Friday, January 3, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Aya Fuse (Extras)

Extras is a weird little book. Well, clocking in at about four hundred pages, maybe "little" isn't the right word. Rather, Extras is a weird, finite book. Rather than covering a sweeping governmental change, the revolution of life as we know it, or even a grand and epic romance, it's about a girl, a misunderstanding, and the future. Oh, and also space travel. On second though, maybe this book isn't very finite after all?

The weirdness of Extras largely stems from its position in the series. Coming at the tail end of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy, Extras is a sort of coda, a quick story that takes place a few years after the trilogy wraps up and serves to show us how the world turns out post-revolution, as well as give us a bit more closure on some of the lingering plot points. Instead of focusing on Tally now, we're introduced to a whole host of new characters - starting with Aya Fuse, our protagonist, and a delightful foil to the ever sure Tally Youngblood.

But rather than follow the usual YA dystopian fantasy pattern, where a strong-headed girl fights against the power of the state so that she has the right to choose between her two equally attractive love interests, Extras takes place in a world after the revolution. It's over. We won. The world is embracing a cultural renaissance. People are happy, or at least engaged, and living their own lives now. Our heroine from the previous books is off in the wilderness somewhere, but she is celebrated as one of the greatest political figures of the times. The world has already changed.

And Aya, the lead character here, isn't much of a world changer. Not some rebel leader or even an accidentally special girl, Aya is a kicker, or blogger. She makes videos about interesting things she finds around the city. She's a journalist. She has a big nose. Her brother is way more famous than she is, and she's constantly agonizing about her popularity levels.

[As a side note, this world does have one of the more interesting ideas about how money would work in a post-revolution society: namely, that money is based on "face-status", or how famous you are. The more popular you are, the more people are talking about you, the more resources you can requisition. Sort of like reddit karma, or whuffie from Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. An interesting system, though a problematic one.]

Anyway, the story starts when Aya Fuse, low level kicker, starts to investigate a story about the "Sly Girls", a supposed clique of teenage girls who all, contrary to the general inclination, want to be as unknown as possible. And yet these girls do things that would make anyone famous. They magnet surf on the bullet trains that still tow freight around Japan, and they pull daring stunts, and they generally do ridiculous things, but without telling anyone. Aya thinks this is fascinating. She also thinks that she would like to tell everyone about this, and as soon as possible.

But in the process of going undercover and becoming a sly girl and spying on them, Aya discovers something a bit more sinister: underground bunkers and missile silos and giant hunks of smart matter that seem suspiciously like bombs. It all looks pretty terrifying. And that's without even mentioning the creatures - terrifying, spindly figures with hands for feet and giant round eyes and just generally something out of our nightmares.

I don't want to get too much into the details of the book, because I think it's one that you all would enjoy quite a lot, but I do want to talk about Aya, and why she's an important character to have around. You see, Aya is in a lot of ways like Tally, but in more important ways, she isn't. Aya is not the type of girl who will accidentally cause a revolution. She's not particularly brave, or strong-willed, or even really very daring. She'll go pretty far for a story, but she'll also chicken out at the last second. She wants to be famous more than anything in the world. She lies. She's kind of a bad person sometimes. And you know what?

That's great.

I love Aya because she's the person we all usually are while we're waiting for a Tally Youngblood to show up and save us. Aya doesn't have it all figured out. She isn't all that special. She's just a girl in the right place at the wrong time, and she doesn't know how to deal with all that. She hates hiking through the wilderness. She has no survival instinct, no killer instinct. She's pretty awful at this saving the world thing.

But here's the important part: that doesn't mean she's not important. And it certainly doesn't mean she's not a strong female character. 

So what if Aya really loves pretty dresses and kissing her boyfriend and being happy. There is nothing objectively wrong with those things. She's not Tally. In fact, one of the funnier moments in the book comes when Aya meets Tally, and the two of them recoil in mutual horror. They are very, very different people, and that's more than just good. That's awesome.

I related more easily to Aya, because she is a kicker and I'm a blogger and all that, but also because Aya does exactly what I would do if I found out that the fate of the world very possibly rested on my shoulders. She freaks out. She cries. She lies a bit. Actually she lies a lot. 

And that's all very human and messy, but you know what? It doesn't make Aya any less important that she's riddled with flaws and mistakes and awkwardness. That's not a bad thing. We're all messy weirdos inside. Aya is strong because she uses her messy weirdness for good. Tally is strong because she's the specialest special to ever special. We need them both.

There is no one way to go about being feminist, or strong, or good. There is no one way to save the world. In fact, there must be more than one. If we deny that any other path than our own is worthy, then we block out the equality and change we hope to bring. So Aya can be a fame-obsessed teenager, and Tally can be a survivalist eating tree-bark, and they can both bring about change.

That's not a bug, that's a feature.