Danika reviews Polymorph by Scott Westerfeld


I debated whether or not to review this book at the Lesbrary. It’s definitely not a lesbian book, but it is queer, and since I have a policy of reviewing every book I read that could be posted here, I decided to go ahead. I found Polymorph in a crowded used bookstore while travelling, and picked it up because the idea of a person who changes their body completely at will was fascinating to me, especially since the back cover promised to play with gender. And the other factor was that this is by Scott Westerfeld! I’m pretty familiar with Westerfeld’s books, working in the kids’ section of a bookstore, but I’d never heard of this one. He usually writes teen books, that in my experience are entertaining, but fairly forgettable. It turns out that this is his first novel, written in 1997, and it diverges hugely from his now established genre. It’s adult sci fi, and it’s challenging and sexual and queer. Look at that front cover blurb! Billy Martin (then Poppy Z. Brite, known for his queer horror books)! And the back cover shows a blurb by Melissa Scott, author of one of the most well-known lesbian sci fi books, Trouble and her Friends! This is not the sort of company Westerfeld’s books share now.

Needless to say, I was very curious picking up this book. And as I started it, I was immediately hooked. Our main character, often (but not always) known as Lee, calls themselves a “polymorph”, because they can change their body at will, though not without a huge amount of effort. Lee spends most of their time trying on different faces and hitting the clubs, studying anatomy texts and club goers to perfect striking, distinct bodies. Around this depiction of Lee everyday life, Westerfeld builds up an interesting view of the near future. In fact, because this is written in 90s, the future it depicts would be about now. It has a cyberpunk feel, with technology and the internet constantly a presence in the background of the novel (reminding me of Cory Doctorow’s books). I loved Westerfeld’s depiction of the future, which felt much more thought-out than his Uglies series. It’s a little bit odd, because most of it still seems possible for the near future, but it also has a 90s feel to it, a slightly dated future world.

But the aspect that drew me to Polymorph and captured my attention so thoroughly at the beginning of the book was the queer nature of being a polymorph. Queer in both the gender/sexuality sense, and also in the theory sense. Lee has no sense of permanent identity. They are just as comfortable in a “male” body as a “female” one, and also changes race throughout the book, noting how this aspect changes how they are treated. In a way, it’s a critique of racism, but the casualness of putting on another race made me hesitant to see how it would be handled throughout the novel. (Small spoiler: it’s not really addressed, but Lee was born Dominican and grew up as this identity until they began to change their body, in their teens.) Lee also mentions sleeping with men and women, gay and straight in the past. In fact, near the beginning of the book, Lee goes to a lesbian bar that they regularly frequent.

As I’ve mentioned, this was really promising for the beginning of the novel. Unfortunately, though the premise of the book is extremely queer, Westerfeld doesn’t seem to be able to follow through on it. You may have already noticed the binaries in Lee listing their lovers as men or women, gay or straight. Although bisexuality is mentioned once (the club has a “bi-night”), that sort of binary still seems to be the established norm. And though Lee is this person with no connection to a certain body, sex, or gender, there’s still quite a lot of transphobia mentioned. Lee sees “transvestites” in the street and notes that they are all “really” men. It’s also interesting that there is a scene, where Lee is changing their body from one with a vagina to one with a penis (which Lee does every time they want to change gendered bodies, though it’s apparently the most difficult thing to change), and pronouns change from she to he as soon as Lee forms a penis.

[Spoilers follow]

The scene that really solidified Westerfeld’s inability to realize this queer premise, though, is when Lee encounters another polymorph. This take place at the lesbian club, and Lee doesn’t realize that the other person is a polymorph at first. They begin to fool around, and eventually Lee realizes, because Lee notices that this person has an essential essence different from themselves, which is that this person was born male. Because apparently even polymorphs, who have no “home” body and switch genitals, gendered characteristics, etc, constantly, still are really either men or women. And then Lee discovers that this person has come into a lesbian club with a penis, and it is appalled, because “this is not a place for pricks“. In fact, Westerfeld somehow manages to write a book about someone who changes gendered bodies at will without acknowledging the existence of trans people. And this is in addition to some questionable depictions of race. There is a Japanese, deaf character in the book, but there’s also a scene of Lee pitying him for being deaf, though Sam is extremely wealthy and seems pretty satisfied with his life.

Perhaps more damning than the offensiveness of certain aspects in Polymorph is the plot. I was completely engrossed in Lee’s everyday life, but once it reached the actual plot of the book, I lost interest. Lee discovers another polymorph, but he’s a monster. (I say “he” because Bonito seems to prefer it, and Lee insists he’s a “man at heart”.) Lee tries to track him down, with  a new boyfriend and his hacking friend, and hopefully prevent him from doing something heinous and also meet more polymorphs. Bonito is such a flat, evil-for-the-sake-of-it character (though with a little contemplation for how he could have ended up that way) that I found any part of his story boring. I prefer my villains complex, even sympathetic. Although dramatic, it wasn’t particularly interesting, and I was particularly disappointed with it ending with Lee getting raped (in the most horrifying, consuming way possible).

I’m glad I read Polymorph, because the first 50 pages or so were worth it, but the rest was disappointing, mostly because I feel like Westerfeld has this great idea, but his own cissexist worldview didn’t allow him to fully imagine it.

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