Reviewed by Mahvesh Murad
AS Dr Who so succinctly said, cyborgs are cool. They have been since Edgar Allen Poe first wrote about one in his 1839 story, “The Man That Was Used Up”. Cinderella as a cyborg is cooler still simply because nothing much happens in the versions of the story made popular by Disney and the like. Cinderella is miserable, she goes to the ball, she comes back and is miserable again until she’s married to the prince. Her only desire is for a life filled with pretty dresses and a pretty prince. Not only does she not have any agency or self-worth (she sits by the chimney and weeps until the Fairy Godmother takes pity on her), she also has severely limited goals and lacks in ambition. It’s no wonder that contemporary takes on fairytales tend towards the more adventure filled stories of Snow White or Red Riding Hood.
Perhaps Marissa Meyer considered all this when she began her Lunar Chronicles series with Cinder, a story about a teen cyborg set on a future Earth filled with technology and space travel yet caught in the throes of a plague that threatens to wipe out all of mankind. Linh Cinder lives in the bustling metropolis of New Beijing, where, based on her expertise of her body’s own mechanics, she has become the city’s best known mechanic. She’s ‘owned’ by her stepmother, who has, of course, little love for her. Cinder’s own back story is a mystery — all she knows is that she was once in an accident and survived only when her 11-year-old body was saved by many shiny new parts. These parts make her legal property, a sentient cybernetic organism bound to work for the financial benefit of her guardian. Without any legal rights and with the constant threat of being ‘drafted’ for research to find a cure for the plague, Cinder is trapped in endless labour, just as Cinderella was. But Cinder has plans to escape, until the prince comes to her in the form of Kai, the son of the reigning (but deathly sick) monarch who needs secret data retrieved from his damaged trusty android sidekick.
Meyer does push the limits of the reader’s willing suspension of disbelieve — why would a prince comes to a filthy marketplace where being infected by the plague is a valid threat when he could simply summon the city’s best mechanic to him in utter secrecy and safety — but the glitch is minor because the narrative happily chugs along with its casual, easy banter and persistently likable protagonist. Cinder stumbles across information about the Lunars, the powerful population of the moon, who are Earth’s second threat, and so begins a fun little story with a surprisingly appealing and not at all dreary Cinderella.
Meyer touches on a number of ideas that could have been explored further, and in greater detail. The idea of slavery, for instance, and ownership of individuals are important. Cinder is her stepmother’s property because of her cyborg parts, but at which point did she stop being considered human, if at all? How much flesh and blood does a body have to be to be defined as human? At one point Cinder is strapped into a machine that calculates what percentage of her is cyborg — can a person’s humanity be mathematically evaluated in such a way? Whether it’s a cochlear implant, a brain implant to correct non-congenital blindness, a pacemaker or a cybernetic limb, how are the lines between human and machine drawn? These questions lie entirely in the subtext of the book, however, and those interested in transhumanism may be disappointed in the lack of exploration of this concept.
The first major weakness in Cinder is Meyer’s worldbuilding. She covers all the right bases with her set up of Earth and its future tech, but somehow the world of Cinder is just a little bit insular, particularly for those familiar with similar cyber-punk or speculative fiction concerned with transhumanism. While its easy enough to imagine New Beijing, it isn’t as easy to fill in the pieces of the rest of the world, and Meyer’s throw-away references to other countries and continents while setting up New Beijing’s politics feel just a bit hollow if they are meant to place Cinder’s narrative within a larger macrocosm.
Cinder’s sub-plot relating to the Lunar queen and her nefarious ways leads up to the novel’s big reveal, which unfortunately isn’t very much of a reveal at all if you’ve been paying attention. If anything, this is the second of the novel’s two weaknesses. There are far too many hints given towards the reveal to be entirely sensitively plotted. But the rest of the narrative is laid out perfectly well — there’s always plenty of action and never a slow moment. The very image of a grease-smudged female teenage mechanic with a shiny silver foot that falls off at an inopportune time, who cleans up in a borrowed dress and drives herself to the ball in an old orange car she refurbished on her own is a great way to challenge the entire concept of dreary old Cinderella weeping in the ashes at the hearth. Cinder is a young adult book with a good heart and enough intrigue to last through to the other books that are to follow.
By Marissa Meyer