[This essay was written for a university topic on metaphor and the Fantastic in fiction. It contains spoilers to Joan He’s novel.]
Joan He’s sophomore novel for young adults, The Ones We’re Meant to Find, is a science fiction exploration of a world beyond the point of global climate disaster, suggesting how the age of technology in which we live may adapt to a world becoming increasingly less inhabitable. The book is also an experiment in what it means to be an individual person, posing questions of how we relate our humanity with technology and emotion. The speculative and metaphoric nature of The Ones We’re Meant to Find is apparent from its science fictional premise, but a close reading of not only the social and ecological critiques within, but also a philosophical character study of protagonist sisters Kasey and Cee, are worthy of attention.
As a science fiction novel, and therefore a member of the speculative fiction genre, The Ones We’re Meant to Find asks the reader to reflect on what we know of the world as it is. This is one of the bases of speculative fiction and its many subgenres. As Neil Gaiman writes:
“Fantasy — and all fiction is fantasy of one kind or another — is a mirror. A distorting mirror, to be sure, and a concealing mirror, set at forty-five degrees to reality, but it’s a mirror nonetheless, which we can use to tell ourselves things we might not otherwise see.” (Gaiman 2)
While He’s novel is not considered fantasy, the metaphor of reflecting our society is still applicable. Indeed, the dissonance between science fiction and other forms of fiction can be marginal. However, the material difference between our reality and that within fiction prompts the reader to consider the impact of this difference in our own lives (Roberts 4-9). Similarly, Edwards writes that science fiction “is a form of contemporary metaphor, a literary device for examining our world and our lives from another perspective” (189). Yet another sub-genre of which The Ones We’re Meant to Find has been described, is climate fiction or cli-fi. While applying the elements that categorise science fiction, “common to all climate fictions is that they use the scientific paradigm of anthropogenic global warming in their world-making” (Anderson 5). Essentially, cli-fi is a form of writing that uses a fictionalised world in the midst of environmental collapse. It “provides speculative insights into how it might be to feel and understand in such worlds” (Andersen 1), and so it is within this metaphor that real-world climate change can be explored in a format not necessarily explicitly scientific, but still deeply human.
The metaphoric reflection of our modern society most predominant in The Ones We’re Meant to Find is the environmental chaos of the novel’s premise. In the book, the world has become largely uninhabitable, requiring the use of antiskins and breathing masks to avoid high levels of pollution in the air and sea. He uses this premise less as an argument for how to stop this future from occurring — indeed, The Ones We’re Meant to Find makes an ongoing climate catastrophe causing the death of the planet seem inevitable — but more as a commentary on human interference in our own demise. In fact, Joan He shared a series of excerpts from an article reporting on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report, comparing the report’s findings to direct quotes from her book. such as references to hurricanes, wildfires, and rising sea levels (He). One example is the comparison of “communities around the world have been battered by heat waves, droughts, hurricanes and wildfires” (Dennis and Kaplan 2021) with a discussion of Earth’s collapse, saying: “the wildfires did [affect the global population]. The hurricanes and monsoons. Earthquakes rose in magnitude…” (He 114). The cli-fi metaphor used by He in The Ones We’re Meant to Find is focused largely in the “eco-friendly cities in the skies, safe from rising sea levels… [and] so removed from disaster epicentres” (He 19). This setting diverts the reality of our world to the projected science fictional one. Importantly, the metaphor does not reflect something impossible, but rather an “improbable possibility,” another staple of science fiction writing (deFord). These eco-cities allow entry based on a ranked system based on ecological footprint, also suggesting a metaphor regarding wealth, power, and privilege.
Another similarity drawn between He’s novel and the IPCC report is that of human interference in the onset of climate change. The effect of a highly industrialised society on carbon emissions contributes to global warming in unprecedented levels (Dennis and Kaplan 2021). He analyses this effect of capitalism in her novel, noting that “Natural disasters catalyzed man-made ones: chemical factories and fission plants compromised, meltdowns disseminating radioaxons, nanoparticles, and microcinogens across the land and sea” (19). This can be compared to the IPCC reporting on how greenhouse gases consist of “most notably methane, which largely comes from burping cows and leaky fossil fuel facilities, and nitrous oxide, of which a huge amount comes from fertilizers used on farms” (Dennis and Kaplan 2021). Capitalism, as a society based on harsh class divisions, requires the generation of profit to be prioritised over the long-term wellbeing of the planet itself, the source of all raw materials necessary to produce the commodities that generate those profits (Kandelaars 2016). Capitalism, though, is “not limited to the burning of fossil fuels, many other factors such as deforestation and pollution are also wreaking havoc on the natural world” (Kandelaars 2016). The Ones We’re Meant to Find comments on the influence of wealth and power, notably through the character of Actinium, who criticises the entrepreneurial nature of those who devise and govern the eco-cities. This line of thinking rubs off on protagonist Kasey, who confronts her father — responsible for the design of the eco-city and its restrictions on humanity — towards the end of the novel. As Kasey has discovered, her father actively used his influence to cover up a toxic spill in the ocean that led to the poisoning and eventual death of Kasey’s sister. His justification for this is keeping stakeholders for the expansion of his eco-city project (He 302). As Kandelaars explains: “Environmental destruction, while not the conscious intent of individual capitalists, has been the necessary outcome due to the fundamental logic of putting profit before all else” (2016). The metaphor of those with power and influence dictating the fate of the citizens they claim to serve, all for their own material gain, is evident here, even going as far as to have David Mizuhara give up the life of his daughter to secure support for his philanthropy. This analysis of capitalism and its priority of material gain over the long-term wellbeing of the planet, is the most prominent metaphor explored in The Ones We’re Meant to Find, closely followed by its examination of what it means to be human.
The science fictional developments of technology in the world of He’s novel is a key element of the characterisation of dual-perspective protagonists Cee and Kasey Mizuhara. The latter is one of the inhabitants of a floating eco-city, living with a government-mandated Intraface technology installed into her brain. From the onset of the novel, Kasey often avoids human experiences, digitally shutting down her own feelings if she becomes upset by using her Intraface, or spending majority of her time in her stasis pod. These contraptions are designed for the inhabitants of the eco-city to minimise ecological footprint, by conducting non-vital activities virtually via hologram. “To live sustainably, people had to live less” (He 19), but those lives are lived in a state of semi-unconsciousness. This raises another question: what is the divide between living your life, or merely surviving? Metzinger believes that “it is the body which anchors us in reality—physically, and functionally, as well as phenomenally” (qtd. in Gallagher 8). It is stated that “most people rejected living like bento-packed vegetables” (He 19), which suggests a belief that the holographic living of stasis pods do not constitute a valuable life experience. Discussing the philosophy of living virtually while the body is in stasis, Gallagher writes that “it is not simply a matter of stimulating neurons to create an explicit body image, since an explicit body image is not a necessary component of the experience of enactive embodiment” (7). This suggests the holographic living of the eco-cities in The Ones We’re Meant to Find may not reflect a true life lived, without the functional use of the body. A metaphor of Kasey’s holographic way of living raises the question of whether or not Kasey is living a proper, full human life. Especially compared to her sister, who “holo-ed 20.5 fewer hours per week than the average person” (He 81). Kasey’s reliance on the technology of the stasis pods to spend her days while her sister lives her life in the physical realm, throws into question what it means to actually live in a world constantly evolving digitally.
It is also of use to note that in many ways, Kasey reads as being a young woman on the autism spectrum. “Why didn’t she feel drawn to the same things as her peers? Why was she different?” she often wonders (He 205). The character’s difficulties with socialising, preferring to be alone, and having a high level of self-awareness of behavioural differences from peers, are all common experiences of women on the autism spectrum (Aspect). Rozema acknowledges there is a rise in young adult fiction novels with protagonists on the autistic spectrum (26). However, he raises a concern that the representation of autism in these novels is too narrow, thereby indirectly defining what an individual on the autism spectrum is like (27-9). Perhaps only the suggestion that Kasey is on the autism spectrum — based on the actions and narrative patterns of the character — allows for a variety of readers to project their own life experiences onto her, and so creating a metaphor for their own identities.
While Kasey chooses to opt out of most human experiences, Cee is determined to experience everything her life and the beauty of the planet have to offer. Throughout the novel, Kasey reflects on the ways her sister prefers not to use her Intraface technology, and remains out of her stasis pod for the majority of her waking time. Compared to Kasey’s primarily digital existence, “her sister was alive in a world increasingly removed from life” (He 20), even to the point of sneaking out of the eco-city to swim in the ocean — an act that leads to her eventual disappearance. Edwards claims that “inner space rather than outer space is the most fruitful subject matter for [science fiction]” (178), exemplified in the smaller setting of the island on which Cee spends her time throughout her share of the narrative, which allows for a more focused insight into character. While Kasey remarks that “logic ended where love began” (He 325), Cee reflects: “I have [the] capacity for love, and I haven’t wasted it” (He 346). He’s exploration of what constitutes a fulfilling life extends beyond the massive eco cities, to Cee’s individual development as well.
It is revealed late in the novel that Cee is in fact not the sister Kasey has been searching for — Celia — but an artificial intelligence constructed in her likeness and installed with her memories and thought patterns. This reveal asks the reader if everything they have known of Cee’s thoughts and feelings, including the blooming love for her only companion on the island, still counts as human. With Celia’s memories and behavioural patterns transferred exactly to Cee’s mind (or programming), the ethics of transhumanism is called into question. One goal of transhumanism is mind uploading, which Häggström defines as:
“[T]he transferring of our minds to computer hardware using whole-brain emulation, the idea being that a good enough simulation of a human brain simultaneously gives a simulation of the human mind, and that if the simulation is sufficiently detailed and accurate, then it goes from being a mere simulation to being in all relevant aspects an exact replica of the mind—an emulation.” (Häggström 3-4)
Such emulation is not widely supported in the world of The Ones We’re Meant to Find, with legislation in the eco-city even forbidding the creation of bots with human minds. Cee’s collapse of identity opposes this in a deeply personal way: “I am Celia, I think. I am Celia. But I am also Cee” (He 240). Personal identity can be loosely defined as “what sort of person, in some deep and fundamental sense, one is” (Olson 2019). Now aware of her new reality, Cee must rediscover what it means to be herself. Cee’s crisis of personal identity becomes a metaphor pondering the definition of humanity, but also of personal health. Mental health conditions such as depression increase the likelihood of experiencing an identity crisis, and that sudden changes in personal circumstances can trigger the experience (Cherry 2021). Having been sanctioned for building a bot with human intelligence, Kasey ponders these questions too: “As holoing and GMO procedures [such as recoding DNA to allow humans to photosynthesise] demonstrated, people remained people so long as they retained their brains” (He 206). The reader is never given an answer as to whether Cee is thus stripped of her humanity, or if it has been denied to her from the seeds of her existence.
The Ones We’re Meant to Find is a novel of philosophical and social reflection. He uses metaphor through setting and character with a nuance that opens a dialogue in what we consider consciousness and humanity to tangibly be in a world driven by technology and capitalism. The rise of cli-fi as a subgenre of science fiction, an already highly metaphoric format, fuses well with the socio-political commentary of He’s book, offering a literary space to engage with contemporary events in a philosophical and introspective manner.
Andersen, Gregers. Climate Fiction and Cultural Analysis: A New Perspective on Life in the Anthropocene. Taylor & Francis Group, 2019.
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Dennis, Brady, and Sarah Kaplan. “Humans have pushed the climate into ‘unprecedented’ territory, landmark U.N. report finds.” The Washington Post. 10 August 2021. washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2021/08/09/ipcc-climate-report-global-warming-greenhouse-gas-effect.
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He, Joan. “tw // climate change anxiety reading the UN report was chilling. I never really imagined this when I drafted the book in 2017.” Twitter. 10 August 2021, 6:18am, twitter.com/joanhewrites/status/1424835062944645122.
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