Novel * Marissa Meyer * Sci-Fi Fairy Tale * 2012
Having a good idea seems like a difficult task. Everything’s been done, right? Yet, if you have one, it feels great, like you’ve won the hardest battle. As someone who has struggled to make it from idea to finished product, let me tell what might seem obvious: the idea is the easy part. Not only do you have to commit to putting the work in, you also have to be good at your job. The idea of Cinder is not terribly original, and that’s not a knock against the book in the least. The idea is basically “what if fairy tales, but science fiction?” I mean yeah, without any kind of context, that’s an idea which resonates. Fairy tales have been around for centuries, constantly evolving and changing to suit both the time and the culture, so it’s a natural move to build a narrative around these old stories. The nice thing about fairy tales is that they’re extremely malleable. Seriously, just compare the horrifying old German stories with the Disney princess musicals for a stark example of how the same essential story can come across as completely different. Fairy tales are simply stripped down tropes which can be interchanged in whatever narrative you want to tell. So making sci-fi Cinderella is a natural move. Someone was going to try and make that happen eventually, you know?
Using the framework of a universally familiar story is tricky, because you’re setting yourself up to disappoint fans of the original work. What’s nice about fairy tales is that there’s no “original” to worry about. It’s not like adapting Romeo and Juliet or something, in which there’s an actual, definitive text. Of course, that puts the onus on the writer to fill in the gaps. In the instance of Cinder, Marissa Meyer goes for it. The novel is set in the far-future, in a near-united global society which has re-formed after a fourth world war. The major political superpower is no longer located on Earth, and is instead a society of people on the moon known as the Lunars. Speaking of superpowers, the Lunars have them. They have creepy mind-powers which they can use to manipulate Earthens into seeing whatever it is they want them to see or forcing them to do whatever it is they want them to do. Since they can essentially control people, they’re an obvious threat. The overarching storyline is the tension between Earth and the Moon, represented by Prince Kai of the Eastern Commonwealth and Queen Levana of the Lunars. One way or the other, Levana has designs on world domination. Her preference is to marry Prince Kai in order to unite the realms, but she’s certainly not averse to starting a war she would probably win to gain control over the Earth governments.
Our protagonist, Cinder, doesn’t really have much to do with any of that. Well, not at first. Cinder is a damn delight, which is a relief when it comes to young adult fiction. She’s a cyborg mechanic, in which she is a cyborg and also works on machinery. Since she’s cyborg Cinderella, she has an evil stepmother and a horrible stepsister. Meyer mixes it up a little bit, though, since the other sister, Peony, is a nice person. Meanwhile, over the first part of the novel, we learn a bit about the world. Turns out that cyborgs are second-class citizens. Not only are they shamelessly discriminated against, but the government is actively murdering them. This isn’t a dystopian novel, really, so allow me to explain. There is a mysterious plague rampaging throughout the world. Nobody really knows what it is, but it’s very contagious and extremely lethal. When somebody comes down with letumosis, they’re instantly quarantined and shipped off to what is essentially a death center. In an effort to facilitate a cure or vaccine, the government has instituted a cyborg draft, in which cyborgs are unwillingly brought to the capital to be experimented on. They pretty much all die. That’s fucked up!
If you’re familiar with the rough outline of the Cinderella story, you have a general sense of how the narrative goes. Before too much time goes by, Cinder meets Kai, the Prince. He’s very handsome and they have rapport. Of course. And there’s a ball. So the elements of the fairy tale are all present, but Meyers is deft enough in her world-building and her characterization that the fairy tale elements are almost an afterthought. It’s a good thing. And again, I really can’t stress this enough, Cinder herself is a great character, which is tough to do with a teenage protagonist because teenagers are the worst. I’m not saying that Cinder is without flaws. It’s just that those flaws are not obnoxious. She doesn’t pine over boys, she’s just kind of baffled by her own feelings. She doesn’t mope around and feel sorry for herself, she commits to action, even when that action is a terrible idea. I don’t know, it’s just a refreshing change of pace. Cinder’s a tough kid with a heart of gold, I guess. Anyway, let’s get into specifics.
Oh, snap. This is a popular YA novel which means, aw yeah, publisher-approved discussion questions! These are the best. All books should have these.
- What parallels can you draw between Cinder and the Cinderella fairy tale? What is the symbolism behind the glass slipper, the pumpkin carriage, the ball? Is there a fairy godmother in Cinder, and if so, who is it?
Oh, come on guys, I just wrote a bunch of words which suggest that the framework isn’t actually that important or interesting and here you are trying to make the fairy tale elements all concrete and obvious. I will say that I appreciate Cinder’s actual robot foot acting as a slipper analogue. Cinder’s messed-up car was clearly functioning as a pumpkin vehicle, although it works better since it demonstrates actual facets of Cinder’s character. Instead of just taking off, as she had every right to do, she is overwhelmed by conscience and drives her busted up hooptie to the palace to try and save Prince Kai. Oh, and the fairy godmother is the sociopathic doctor, right? Fuck that guy.
- What does it mean to be human? Is it primarily physiological? Cultural? Emotional? What do you think could have led to cyborgs being perceived as less than human in Cinder’s world?
Jesus, that’s quite a leap! The first question is as basic as it gets, but whatever, here’s a question that’s at the root of all the world’s philosophical thought for the last 6,000 years or so. What does it mean to be human, you’ve got to be kidding me. I dunno man, sci-fi writers are split on this question. I feel like half the stories I encounter which deal with augmented humans are worried about this kind of discrimination while the other half seems to think cyborgs are destined to rule the world. In the context of Cinder, it seems like the discrimination comes from how the cyborgs come to be in the first place. In this world, the only reason you’re part machine is if you suffered a catastrophic accident. Therefore your very existence is unnatural, and that creeps people out. I don’t know, humans are kind of the worst.
- Cinder can do all kinds of dope shit with her cyborg powers, what kinds of rad augments do you want? (I may have paraphrased here.)
I like Cinder’s lie detector eyeball, actually. I’m bad at reading people so that would be handy. Actually, anything which would help me out in social situations would be great. Also, I don’t know, rocket feet or some shit.
- In Cinder’s future, Earth has been conglomerated into six countries who have formed an alliance called the Earthen Union. There’s lots of cultural osmosis. How do you foresee cultures changing (or not) as a result of the increased communication and travel we have access to today. (I abridged this as well, since boy these are wordy)
Cinder’s world is in no way a glittering utopia, but at the same time it is flirting with the unified-Earth model demonstrated by Star Trek. And yes, technology has a prominent role in bringing this unification about. However, there is a key ingredient in both instances that is overlooked by this question. It’s mentioned several times throughout the book that the current political structure of the Earthen Union came about after a cataclysmic war. Likewise, the Federation in Star Trek only came about after a nuclear war nearly wiped out the species. Basically, an apocalyptic event is needed to destroy the old structures before a new society can be constructed. You see this in world history, of course, although usually the apocalyptic event doesn’t need to be so violent or destructive. That said, it often is, and the most destructive event in the history of humanity, World War II, led to a vastly new world paradigm. As we’ve seen, though, the new world order still comes about in the guise of what came before, sometimes with disastrous results. Culturally, the change is more insidious, and there’s already plenty of local pushback against the “Americanization” of culture found around the world. Still, it’s an uphill battle. Game of Thrones and hip hop are dope as hell, after all.
- Was it right for Cinder to try to deliver the antidote to Peony first, even though there were others who also needed it? Was it right for Dr. Erland to offer her first access to the antidote? What would you have done in either situation?
So, in a big way, the cyborg-draft situation undermines the moral authority of the Eastern Commonwealth. I know we’re supposed to rooting for them against the almost comically evil Lunars, but this thing is still sitting here, demanding that we deal with it. Cinder has first-hand experience with the ruthlessness of the draft. She only lives because they could not kill her. Now, when it comes to pass that Cinder is in a position to help them out, she has every goddamn right in the world to get something for herself. In other words, she has a right to be selfish. That said, if you want to be completely pure about it, no, Cinder was wrong. Everything else aside, ethics demand that we sacrifice our individual needs for the needs of the social group. And yet humans aren’t well-equipped to consider much beyond our immediate circle. Peony was the only person who was ever kind to Cinder, and therefore Cinder did her best to do right by her. It may not have been the saintly thing to do, but it was the human thing to do. Dr. Erland, on the other hand, is an unethical monster, so who the fuck cares what he thinks? But giving her first crack at a cure is the least he could do, so good on him I guess, despite the fact that he only agreed to the arrangement because he had something to gain from it.
Well that was fun. There’s a bunch more but I guess I’m just not up to discussing the philosophy of the concept of beauty today. Who said YA was shallow, huh?