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Unique and well engineered.

By Madiha N. Santana, author of The Solstice War

Apr 21, 2015: Cages is a multi-format story, occurring across academic thesis-styled research posts alongside nontraditional prose fiction pieces that tell the story of a world in which genetic engineering has divided the human race into two groups that are linguistically and culturally incompatible.

One group, the genetically and materially privileged Subgroup A, captures and uses the other for entertainment and study purposes. While the author was inspired by cetacean capture, lower tech versions of this narrative have certainly played out among humans.

There are two elements to Cages.

First and most commonly are the research papers.

These comprise emails and cited evidence from an academic working on a project to bring to light and critique a corporation’s engagement with the trafficking and captivity of “Subgroup B” humans. These posts are wonderfully formatted. There are yellow sticky notes on the margins, realistic academic emails, and highlighted portions that really give the pieces a PHD student feel. There is an artistry and genuineness to these posts that is enviable and makes them very fresh.

Prose fiction pieces tell the 2nd person story of a very young captive in one of the Subgroup A’s arenas, which mirrors the treatment of a circus or zoo animal, being captured, ripped from their families, given patronizing and limiting intelligence tests, and trained to perform in front of the A Group. These can be very harsh and visceral posts, with a repetition that drills the treatment of the captive (your treatment) into your brain. You, you, you, you, you; the narrative demands your immersion into the agonizing state of the captive Subgroup B youth. I’m sure among readers the efficacy of this technique will vary. But it definitely struck me.

Both are well written for what I see as their respective purposes.

Rather than a traditional narrative with twists and arcs, what I have read so far, is a kind of fiction/nonfiction exploration from different perspectives of the violence of captivity, both how the subjects of this violence experience it, and how a detached public sees it. This leads into some exploration on how it can continue and spread despite the violence inherent in it. It moves starkly between the (perhaps frustratingly) clinical point of view of the research papers, to the intermittently violent and stultifying world of the Subgroup B’s captivity in Subgroup A hands.

There is enough balance of detail and ambiguity to grab hold of you.

On the site, the author wonders aloud about whether the story is insulting or reductive or oversimplifying the issue or whether it contributes to the discourse surrounding captivity, either human or animal.

This is a difficult line of critique, but I feel I must try to answer for myself, for the author, and for the potential reader, because this is a very politically charged topic for a piece of fiction, and the author’s inspiration for it is quite a cocktail of political tension in every direction.

Now, I have not read all of the story. Judging by the table of contents I read all of Part One and some of Part Two, without really noticing a marked division at all, and then read the author’s About page. This is what set me to thinking about the story and made me want to review it.

My opinion: in general, it is very difficult to write instructively or sensitively about about these kinds of political and humanitarian issues in a story that is abstracting several of their systemic factors today into fiction. These are fictional ethnically-unspecified humans in a far-flung future. Connecting this to victims today is difficult; and the premise and its association to animal capture is fraught with rhetorical peril.

While human capture may once have possessed a political character akin to that of animal capture (a dehumanizing supremacist curiosity that could generate personal profit through entertainment or “educational” service) the bulk of its history has been markedly different, with far more complicated and different systemic, ideological factors such as racism, eugenics, and imperialist economic systems, driving the trade in alienated humans forward. From what I have read, Cages certainly touches upon these things, but due to the detached character of the research posts, conducted by the privileged A academics, none are confronted by name or very thoroughly dissected.

As such, I think that the story has limited itself in what it could say about this issue.

How flagrant that is, is up to someone with more proximity to the issue than myself to say.

Cages is well crafted. It is told in an interesting, refreshing format. I admire the use of multiple styles of writing and media elements, and I think it is an interesting piece of fiction, particularly as a fan of a Brave New World who sees shades of that dystopia in the setting conceits that define Cages. It is the kind of thing I don’t see a lot of out there, and makes simple but good use of the multi-media capabilities open to webfic. I have some misgivings about the execution and premise of the story, but it is certainly a different and provoking experience.

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