“Polymorph” is a HELL of a drug. You might even say it was a…transformative read… This book is a thrill ride of erotica, post-apoc, and espionage. The story follows Lee, a person capable of changing her appearance at will based on anything she can imagine. These changes include superficial, musculoskeletal, and physiological. For the most part she uses her gift of anonymity to spice up her dating life, but this tale follows her having to utilize it to stop the only other polymorph she’s ever encountered. A villain who while they are not particularly villainous, is such a massive douche that you just want them to get their comeuppance. This review is laced with spoilers and talking points, so if you are considering tracking down this out of print treasure, please be aware.
I will preface this particular essay with a warning that this book was written in the mid-nineties. The language used in the book is NOT a representation of the current character of the author Scott Westerfeld, and does not represent his feelings towards any particular marginalized groups or those that fall into them. The language wasn’t really seen as inappropriate at the time, especially by people on the edgier side of thinking. That being said, I will omit the language from my personal sentiments of the book, but will keep it in place if quoting the text. This is also your fair warning that this book contains several fairly detailed sex scenes, and at least one graphic depiction of rape. The rape is plot-relevant, however. There are also elements of gore and body horror in play.
This book is a really cool specimen because not only is this Westerfeld’s first published work, it also scratched a very latent itch in my soul for the old-fashioned wordy sci-fi that our parents bought us by the milk crate at yard sales twenty years ago. It is equal parts futuristic and tired of the banality of the landscape the characters live in, and it really captures the essence of a feeling of embitterment about your home. I also found the handling of the gender fluidity of the protagonist and antagonist extremely progressive given this novel’s age. The author seamlessly switches between pronouns as Lee shifts into a male form during the second act of the story, and seamlessly back when he returns to Lee.
The amount of research put into the tech of this story is also fascinating. Lee, tired of merely copying things on the streets has at some point found her way into college in order to steal data disks of anatomy and physiology in order to give herself strange and new mutations, as well as experiment with the absolute limits of human tissues. I’ll admit that this particular attribute of hers gave me extreme echoes of the popular Youtube series “Monster Factory”, which really helped me picture the mutations Lee comes up with. There is also fairly accurate handling of old BBS message boards integrated with the not too distant technologies of VR and AR. It was like a time capsule of things that I was just too young to interact with.
Westerfeld also does a stunning job with giving polymorphism rules. Rules that we are introduced to at the same rate the protagonist is, with Lee’s understanding deepening throughout the narrative and a lovely passive growth. In the beginning of the story, Lee uses her powers while on a one night stand with recurring character Freddie to integrate her nervous tissue with his, and completely erase his carpal tunnel syndrome. For no other reason than to see if she could do it. This whole scene is painted against the backdrop of particularly erotic descriptions of their tryst, yet another staple of those old, yellowed yard sale novels mentioned above.
Lee lets on very early on that she enjoys picking body shapes and mutations that garner attention but just enough to cause someone to glance twice. She introduces her polymorphy to us by mutating her hands into a pair of gnarled claws which become her calling card of sorts. We are also treated to the gory details (literally) of Lee’s transformation into Milica, in which her entire physiology changes from female to male. The descriptions are equal parts scientific and something straight out of Hannibal. She also changes her skin color as well as giving herself the illusion of facial hair and scarification to match her character.
Much later in the narrative as Lee is tracking Bonita/o, we learn that Polymorphs are also capable of rearranging their organs and using this talent to defy death. Through journals kept by Bonita/o we find out that as an adolescent he took great joy in rearranging himself and causing himself extreme trauma just to see if he could recover from it and beat death. Following their final scuffle where Lee absorbs part of Bonita/o’s tissue, Lee is also able to do this.
The depictions of New York are also a staple of Westerfeld’s work. He seems particularly fond of the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, as it is referenced nearly a decade later in “So Yesterday” as well. He does a spectacular job of putting a face to a landscape ravaged by years of crumbling and being band-aided, something not usually done in the genre, and extremely welcome. Being able to pull up the neighborhoods on a map, or even a wiki about the places and events adds a tinge of relatability to the content and keeps you from forming your own mental holodeck.
This book was actually kind of spectacular. It suffers greatly from pacing issues that were standard in the genre, but makes up for it in vivid detail and easy to imagine storytelling. Characters who were meant to be mysterious unfolded slowly before us, and I never once felt like the narrator was “keeping something” from me. The story had a meandering way of getting there, but it had a clearly defined beginning and ending. And Bonita/o still got what he deserved, because he was a raging douche canoe.