully we won't have to wait that long, because seeing her talents develop and evolve will be something that could be quite marvelous to behold.
Out of 10: 8.0
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