Batty About Insignia by Kincaid

Welcome back to Batty About Books! Our latest tome is a young adult science fiction novel that came out this year. We'll be discussing this over the course of four weeks. 

Insignia - by S.J. Kincaid
Published July 10th 2012 by Katherine Tegen Books
Acquired: Through my amazing local library!

We had a lot to talk about on this first section, so we've split the discussion. Part of it will be here (focused on my feminist viewpoint and the science), and part at The Brain Lair (on some of the "big ideas" we've seen in the story). As has become our grand tradition, my thoughts are in purple and Kathy's are in blue. 

So far this book has given me flashes of Ender’s Game, The Matrix, and heading off to Star Fleet Academy. This is a good thing, in case you were wondering. I’m already seeing all the connections that will help me recommend this book to a variety of people. (Or give me other books to recommend to people who liked this one!)
Kathy: It also reminded me of Epic by Conor Kostick and Ready Player One by Ernie Cline, which is an adult book. (Frantically adds to her To Be Read list)

I also think that reading more YA has spoiled me a bit. The MG science fiction (and some fantasy) I’ve read lately hasn’t held a candle to the complexity in the YA books.

Kathy: I always read those two (YA vs MG) with different lenses. Buying library books for students aged 10-14 opens your eyes to the variety. There are some complex MG books out there, maybe not in scifi that I’ve seen, but they do exist. So far though, I don’t think this book is that complex. Sure, there’s some lingo but once you get past that, the book seems very simplistic to me. My budget is low so my book expectations are very high, and so far, this is not reaching them. I feel like I’m directly comparing this book to my last MG science fiction read - The Supernaturalist. The characters in that one felt really flat compared to Insignia. I guess it’s also a matter of length. There is more time to have more people in the book, and to “stop and look around” in the setting, when the book is longer.  

Kathy: Could it have been the author? I’ve read and enjoyed Artemis Fowl but I didn’t move beyond the first book. There are some YA science fiction books that don’t make the grade - Obsidian Blade for one. There were some issues with that one and it’s YA. Also, I AM Number Four - which is huge at our school - because it’s action packed not because the characters are well written. On the other hand, Boy at the End of The World had a well-written protagonist. I also enjoyed Eleventh Plague.

Feminism Watch: My definition is “equal opportunities for all”, just as an FYI. This includes allowing guys to have a full range of choices: to express emotions and take on some feminine characteristics without being seen as a ridiculous character and forced into changes.

I’ve taken to putting on my lady goggles more and more when I read science fiction and fantasy. There are always positives and negatives in every book. Let’s take a look.

Negative: Tom has no feminine influences in his life, as his mother disappeared when he was little. His father isn’t really open to Tom exploring all the choices in front of him. I do understand that the “parentless” teen is a way of allowing the teen characters to be fully in charge, though. Tom doesn’t have someone leaning over him, since he has really taken on the parenting role.

Kathy: As a mom, I gotta say I probably wouldn’t be open to my child exploring all the choices in front of her either!  (Point taken, and agreed!) I try to let go as much as possible, but I always want to know as much detail as possible. In the book though, we know his dad has his own agenda, part of which means Tom takes care of him, so he doesn’t want to lose the only sure thing in his life. The part with the dad, Neil, taking a stance against the government reminded me of the book Alabama Moon by Watt Key. Each father figure has a similar outlook on the government’s role in society and then they disappear and you see how things play out in the rest of the world. I look forward to seeing if Neil’s stance proves to be correct or if he’s just operating from a bias stemming from something in his past. I agree. I’m definitely curious about his dad’s perspective. So far, it seems like Elliot is real, but that his father is partly correct.

Positive: So far, there doesn’t seem to be much of a distinction in leadership at his school. No one talks about the women instructors as different from the men.

Kathy: Hmm, we haven’t really seen any women instructors at the military school though. The only female adult was charged with being the “social worker” for the students. We don’t really get to see Major Cromwell in action. She comes to lunch, says at ease, and then that’s it. That’s true. The hopeful thing is that those characters weren’t seen as “Oh my goodness - look at the lady instructor!” Kathy: I hope she doesn’t get the “mannish” treatment like Wyatt either. That will be something to keep an eye out for - Does the author think women can still retain their feminine side while operating in a historically male world?

Character Ratio: Yes, the protagonist is Tom. So you’ll have more male characters, especially since it is a boarding situation and his roommates will also be young men. There are a handful of young women, though, who could make the story feel more balanced as long as their parts are brought to the front of the story line. (Heather and Wyatt, in particular). Several of the instructors are also women. So far, though, it’s definitely heavier on the guys.

Unsure so far: Heather’s profile includes her 2 stints as beauty queen and she is a “social innovator”. The upside is that she seems to be treated as a full member of the teams, and her intelligence is valued. Attractiveness doesn’t have to be discounted, as long as she continues to be respected for more than that. When you add in Wyatt, though, it puts me a little more on edge. Our “mathlete” with the mad hacking skills is antisocial and has “man hands”? I guess I need more data before I can decide how I feel the young women are being portrayed in this story.

Kathy: I was disappointed that they used Heather’s attractiveness to get Tom to first, consider the offer, and then later, change his mind. So far, I’m not seeing much from her. Also, I think attractiveness is OVERcounted so far. Tom mentions that “back when he wasn’t smart...when his skin was messed up...when he had nothing going for him...”, (p. 86) Heather wouldn’t have noticed him, but now that he’s been changed, he can now participate in society, including getting the girl. Thanks for bringing this up. I meant to mention that. I also found that troubling - but it does remind me a lot of how I felt in high school. I was very concerned about my appearance, and how my appearance impacted my ability to get along with others. I pretended I wasn’t... but it really did matter to me. Kathy: If we are being honest - I still have that. Especially operating in a 95% white world as I do. I’m the only person of color teaching at my school and among my friends. My background is very different from theirs as I hail from Chicago while most grew up here in this small township.  I’m always wondering about my speech patterns, my dress, etc.

The Science:
There is a lot of science woven in so far. I know the information dribbled in has made me curious to investigate more about the brain, virtual reality, etc. I liked the way the information was woven into the text. Definitions were tossed in for TOM - but helped us. As he processes the downloads, we get fed more science too. Sometimes this technique can be done to death. So far, though, I’ve found it nicely balanced.
Kathy: Example, please?
1) When Tom is in his first virtual school, we are given lots of background on the current state of warfare as part of the discussion. I like this, as it gives me some of what I need to know in a quick and abbreviated format. I know we’ve had book where we didn’t like this, but I never felt pulled out of the narrative with this one. (Agreed! Having it as a class discussion was smooth way to integrate it!)
2) Page 59, when Vik is trying to convince Tom that he’ll need more time to fully adjust to the processor. Vikram tosses some terms (like synaptic pruning and neural elasticity) at Tom, forcing the processor to spell out the meanings in his datastream. We got two intriguing bits of information. If it had gone on longer, I would have found it trite - but two made me curious about my own understanding of the terms and wanting to look up more information on the brain. (Ah! I hadn’t noticed since this was done quickly and seemlessly! This makes me happy.)
3) Blackburn’s treatment of Tom, sending viruses into his datastream. (Which was horrifically harsh, but I think set the stage for Blackburn’s personality issues AND the deadly seriousness of the training). Blackburn announced which part of the brain he was attacking (limbic system, hypothalamus, etc) and the corresponding systems engaged. (Although I agree, again, that Kincaid pulled these parts in nicely, I did not like this scene at all. Was he trying to get Tom to spill or just proving his point? I felt this went on too long and proved to be more humiliating than thought-provoking. Probably didn’t sit well with me because I’ve had teachers who set out to humiliate, especially if you have some sort of gift or they don’t feel like you belong there. Of course, this is the bias I bring to any books that involve students being in school. It’s also a widely used trope that I get tired of seeing.)

Overall Impressions:
I’m really enjoying this book. While there are always things I can nitpick, I like the pacing and the characters. I love the classic science fiction references. And I’m dying to know what happens next. I can see this being a book I would normally just devour if I hadn’t been forced to slow down and take notes!
Kathy: We should take that into consideration for future books. If we get into it and feel like we should just read and then react - let’s do it! I’m always telling students that different types of books require different types of reading. There are times I must slow myself down because my need to know what’s going to happen drives me. And there are times I just want to savor every word. They discuss this a bit on the SLJ Heavy Medal blog - emotion vs intellect. True, but if I hadn’t taken notes I wouldn’t be able to have gone back just now to add more specific references to back up my thinking in our discussion. I have found that I “take notes” differently in each book we’ve read. Some books I start an Evernote and jot down ideas as I read. This one I tended to put in a small sticky note when I had something I wanted to remember, or jotted a page number and small quote on an index card. I wonder if that change in my own “jotting” style is reflective of my interaction style with each text? 

Kathy: Would be great to plot. I write notes in a little Moleskin notebook and they vary depending on how I feel about the book. I find the more I’m into a book - the better notes I take because I am just thinking and thinking.  Also, whatever lit element jumps out at me - I tend to take MORE notes on that because I’m looking for that support.  I have a feeling that part 2 of Insignia will have me paying more attention to the science and the connections to Tom’s family.

Just for fun connections:
- “Good morning, Dave” (47) So early in the book, and a massive classic reference to 2001. Awesome.
- “I know Kung - Fu” (84-85) - I laughed, as I rewatch the Matrix on a regular basis.
- Selecting kids based on their responses to video games? Totally "Last Starfighter". Yeah, I just dated myself again.

Read it? Our thoughts spark an idea in your mind? Chime in, please! 

While you are waiting for next week's post (with bated breath, I'm sure), check out our pal Brian's review of the book at WYZ Reads.


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