Spare and Found Parts | Sarah Maria Griffin
There are three rules:
1. The sick in the Pale, the healed in the Pasture.
2. Contribute, at all cost.
3. All code is blasphemy.
Spare and Found Parts is set in Blackwater City in a future where almost all technology has been wiped out and the citizens have been hit by an epidemic, resulting in the loss of body parts. Nell Crane has a ticking mechanism in place of her heart and she is approaching the age where she must make her contribution to the city and its future. Being the daughter of two of the greatest contributors; the marvellous Julian Crane who created the augmented limbs that citizens rely on to replace their missing parts and the late Cora Crane who designed the great statue that is still being built in the city, Nell has big shoes to fill. So when she discovers a mannequin hand, the seed of an idea forms in Nell’s mind: she’ll build a person. But the rules that disallow code and technology mean that what she’s doing is monstrous.
This book has a really interesting premise. By setting up a world in which artificial intelligence is not only taboo but blasphemous, there is a strange fear of technology and innovation, a dichotomy that’s normally found in older fiction. It gave the book Frankenstein-esque vibes which I really loved. I found the first half of the book far more compelling than the second however. The world-building and set up is great; the so-called greed for knowledge is said to have caused the epidemic that has left its citizens devastated and isolated from the rest of the world. In the first half of the book, the reader can explore the world and its limitations and although (in my mind at least) there was no question of whether Nell would be able to create another person, but rather how.
The first half also explores Nell’s deep sense of not fitting in. She doesn’t like to be touched, she is asocial and she has a long scar from her chin to her sternum: a permanent reminder that her heart has been replaced. Her sense of not belonging and wanting to have someone who understands her, appeals to the most basic of human needs. Griffin also uses second person narrative throughout the book to put you inside Nell’s mind in a way that is really unique. It is a little jarring at first but is used sparingly enough to really get the reader into Nell’s head. And as the date of Nell’s contribution approaches there is an urgency for her to create her person.
The second half of the book opens at the point at which her android (for the most accurate term) successfully wakes. This half felt a little disappointing in comparison. Nell’s success seems undeserved and unlikely, given her limited understanding of and access to computers and her complete lack of knowledge on code. There was no sense of Nell having to work hard to understand how artificial intelligence works and, unlike Frankenstein, there is no deeper exploration of what it means to be alive or human. Having said that, there is a LOT happening in the second half of the book; there are lots of interesting plot points and the ending is satisfying, for the most part.
Nell’s character was a refreshing read. She’s explicitly described as having brown skin and she’s bisexual, clearly having a bit of a crush on a girl but wanting to build a boy. There’s a lot of character growth in the book for both Nell as a protagonist as well as her best friend Ruby and Oliver Kelly, the boy everyone expects her to settle for. Nell’s father is the epitome of the mad scientist, often distracted, locked up in his lab but rather understanding of the need to sometimes defy expectations in order to progress. Nell’s grandmother, despite appearing very briefly, lurks on the edges of Nell’s world, threatening to sweep her away to the Pasture (with good intentions). A small but definitively painted cast of characters.
Overall, it was a good book. It’s well-written and quite imaginative. I think the characters are strong and the plot is solid. It just fell a bit short of expectations towards the end and in the last thirty pages or so there’s a plot reveal that ruined the ending a little bit for me. SPOILER (highlight to read) my biggest complaint is when Nell discovers her mother’s old journals. She finds out that it was Cora who created the augmented limbs, not Julian and he has just taken credit for her work. Nell’s father then tries to steal her work too and when she confronts him, does a complete 180. He sneers and rages and becomes the villain of the book. Yes, he’s a bit of an absent father up until Nell is about to create the android, and yeah, when he borrows all of Nell’s drawings, the reader is made to feel a little wary of this but his change in character is unrealistic. It felt a bit lazy and turned him into a one-dimensional caricature of a mad scientist than a complicated character.