Lizard Radio is a lovely, messy, very queer book with queer characters. I enjoyed it and also didn’t, if you know what I mean—I’m glad I read it, but reading it was a bit of a chore, because Pat Schmatz’s style is quite distinctive. This feels more like a novella than a novel to me, despite its length, because it doesn’t quite have the narrative completeness I desire, personally, in my novels. Nevertheless, Kivali’s journey is extremely interesting and powerful—and especially for teens who are questioning their gender, sexuality, or place in this world, I can see how this would be an important book.
Kivali is new to Crop Camp. This is a school-like program that teaches you agricultural basics, although in reality it’s an indoctrination camp for the conformist ideals of SayFree Gov. Lizard Radio takes place in a vague and hazy future in which a corporate-like government controls an unspecified region of the world. Gender expression and indeed everything else is heavily policed, and as we eventually discover, even harsher measures are being taken to prevent people from getting too emotional about everything. In short, this is definitely a dystopia—but it’s the grey, washed out dystopia of a world that doesn’t remember it surrendered its freedom rather than the brutalist blackened dystopia of a world chafing beneath the authoritarian boot.
I like the arc of Kivali’s journey and the way Schmatz doesn’t give Kivali the easy ways out. Kivali is initially resistant to Crop Camp but, beyond all expectations, actually kind of likes it. So that makes rebelling all that much harder once she realizes beyond all shadow of a doubt that she isn’t down for the fascism Ms. Mischetti peddles. Mischetti asks, “Are you a leader or a follower?” and this question pursues Kivali throughout Lizard Radio. The mystery of her origins aside, Kivali must confront her gender and sexuality (she appears to be questioning in both cases, identifying perhaps more as male but not comfortable with the idea of transitioning in the way that SayFree would like), as well as how she relates to the others at Crop Camp.
One of the most potent themes in this book is the portrayal of binaries. In this dystopia, transgender people (benders) not only can transition but must. That is, genderqueer identities are recognized but only if they can be subsumed into the accepted binary. There is no room for non-binary, agender, or non-conforming people: you can be a boy who transitions into a girl, or vice versa, but after you’ve done that you must conform to your gender role. If you don’t, you might end up in the Blight—the city that the government exiles non-conforming individuals to. I found this treatment fascinating because so often it seems like this is the limited tolerance of trans people that many so-called allies gently advocate for: yes, by all means, transition, but don’t make waves. Don’t be visibly trans. We don’t want to talk about benders.
Schmatz questions the usefulness of binaries. Kivali is special as a protagonist because her mysterious origins allow her the freedom to dream that she is something, anything, other than what she is. Kivali is an interesting protagonist because she lacks the pre-conceived notions of her own limitations that others like Sully have of themselves. This power allows her to grow and morph and rise to the occasion, even if it also makes her vulnerable to the subtle manipulations and machinations of Ms. Mischetti.
Mischetti is a wonderful antagonist, because she is truly committed to the cause. She believes that the fascism of SayFree is justified because it keeps the peace. She doesn’t always like what she has to do, but she believes in the greater good. These types of villains are often the best, for their self-righteousness creates the conditions of their own downfall even as they ruthlessly stand against the protagonist: there is no reasoning with Ms. Mischetti; she is a fanatic. (To be honest, the predictable reveal at the end—which I won’t spoil—did nothing for me. It rang very hollow and felt unnecessary, because Kivali and Mischetti were already so connected. Oh well.)
Lizard Radio feels disjointed in its narration and storytelling. I can only assume that was intentional. That being said, I still didn’t enjoy it that much, and it’s the main reason I’m not gushing over this book! It just wasn’t quite the style of narrative I wanted right now.