Unwieldy Creatures – by Addie Tsai

There are premises that are inherently going to sell me a book they’re based on. For instance, if I hear about a queer, multiracial retelling of Frankenstein, with futuristic science, emotionally troubled characters, and multilingual references on the top of it, of course I am going to read it, it’s an unavoidable consequence if I’ve ever seen one. Does it mean I am automatically going to love the book? That’s something worth discussing more in depth.

Title: Unwieldy Creatures

Author: Addie Brook Tsai

Publisher: Jaded Ibis Press

Publication Date: 2 August 2022

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 296

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Synopsis: Plum, a queer Chinese-American person who ran from her homophobic home, is now working as an intern at one of the world’s top embryology labs; there, her path meets that of Dr. Frank, a scientist of Indonesian descent whose ingenuity and ambition aren’t ever tempered by compassion or common sense. One night, Dr. Frank ends up telling Plum the story of her life: her dysfunctional upbringing, her exploration of her gender identity, and most importantly her attempt to overcome the limits of nature, creating a child without sperm or egg; an experiment that echoes the spirit of her literary idol, Dr Frankenstein, and that is similarly bound to have tragic consequences.

Analysis: Following the same scheme as Mary Shelley’s novel, Unwieldy Creatues is told in first person by the voices of three different characters: that is to say Plum, that here serves as a Walton-like audience surrogate, the main character Dr. Frank, and the creature, here named Ash. While Tsai does not go as far as to write in epistolary form, the prose does give off a classic, old-timey vibe, and even includes a few quotes from Shelley’s book. Their characters’ confessions are all overly eloquent, definitely closer to a literary prose than to any realistic speech pattern; while such a style works fine for most of their accounts, it’s not equally suitable for dialogues, which indeed may at times come across as clunky and didactic. Plum’s chapters also include some Chinese words, that are meant to convey multicultural background that informs the character’s thoughts, and that occasionally refer to concepts that may not even have a direct transaltion.

Unwieldy Creatures tries to be several things, with different degrees of success. First of all, it is a deeply heartfelt exploration of what it means to grow up between cultures and between genders, coping with a variety of societal expectations and carving your identity out of all of these conflicting influences. The theme, clearly close to the author’s experience, is treated with sincerity and insightfulness, occasionally exploring the relation between the two components of each characters’ identity – for instance, Dr. Frank identifies as calalai, an Indonesian (more specifically: Buginese) term to describe a masculine woman; Dr. Frank hasn’t got Bugis roots, but as an Indonesian-American trying to reconnect with her heritage, she stumbled upon the concept and found it properly fit her own self perception.

While protagonists are depicted with all the empathy that their struggles demand, Tsai doesn’t shy away from a honest rendition of their personal flaws, thus avoiding the pitfall of making your minority characters either stereotypical villains or impossibly pure models of virtue. Specifically, Dr. Frank is a deeply unpleasant person, and while we get to understand her motives, the narrative doesn’t condone her faults just on the basis of her identity or traumatic experiences; her toxic personality is surely influenced by that of her father, her closest masculine role model, but that is not meant to be an alibi for her actions.

Unwieldy Creatures, however, isn’t just a personal drama – it is openly a Frankenstein retelling, that may replace some theme to feel more plausible to a contemporary audience, but that also tries to stay close to the plot of the original novel. Now, I didn’t mind the focus on embryology, which is indeed a field riddled with ethical dilemmas. Although I must say, the actual issue of designered babies wasn’t as central as I had expected – because while there’s some mention of a debate on the topic, what we actually get home is less whether is legit to customise your embryo, and more whether you should be a parent while also being a narcissist. Anyway, the idea was a decent contemporary stand-in for Frankenstein’s experiment, and surely a theme that feels close to the concerns of many non-traditional families.

The novel works fine when it tries to reinvent its source with a new sensibility, however it falls apart when it tries to stay too close to its original format, losing sight of what may or may not fit in a contemporary setting. Several times I could identify all too easily how some plot point, that looked stretched and incongrous in the story, was just taken out of Frankestein and forcefully shoved in a different context. In some case this is reworked well enough to convey some new meaning: for instance, Dr. Frank’s father’s marriage to an impoverished young woman is portayed in all its disturbing implications and tied to issues of cultural and sexual dominance. On the other hand, the entire subplot concerning Ezra (a stand-in for Frankenstein‘s Elizabeth) is terrible and hard to believe in a semi-realistic setting. With some considerable effort, I can try to believe that a rich enough guy could easily adopt a small child during a trip in Norway. I cannot justify, however, how anyone could think that a marriage between adopted siblings could be a desirable outcome, not to mention that Ezra’s personality is continuously replaced by whatever the plot demands . And I get that Tsai had to justify the baby’s peculiar appearance, as well as dia subsequent fate, but it’s really hard to believe that Dr. Frank implanted the embryo into her partner while fully aware that Ezra had tampered with it. I could list more examples, but I think the issue is clear enough; it looks like the author was really enjoying quoting their favourite classic as much as possible, even when it got in the way of writing a cohesive plot.

The two main themes of the novel – Frankenstein, and the experience of being different – are also somehow a metaphor for each other, as openly noted by Plum, who despite the gruesome aspects of the story, still finds it easy to empathise with Ash; which is also the reason why the “creature” is given a much more hopeful ending than in the original novel. As someone who has often felt for monsters and freaks much more than their plots intended, I surely appreciate the underlying principle, and I can’t pretend I don’t enjoy some hopeful found family vibe; the ending, however, was way too rushed, and once again too contrieved, easily handwaving on issues such as child murder of all things. Once again, a satisfying plot was sacrificed on the altar of desired outcomes, and of admittedly lovely ideas.

Conclusions & Recommendations: I was expecting to love this book, however I ended up having very mixed feelings about it. I enjoyed its themes, and despite all my criticism I had a good time reading it, however I couldn’t help but notice its really frustrating flaws. I wish the author had gone for a more loose retelling, instead of constraining their messages in a structure that in the end didn’t fit all that well. If you are intrigued by the concept, the novel is probably still worth a chance, and I’ll keep an eye for Tsai’s future works because they do come across as someone who has a lot to tell.

Content Warning: Emotional Abuse – Domestic Abuse – Toxic Relationships – Racism – Homophobia – Death of Child

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