Earth Girl by Janet Edwards

Earth Girl

A review by Nalini Haynes

four and a half stars four and a half stars out of five

Spoilers, sweetie

A couple of years ago I heard a podcast review Earth Girl. Jarra, the protagonist, is Handicapped so she can’t leave Earth at risk of anaphylactic shock and death. She wants to attend a non-Handicapped university so she enrols in Asgard University. One of the podcast reviewers squeed over Jarra being prejudiced against ‘normal’ people, omitting mention of all the other dynamics. A co-caster pointed out that, as Handicapped, Jarra didn’t even have the right to vote in human politics but this was brushed aside in the force of mainstream self-justification.

I wanted to read Earth Girl purely because it was a book about disability.

I started reading on Monday; I had half an hour before class when I should have been working on an assignment but instead I sat at a desktop magnifier to read this gorgeous hardcover volume. Within a few pages, Earth Girl had me hooked. I finished it today.

Jarra is Handicapped. Her parents abandoned her, leaving her to the foster system on Earth. She’s seen vids mocking Jarra’s kind, calling her ‘smelly ape’ and ‘nean’ (presumably short for Neanderthal). Segregation exists even on Earth, the home of the Handicapped, which is treated like a ‘group home’, keeping this discarded remnant of society out of sight and out of mind.

The system cares for the Handicapped far better than people with disabilities are cared for in contemporary society; Jarra describes this as ‘guilt money’. It’s nice to know that, in Janet Edwards’s version of the post-expansion era so popular in twentieth century science fiction, the remnants left on Earth have their basic needs met and even have careers guaranteed them if their chosen career is viable on Earth.

Jarra conveys her hatred of ‘normal’ humans clearly and with good cause, in the full knowledge that it is mainstream society that has declared her defective, unworthy of the vote and relatively powerless although well-provided for.

In some societies, people with schizophrenia are considered to be deeply spiritual; in these societies, these people are well-cared for by reverent communities. In contrast, people suffering from schizophrenia are deemed a burden on our society. If their illness cannot be managed effectively with minimal cost, they often end up homeless due to an inability to manage their lives. Definitions of disability depend on the mainstream, those in power. Defining who is disabled has immense destructive power, defining who is outcast.

My first school was a school ‘for the visually handicapped’. At age three I knew I was ‘handicapped’. I knew I had a disability but I didn’t think of myself as disabled until I lost my job after I asked – repeatedly – for disability access and was refused. What changed? Society told me I was disabled. Society told me I was a reject, unworthy of holding down a job for which I’d spent years studying, working towards. If I get another job, if I ever find an employer willing to employ me, a vision impaired person, then and only then will I cease to be disabled.

Earth Girl is Jarra’s journey from disabled to not disabled.

In the first half of the novel I cried. Not because the story was sad but because I felt that Edwards was, to some extent, telling my story. I felt that here was a protagonist with whom I could identify. I’m even shedding tears while writing this review.

Jarra attends an off-world university with an Earth-based campus, planning to fool everyone into thinking she’s human then shove it in their faces when they realise she’s Handicapped.

Racism and disability discrimination flourish more easily when the victim is a distant ‘other’ rather than your neighbour, your classmate, your friend.

Jarra learns that not all off-worlders are prejudiced. She even starts to like her classmates – well, most of them, anyway. Regretting the lies she’s told, Jarra starts working through her abandonment issues.

Here is where the novel goes pear-shaped.

Jarra invented a military background to conceal her Handicapped status. When she tries contacting her parents she finds – oh so conveniently – that she has a military background. This was too neat for plausibility but Edwards already had me hooked from about page two, or was it page one?

Contacting her parents, Jarra discovers a family who want a relationship with her.

Then her parents promptly die.

Jarra has a psychotic episode, believing the lies she’s told.

This is hugely problematic because Earth Girl is one of the few good books I’ve read with effective portrayal of disability that isn’t linked to

  1. being a villain
  2. a disabled person who is magical or
  3. a disabled person who is healed.

Instead Edwards uses the ‘insane disabled person’ trope. [Eyeroll]

The ramifications of these negative stereotypes are appalling.

I walk into Kmart.

“Can you tell me where the DVDs are please?”

“Read the sign.”

“I can’t, can you please tell me where the DVDs are?”

[Shop assistant or security takes a large step backwards to avoid contamination.]

Alternatively, people have talked really slowly to me, talked about me as if I’m not there, talked to my partner as Dark Matter’s editor instead of me and so on.

The disabled person with completely unrelated mental health issues trope undermines the positive protagonist-with-disability featured in Edwards’s creative narrative unravelling of the impact of disability discrimination in the first half of the novel. And yet, Earth Girl is still one of the few really good novels I’ve read featuring disability. I rank Earth Girl up there with Kit Whitfield’s Bareback. While I love and adore Black Sun Light My Way by Jo Spurrier – and love Spurrier’s portrayal of disability to bits – Spurrier’s Isidro (character with an acquired disability) is only one aspect of a much larger story featuring societal issues, women’s issues and more. (Hence my spruiking Spurrier’s book for the Norma K Hemming Award. Just sayin’.) Earth Girl is more focused on disability because it focuses on Jarra as storyteller rather than using a group of characters to tell a story.

There’s also romance, normal coming-of-age stuff and more. Just in case you’re interested.

Earth Girl is well-paced with a steady build up to the climax and a satisfying conclusion; a total of 262 pages. It reads like a stand-alone but there is a sequel (at least). I highly recommend Earth Girl to fans of post-expansionist science fiction, science fiction in general, Young Adult readers, those interested in sociology including disability issues and more.

I haven’t rated Earth Girl yet; I’m trying to decide whether I can give it 5 stars after my criticisms. That I’m having this internal debate says a lot.