Garth Nix’s Shade’s Children predates the late-Aughts YA dystopia boom by roughly a decade, but it would have fit right in alongside those later, post-9/11 stories. Set in a near-future version of our own world, ruled over by the battle-minded Overlords, who disappeared the world’s older teens and adults 15 years ago, Shade’s Children centers on a group of four teenagers—Ella, Drum, Ninde, and Gold-Eye—who have escaped certain death in the dormitories and now serve the mysterious hologram-person known as Shade. Living in seclusion on a submarine, Shade’s children must learn to fight the Overlords’ monsters, all made from teenagers just like them, in order to one day reverse the Change: the cataclysmic event that brought the Overlords to Earth in the first place.
Shade’s Children is not a love story, but it is a part of mine. My husband and I knew one another for more than a decade before we married, and we spent roughly half that time, not as lovers, but as friends. Looking back on it, however, I’ve come to realize that the moment he leaned over and asked me, earnestly, if I’d ever read Shade’s Children, was the moment I began to fall in love with him.
If you’re familiar with the novel, you might find this odd. Expressions of love are few and far between in Shade’s Children, after all. Because the Overlords arrived 15 years before the novel’s opening, many of the children have never experienced the tender ministrations of a parent or guardian. Instead, every child is born and raised in the Dorms, where they remain imprisoned until their “Sad Birthday”: the day they are taken away to be transformed into one of the Overlords’ hideous creatures, who act as their servants, security guards, and soldiers.
As horrific as the Dorms are, little affection awaits the children who escape them. If they manage to make it to the relative safety of Shade’s submarine, they’ll be hard-pressed to find love in his arms, even as he acts as their de facto father. As the bulk of the novel proves, Shade views his children as mere pawns in his own game of chess against the Overlords, one he deludes himself into thinking he’s playing for the fate of the world.
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This lack of affection during their formative years does not eliminate the children’s inclinations toward tenderness, although it does prevent them, often enough, from understanding their feelings for one another. When Ella and Drum help Shade dissect a living Winger—the only one of the Overlords’ creatures who can fly—she becomes troubled when it recognizes her and calls her by name, begging her to kill it. Despite Shade’s attempt to explain away the phenomenon with cold science—“The brain of the boy used in the creature’s manufacture has retained some human memory, which has come to the fore.”—Ella acquiesces to her old friend’s request, killing the Winger and ending Shade’s experiment. Later, when Ninde regrets killing one of the creatures—“I didn’t mean to kill it…. It was only a Drone…. I think it was a girl once.”—Ella must comfort her, observing silently that, “Thinking that they had been children once, or looking in their eyes, only made it harder to do what was necessary.”
We’ve seen this theme explored broadly in science fiction, particularly in zombie narratives, which often require the protagonists to kill the resurrected corpses of their friends and loved ones. In those cases, mourning the violent loss of one of their own serves as a transformative moment for the apocalypse survivors—the realization that nothing will be the same after this, that each of them is vulnerable, and that even more tough decisions lie ahead. In Shade’s Children, however, Ella and Ninde’s feelings about killing the creatures propel the novel’s largest exploration: what it means to be human. As the lines between human and creature, human and A.I., and even human and Overlord begin to blur, Shade’s Children forces readers to question, alongside the novel’s protagonists, whose lives are worth saving.
Shade’s children cannot reconcile their feelings about the creatures’ humanity with what they’ve been taught is their obligation to kill them, in part because Shade’s downright clinical treatment of their situation leaves no room for compassion. Sex aboard the sub is just as unsentimental, at least on paper, with the children able to opt into a sex-partner Lottery after completing courses in sex education and contraception. It’s supposed to serve both as a welcome relief from the nonconsensual reproduction in the Dorms—required for some teenagers, who are forced to breed the next generation of the Overlords’ prisoners, and stolen from others, like Drum, who was chemically castrated ahead of his never-to-pass transformation into one of the creatures—and as a panacea against unplanned teenage pregnancies on Shade’s vessel.
Sex is normal, natural, and perhaps unavoidable among a group of teens living in close quarters. The four principal cast members discover that, even with their personal-health education, it’s not possible for them to have no-strings-attached sex with one another, under the circumstances. In spite of the initial furore of their mutual sexual attraction, Ninde and Gold-Eye do not sleep together when they have the opportunity, instead finding that, “It was enough to lie together on the bed.” Similarly, Ella—who removed herself from the Lottery after “realiz[ing] that sex only … made it easier to love them, made it so much harder to bear when they were lost”—falls in love with Drum—presumably the only boy among Shade’s children who is incapable of having penetrative sex with her—but they never do anything more intimate than hold hands.
Love must take on new forms in the Overlords’ world. It must remain at a safe distance, if its participants are to protect themselves on emotional, psychological, and even spiritual levels. Because of this, love blossoms in the novel’s little moments, against all odds, like the persistent sunshine of a dandelion that has grown through the sidewalk crack. There is no great romance to be found in Nix’s novel. Shade does not miraculously become a caring father after years spent manipulating his children. Whether the novel even ends happily is a matter of debate. But these small incidents, scattered throughout Shade’s Children, remind us that love is an integral part of human nature. Like a weed, it grows, even when no one is there to cultivate it.
As in Nix’s novel, so in my own story. My husband and I spent years content to be friends, not nursing a romantic relationship. And yet, in those small, imperceptible flashes, we became more. When it was enough for us to be friends, that was when we became lovers, almost by surprise.
Shade’s Children is hardly the only book we’ve shared together over the years. He suggested I read Ender’s Game and A Tale of Two Cities. I gave him Jane Austen and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. We both love Fight Club, The Demonata series, and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. But not one of those books has ever felt the way that Shade’s Children did. Knowing that there was someone standing in front of me who knew that book well enough to mention it to me in earnest, to have a real conversation about it, made all the difference in the world.
It happened in a flash. One moment, I had a friend, and in the next, a kindred spirit.
I wish I had a neat way to wrap this up, but it’s a strange time to be writing about love and the apocalyptic novel, if I’m being honest. In the midst of a global pandemic, the conflict between my chronic health condition and my husband’s essential job requires us to shelter-in-place apart. We’re fortunate to have the support networks available to do so. Like almost everything else, love looks different now. Love looks like distance. It looks like Ella and Drum’s lack of physical affection. The future, what Gold-Eye refers to as the soon-to-be-now, is cloudy.
And yet we keep working toward a better future, if not for ourselves, then for others, doing the best we can with what we have, following what guidelines we’ve been given, and trying not to lose our humanity when everything feels hopeless. In light of this, perhaps it’s not so difficult to read Shade’s Children, or any other dystopian novel, in search of hope and love right now.
Kristian Wilson Colyard writes fiction and poetry, reads, and does nerdy stuff at her home in the rural American South, where she lives with her husband and their clowder of cats. She’s on Twitter @kristianwriting, and you can find more of her work online at kristianwriting.com.