Malinda Lo’s young adult novel Adaptation starts with a bang: “The birds plummeted to the tarmac, wings loose and limp. They struck the ground with such force that their bodies smashed into dark slicks on the concrete” (7). This eerie scene foreshadows the catastrophic event that sets the plot of Adaptation into motion: All over the world, large flocks of birds smash into airplanes and cause them to crash. This event – known as the “June Disaster” – has devastating effects, not only for humanity, as the ensuing chaos leads to social riots, but particularly for the bird population. Since scientists are unable to find the reason for the birds’ behaviour, the American government decides to kill a considerable number of wild birds to assuage public fears. Towards the end of the book, the two teenage protagonists Reese and David finally manage to uncover the truth behind the June Disaster: in a secret government facility, scientists have genetically modified birds with extraterrestrial DNA with the intent to weaponize them as biological surveillance tools. In a turn of events that at first glance look like retributive justice, modified birds released for a test run team up with their non-modified fellows to attack airplanes leading to the June Disaster. In contrast to other popular animal horror stories such as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic The Birds, Lo’s novels provide a clear explanation for the bird attacks and locate the responsibility for the disaster firmly in the human sphere, as unethical scientific experimentation on animals has led to the catastrophe.
This blog post will focus on how Lo’s duology represents the birds’ capacities for developing and enacting agency and think about the implications of such a representation. This is only one of many interesting aspects in those novels and if you’d like to read more about human genetic modification and queerness in the books, check out Lara Hedberg’s article on “Queer Posthuman Possibility in Malinda Lo’s Adaptation”! Now, let’s get back to the birds: First, the birds are shown to be victims of members of the human species who consider them as nothing more than resources to be exploited. In Lo’s novels, military, scientific and economic interests come together to facilitate the (ab)use of birds as tools for surveillance. Symptomatic for the scientists’ hybris is their assumption that by increasing the birds’ intelligence, they would be able to train them to obey complex commands. This association of higher intelligence with obedience is an expression of anthropocentrism: while obedience in animals is often considered to be a sign of intelligence by humans (just think of service animals), the opposite is true for humans where unconditional obedience tends to be regarded as mentally lazy. This underestimation of non-human intelligence then leads to the June Disaster which can be read as nature striking back against humanity. Although the exact reasoning behind the modified birds’ decision to attack airplanes remains unclear, it is easy to imagine it as an act of revenge against the human invaders of their living space. However, the consequences of the birds’ wielding of their newly gained power are dire for all avian species: to satisfy the human desire for retaliation, uninvolved birds are killed indiscriminately. The birds have become victims of humanity again and their killing appears justified to many humans, until the truth behind the June Disaster is finally revealed at the end of Inheritance, the second book in the series.
The duology clearly shows that such revenge-driven approaches always result in suffering for everyone involved. With the extraterrestrial (anthropomorphic)1 species of the Imria, the books present an alternative to hierarchical relationships between species. The alien Imria are equipped with a special ability that allows them to share their consciousness with each other. This focus on mutual understanding and their emphasis on the interconnectedness of all life forms led them to establish a society that is less hierarchical and less speciesist than human culture. That this awareness of multispecies entanglements and of the necessity to respect all living beings needs to be brought to Earth by an external force (the extra-terrestrial Imria) seems indicative of a certain pessimism concerning humanity’s potential to improve on their own. Whereas many characters in the novels, particularly the teenage protagonists, are open for change, the greatest threat for humanity is posed not by aggressive genetically modified birds or an alien invasion, but rather by unethical scientific practices, corporate greed and the military-industrial complex. By the end of the duology’s final instalment, those responsible for the June Disaster are convicted by a court of law and the establishment of diplomatic relations between humanity and the alien Imria leaves readers with a hopeful note. Thus, the bird incident at the beginning of the duology sets the stage for a plot that invites readers to re-think their place in the world and to ponder the question of how to advocate for more multispecies justice (even without extra-terrestrial intervention).
 In Inheritance, the Imria reveal that they actually intervened in evolutionary processes to create humanity in their image, so technically the Imria are not anthropomorphic, but humans are “Imriamorphic”.
Dr Alena Cicholewski teaches at the Institute for English and American Studies at the University of Oldenburg (Germany), where she completed her PhD in English literature in 2020. She is currently developing a new research project that focuses on representations of interspecies kinship in 21st century North American young adult fiction. Alena is particularly interested in exploring how recent adolescent literature presents collaborative relationships between human and non-human entities as an alternative to hierarchical, anthropocentric concepts of human/non-human encounters. Alena suggests that the selected novels dehierarchize the relationship between human and non-human beings and destabilize the boundaries between human and non-human forms of life.
Alena’s general research interests include, but are not limited to, young adult literature, graphic novels, and postcolonial science fiction. She has presented her research at multiple national and international conferences and has published articles in academic journals such as Jeunesse, SFRA Review or COPAS.