Review of The Underground by K.A. Applegate
by K.A. Applegate
Haters gonna hate, but I don’t care: oatmeal is a fantastic weakness. I mean, think about some of the weaknesses enemies or superheroes have had in other stories. Kryptonite? Water? Tricking them into saying their names backwards? Country music? Oatmeal is a legit weakness—and Applegate very specifically restricts it to maple and ginger instant oatmeal. Throw in the additional snag that it doesn’t kill a Yeerk, just renders the Yeerk mad and keeps it from needing Kandrona rays, and you have the perfect kind of imperfect weapon. The Underground is intense in many ways, and the fact the Animorphs have what amounts to a ten-minute discussion about biological warfare is one of them.
See, it’s really easy to see the words “instant oatmeal turns out to be the new superweapon to fight the Yeerks” and have your eyes glaze over and your brain turn off. It sounds silly; it sounds like something you’d find in a kids’ book. Fine for a kid but not so interesting for adults, right? It’s tempting to dismiss this book as something like The Unknown for the level of silliness it approaches. But that would be underestimating it, and doing the story a disservice.
In this, the Silver Age of Animorphs, which began in #9: The Secret, the Animorphs have accepted their roles in the war against the Yeerks but now have to come to terms with what waging war means for them as individuals. It’s like making that ideological jump from “joining up for the army” and “deploying overseas.” Except the Animorphs aren’t getting a regular stipend, danger pay, furloughs—and they’re waging war on their own turf. I guess it’s more like French WWII resistance fighters than anything else.
Instant oatmeal presents the Animorphs with a massive opportunity. But it’s also another moral dilemma, something Applegate is not shy about introducing. If the Animorphs expose more Controllers to instant oatmeal, it will drive their Yeerks insane. But the Yeerks will also be able to survive inside their hosts indefinitely without returning to the pool for Kandrona rays. Neutralizing Controllers means condemning those hosts to living with a mad Yeerk, perhaps for the rest of their lives. This might seem preferable to life as a Controller or death, but we see firsthand through George Edelman that this is not something to be taken lightly.
I love that Applegate has various Animorphs espouse different opinions on the matter, and that she links it into the idea of the American Civil War, and what might have happened if the two sides reached a compromise where the Confederacy only gave up “some” of its slaves. It’s interesting that when, later in the book, Cassie hits upon the idea of dumping the oatmeal directly into the Yeerk pool, no one questions the morality of driving hundreds, potentially thousands, of Yeerks insane. (Remember this is only a few books since The Andalite Chronicles, where we watched Elfangor wrestle with the morality of killing defenseless Yeerks in cold blood. Is driving Yeerks insane not as bad?)
Anyway, I want to highlight one other important part of The Underground. Rachel and the others pretty much go tête-à-tête with Visser Three here … and win. I mean, remember how at the beginning of the series, the Animorphs would just barge into a situation without much of a plan—or a very flimsy plan, which would go awry—and fight their way out? Their plan in this one is meticulous. It does go awry, but they cope with it spectacularly. They stare down Visser Three, essentially back him into a corner, and get away. This is a far cry from nearly getting killed until the Ellimist rescued them in #8: The Stranger.
I love seeing this maturation of the Animorphs as a team. Visser Three is a formidable threat, but he can be beaten. He can be outsmarted and outmaneuvered—and that’s exactly what they do here. Amidst the seriousness of The Underground’s main plot, we see a glimmer of hope for the future.
But at what cost to the Animorphs?