I was excited for this, but Lily’s review says it all: you’ve read this book before (and you’ve probably read better versions of this book). The Diabolic is a YA-targeted mash-up of the aging and stagnant interstellar empire, a fish-out-of-water story, gene-hacking on overdrive, and of course, a romance (why does there always have to be a romance). S.J. Kincaid’s writing is slick and compelling; I definitely felt the need to keep reading. In the end, though, this is the book equivalent of eating candy.
Nemesis is the eponymous Diabolic in service to Sidonia—Donia as endearment—who is one of the heirs to a senator’s seat in the great Grandiloquy Senate of this galactic empire. The Emperor is displeased with her father’s political and social positions, so he summons Donia to the capital as a hostage. Nemesis gets sent in Donia’s place, to pose as her master and, if necessary, fall afoul of whatever merciless fate awaits her in the capital. Diabolics are genetically-engineered creatures who look human but are stronger, faster, better—except with none of that empathy and emotional stuff that makes baseline humans, you know, so weak. Nemesis has been programmed to care about one thing only: Donia’s survival. She won’t hesitate to kill anyone—even one of Donia’s family, or herself—who stands in the way of that.
This is genuinely an interesting premise, which is why I was so excited. I was looking forward to a story exploring female friendship and humanity in a science-fiction setting. The Diabolic sort of does this, but along the way it seems to get pretensions of being more clever of a story than it actually is. Still, I want to talk about the genetic engineering parts of this book.
First, phenotypical modification is rampant in this universe, at least among the elite. Anyone with the right money/rank can alter their appearance in any number of ways (though apparently arbitrarily changing one’s gender expression is frowned upon … because why?), both through biological/genetic modifications and technological enhancements like little bots that light your hair to make it look a slightly different colour. In this way, Kincaid demonstrates both the technological prowess of this once-great civilization as well as its descent into inanity.
Second, it’s unclear if genotypical modification is the order of the day for the Grandiloquy—certainly they don’t frown on doing it for creatures, be they Diabolics or fighting animals that are the genetic mash-ups of old Earth beasts. But do they modify their own children to make them faster, strong, better? For the matter, in a society so immersed in gene-tinkering, I’m not sure why they have such a hard time making planets more habitable. Genetically engineer some bacteria to help you terraform, modify your crops, modify yourselves … voilà. Similarly, one would think that an emperor as bent on being a despot tyrant of the Excess as this one would have considered simply engineering a more docile population…. I mean, they did that with the Servitors after all.
Kincaid avoids having to get into all this somewhat with the Helionic diktat against scientific research, which would explain the lack of innovation, etc. I found this part of the story as boring as I did the genetic engineering intriguing, if only because we’ve seen the “religion vs. science as a proxy for conservativism vs progressivism” for a long time. The Diabolic misses out on a chance to approach the issue with more nuance. Kincaid creates all these opportunities to engage in the harm that science, unchecked by any moral concerns, can do—Nemesis herself, and her reaction to the creature-fighting, is a prime example of this. Yet the story instead focuses mostly on more simplistic ideas.
My gut reaction to the beginning of the story, which details Nemesis’ upbringing and forcible programmed devotion to Donia, was interesting. I had a visceral disgust for what was happening. It made me think, basically, of how our increasing knowledge of the human brain is leading us towards all these possible convergences of Not Good™ meat-hacking. It doesn’t matter if it’s through brain-computer interfaces, gene-tampering, whatever—The Diabolic is just the latest in a long line of books to remind me that we’re so close, as a species, to stepping over the precipice and being done.
Sorry if that’s depressing, but I want to put that out there.
And, really, Nemesis and maybe Neveni might be the only people in this book who seem like they have any kind of claim to being quote-unquote good enough to be our protagonists? Everyone else is a pretty empty, amoral being. I know Nemesis is technically supposed to be amoral, but her whole character arc is one of pseudo-redemption/acquisition of a soul as a reward for her loyal service. And Neveni has a backbone. I don’t care about any of the other Grandiloquy characters, not even the love interest who is supposed to save them all with Nemesis’ help.
This character’s role as a love interest is so problematic. It’s yet another rendition of the “I will teach you how to love” sci-fi trope, where an older male figure stirs up passion in a young woman questioning her humanity, and her awakening romantic and/or sexual attraction is an essential component of realizing she is actually human too. I am all for Nemesis learning to be human and, if she chooses, embarking in relationships. But it’s not too much to (a) want to avoid using romantic/sexual relationships as a shorthand for “you are more human” and (b) ask for healthy relationships between equals, not a relationship between you and someone who shoves control electrodes into your skull.
The Diabolic has such potential. Kincaid lavishly sets a scene early on; I love the way she builds up the world with the perfect balance of exposition. Nevertheless, there’s a lot in here that I wish had been different. In rushing headlong into so many neat ideas from science fiction, this book also manages to fall into a lot of the same traps earlier versions of these stories have. It’s fun to read, but it didn’t wow me.