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Review: Conversion Dysphoria Blues – Reis Asher

Conversion Dysphoria Blues - Reis Asher

Genre: Science Fiction, Cyberpunk

Reviewer: Olivia

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About The Book

What if cyborgs suffered body dysphoria? 

In his mid-forties, former cop turned career bureaucrat Nolan Rogers is diagnosed with terminal cancer. His best friend Elly Takahara convinces him to undergo the process of body conversion, where his brain is transplanted into a robotic body. The operation is successful, but Nolan quickly finds himself adrift in a body that doesn’t eat or physically react to emotion. For the first time in years, he’s suffering from a new kind of body dysphoria, a sensation he hoped to have left behind when he transitioned to male decades ago.

During this crisis, he meets Tallis, a proud nonbinary body convert who sued his parents for the right to give up his flesh and blood body. Tallis is fire to Nolan’s water, and whereas Nolan just wants to fit in, Tallis is determined to stand out in a world where being a cyborg marks one for discrimination and worse. Despite hitting it off poorly, an undeniable attraction blossoms between the pair, and they become entwined in a complicated relationship.

Nolan can’t understand Tallis, but he wants to. Trapped in his own narrow confines of what he believes the world to be, Tallis challenges everything he thought he knew. Can Nolan learn to love who he is now, or will he find himself drawn into the ranks of the Regretters, an organization of cyborgs campaigning to outlaw body conversion altogether?

The Review

The Scene

In the vein of works that hold mirrors up to life, Asher envisions a world where society is changing to allow more inclusion. It has all the usual elements: the backlash, the marginalization, the despair and the hope for a better tomorrow. This time it’s those who have given up their original bodies for a new physical shell of carbon tubing and steel who face discrimination and have to fight to be seen. The story treads the familiar path of the marginal citizen in a new way, exploring the shame of difference and the joy of being yourself, the pain and the discrimination. All in a floating city in the clouds. 

The Crowd

The characters were all interesting personalities, but I’ll be upfront here: as a reader, many of them rubbed me the wrong way. The main character, in particular, was so caught up in his own despair that I instinctively shied away. Having some bad experiences with the trap of despair and suicidality in my family history, I feel my shields go up when a character espouses that same hopelessness. And readers should be aware that there are on-the-page descriptions of attempted suicide (if by a means people can’t use in the here and now). I wasn’t prepped for that, and it wasn’t fun. So yeah, I’m going to own that right now. My personal history may be biasing my point of view as a reader. 

Nolan, the main character, bugs me in his entrenched hopelessness. And Tallis’s manipulative streak bugs me too. For me, their relationship veers uncomfortably close to something unhealthy. Unfortunately, this does reflect reality in a lot of marginalized communities; internalized shame can really mess a person up inside. This story does tell that truth. But seeing it put so blatantly on the page made for a painful read. These are characters who fit their world well, but their world is seriously messed up.

I had a lot more fun with the side-character protagonists: the spitfire who owns a bar and the friends around the central characters.

I was less impressed with the antagonists, who had more than a whiff of the comic book villain about them. Having the main antagonist’s motivations revealed via a set of flashbacks was a particularly tropey call on the author’s part; I felt that while trying to make a point about internalized cultural shame and self-acceptance vs. self-rejection, the author reached too far and cheapened their plot in favor of making their point. It wasn’t badly done, but it was just a bit heavy-handed.

Writing Style

A well-written narrative, its biggest weakness is on its on the nose statements of perspective as part of the storytelling. This is very much a work in the pulp tradition: there’s a point to be made, and by Jove it’s going to be made. That can work, but it sometimes feels a bit heavy-handed and over the top.

As I read, I felt there was an inherit thematic tension to the story itself: many of the scenes are extremely powerful, and written in a literary manner. But just as you settle into the literary mindset, the story throws in pulp-fiction elements that whiplash your brain.  Several times funny images ran through my mind of Anna Karenina putting on a fedora and pulling a tommy gun half way through the book, or of Hamlet saying ‘oh screw this’ halfway through his To Be speech and popping his uncle with a Glock. The switch between deep literary explorations and pulp-adventure elements was about that jarring. 

The Moves

In the pulp-dystopia tradition, the story takes you down into the dark, makes you decide what you need to fight for, and then makes you go through the fight alongside the protagonist. In this case, it was systemic discrimination. It was internalized self-loathing. It was a culture seeking peak profit and grasping after social control. And it was the specter of depression and suicide.  It’s a worthy exploration of the underbelly of life, but for me as a reader it felt a lot like salt rubbed in a wound. The resolution isn’t quite enough to take away the sting, but it does offer at least the hope of a better tomorrow.

Overall Rating

A dark mirror that makes us face our demons, internal and external. Not really my cup of tea, but a valuable and scathing exploration of the warping marginalization causes and the work of fighting it.

The Reviewer

Olivia Wylie is a jack of all trades and a master of none. Trained in horticulture, she writes ethnobotany and horticulture under her own name and queer climate change fiction with a hopeful twist under the pen name of O.E. Tearmann. She lives in Colorado with a very patient partner and a rather impatient cat.