I read a lot of YA books, and since not all of them are great, I keep track of the authors of the ones that I really liked. So ever since I read Corinne Duyvis’s Otherbound two years ago, I’ve been waiting and hoping that she would soon publish something else. Duyvis, an autistic writer who co-founded the Disability in Kidlit website and writing resource, is a writer with a particularly unique point of view. And when I found out about Duyvis’s newest book, On the Edge of Gone, a story about disability and classism told as an asteroid hits the Earth, I jumped to get it.
On the Edge of Gone takes place in the very near future in which the human race has space-worthy ships and many advanced technologies. However, the human race also has an asteroid headed straight to Earth. For our protagonist, Denise, and her family, this is worse news than it is for other people—the asteroid is expected to hit near Europe, and they live in Amsterdam. If they hope to survive at all, Denise, her mother, and her sister Iris have to get to one of the many fallout shelters the government and private companies have had built. They might have gotten to one in time, but Iris goes missing, Denise’s mother refuses to leave the house, and then they have to stop and help Denise’s old teacher, Els, get to her shelter instead.
Fortunately, Els isn’t going to a shelter per se—she and her wife have a spot on a generation ship, so named because it’s meant to stay in space for generations as its inhabitants look for a new place to live. When they get to the ship, the Nassau, Denise and her mother beg to stay, at least just long enough to ride out the impact of the asteroid. However, in order to stay on the generation ship, one has to have some kind of skill that’s integral to the inhabitants’ survival.
By focusing specifically on production, On the Edge of Gone is able to avoid any homophobia that might now surround space travel (such as U.S. Representative Louie Gohmert, who misguidedly believes gay people shouldn’t be allowed in space). Els and her wife have a place on the ship because Els works in agriculture and can plant the barrels of grains they have in storage as well as accurately predict how many people they will feed—a very important task that has nothing to do with who she’s married to. Similarly, Denise’s sister Iris is transgender, but that isn’t the reason Captain Van Zand first refuses her a space. What’s important is what each person can contribute to the ship and its mission.
In this way, though the book doesn’t avoid diversity in race and sexual orientation, its focus is primarily on disability and classism. There’s a limited number of spaces on the Nassau, and it makes sense that the captain only wants people who can assist him and his crew. However, the people left on Earth are struggling through demolished buildings, a lack of medication and food, and little to no transportation, and staying on Earth means that you have a far greater chance of dying than if you were onboard a ship. So who can decide who goes and who stays, and what factors should such a decision be based on? The captain doesn’t want Denise’s mother, a drug addict who’s unreliable and high much of the time, or Denise, an autistic girl who only wants to read about feline anatomy, but does that mean that they’re not worth saving? When Denise is talking to her friend Max, they have the following argument:
“Your sister gets to live, and she’s here only because people like my sister died, and then you smuggle your addict mother on board, even though we don’t have the supplies. You work with Els! You know we don’t! You know the rules! […] All this trouble for a drug addict when my family is out there dying?” His jaw clacks shit. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Why am I being so mean?”
His skin is a red, blotchy mess. I want to lash out. I want to apologize. I want to stalk away so I don’t have to decide.
I want to tell him he doesn’t even know my mother, who helps lost women on the street at the end of the world, who sleeps best with cooking shows on, who I sometimes wonder whether I hate, who makes faces at the window when it rains and offers me a ride to school.
“Cause she’s an addict doesn’t mean she deserves to die,” I only say.
“What’ll she even do on board?”
“I don’t know. She’ll survive. Isn’t that why the ship exists?”
On the Edge of Gone lays out the desperation of people who just want to save their presumably able-bodied family and friends alongside the fear of people who’ve been discriminated against all their lives, who are afraid this is just another time when they’ll be left behind. Who defines what’s “useful”, and should people give up their own self-care and their own interests in order to be “useful”? The ending may be a little bit too hopeful, but it reiterates the belief that people shouldn’t be saved on the basis of what they can do or how hard they’re able to work. In times of crisis, treating others with compassion is the most important thing you can do.
As for our protagonist, Denise is one of the most well-drawn main characters I’ve had the pleasure of reading about. I’ve read some books with autistic characters before, but never one where the protagonist herself was autistic, so reading this was enlightening as well as entertaining. Because Denise is half-Black and a girl, she wasn’t diagnosed as autistic until she was well into her teens—teachers and staff at her schools labeled her as nothing more than a troublemaker, and her parents were worried she’d be institutionalized. When the story starts, she’s learned to mimic her classmates enough to blend in, and she’s memorized scripts for everyday interaction and blueprints of the shelter and of the Nassau so that she knows what’s coming up. However, though she’s managing with many coping mechanisms, she still gets caught off guard by unexpected events and by people who aren’t sensitive to her needs, and Duyvis explicitly describes the worst of Denise’s stims and anxieties as well as others’ ableist beliefs and behaviors. It makes On the Edge of Gone the most educational book I’ve read in 2016. The moral quandaries make you think, and the prose carries you along in a wave of suspense and fun, so definitely go read it if you haven’t already.