Review: The Colony, by Jillian Weise

>>Published: February 2010

>>Finally got around to it: March 2011

Using human beings as literary guinea pigs is not an unheard of practice—so many authors explore elements of their lives or their world through their writing, things and occurrences that they would have no other way of experiencing—but Jillian Weise takes this conceit into new territory. In her hands, the five test subjects at the core of The Colony are victims to their genetics in ways only magical realism can allow. Magical realism, albeit sparingly used.

In The Colony, we’re introduced to Anne Hatley, a woman born with only one leg—and a mutated gene that, if prodded through science, could allow for her second leg to grow from the stump that already exists. Anne, along with four others, has signed up to be a part of the ambiguous colony of the book’s title, where she and the others will undergo a variety of tests and therapies designed to understand and alter their unique physiologies.

All this would sound like rather straightforward science fiction if not for the fact that each genetic “abnormality” is a thinly veiled, but much toyed with, metaphor. For example: Mercedes, a rail-thin woman who supposedly possesses the obesity gene—no matter what sort of life she leads, at some point she will balloon up to an extreme weight; then there’s Nick, Anne’s would-be lover at the colony, who is in possession of the suicide gene—no matter how happy-as-a-clam he may seem, one day, one moment, Nick’s body will trick him into throwing himself off a building. In Weise’s world, fate has little to say when the intrusiveness of genetics will mark a person’s life in such dramatic ways. Even the treatments they undergo are literary metaphors, with Mercedes’ triggering such happiness and an unfailing jovial attitude that she quite literally becomes lighter than air, floating up into the sky should she neglect her ankle weights.

All this without mentioning Anne’s one-on-one’s with the ever-elusive (and long dead) Charles Darwin.

The Colony is certainly enjoyable, if only to be witness to Weise’s ever-present creativity and wit. A playwright and a poet, Weise is no stranger to economical language. The Colony is a light, quick read; interspersed with chapters detailing the day-to-day lives and relationships of the colonists are snippets of interviews, lab reports, experiments, and various findings that help to flesh out the overall narrative.

That said, I finished The Colony feeling less like I’d taken a journey with Anne and her fellow test subjects, and more like I’d witnessed a series of vignettes designed to guide the reader through a network of allegories used to show us how clever and off the beaten path they all were—not to mention the world they live in, where such a colony could exist. Weise touches on the moral implications that this sort of genetic therapy might prompt, but never with enough veracity to truly impart the potential ramifications on our world and our culture. That feels like a missed opportunity.

The Colony was a charming, satisfying book, but once finished I feel that Anne and Nick and the others have been left behind, so much the same as they were in the beginning, and that Weise has abandoned the moral implications of genetic alteration in much the same way.

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