Cleo Porter and the Body Electric by Jake Burt, 288 pp, RL 4


Cleo Porter and the Body Electric

 by Jake Burt

Cover art by Brian Edward Miller

Review Copy from Fewiel & Friends

A pandemic has changed everything about the way we live in this fast paced, thoughtful story about one girl's decision to break all the rules to save the life of someone she doesn't know. 

It's 2096 and twelve-year-old Cleo Porter is living a sterile, singular life in a post-pandemic world where everything you need is delivered to you by a drone through a tube in your kitchen. Her teacher and lifelong, constant companion is a computer program named Ms. VAIN (Virtual Adaptive Instructional Network) and she is studying for the first in a series of major exams that will ensure her a career as a drone surgeon, just like her mother. With loving parents (her father is a kind of coding-botanist with his own mini-greenhouse, writing programs that let the shut-in population experience the natural world) Cleo is every bit the bright, well adjusted child living happily within her severely limited physical world, thanks to an expansive virtual world. But, there is something special about Cleo, and that is clear even before she makes the shocking decision to leave her home to deliver lifesaving medicine to an unknown neighbor when is mistakenly delivered to her address.

Mistakes never happen in Cleo's world - Ms. VAIN and her parents tell her that repeatedly as she tries to unravel the mystery of the medicine. When she doesn't get the answers her curious mind demands, Cleo packs the medicine and her most valuable belongings (her silky blanket, her study skull, and Ms. VAIN) into a pillowcase and crawls out the tube and into the bowels of the mega-massive complex she lives in. In this case, "bowls" is the perfect word to use as Cleo, ever the medical student, begins to see the inner workings of the building (and the many various drones functioning inside of it) like the circulatory system of humans. Seen as an invader by the drones, Cleo's life is in danger at every move as she works to find a way to reach Miriam Wendemore-Adisa, the intended recipient of the medicine. Cleo's internal experience in the system that keeps her fed, clothed, housed and free from infection ultimately reveals information that proves even more surprising than why the package of medicine intended for someone else ended up in her hands. While I won't reveal any details here, I can tell you that the climactic ending is very satisfying.

For the last few months, I have been wondering how writers will be inspired to write about the pandemic we are now living through (the President is being flown to Walter Reed Hospital after testing positive for the virus as I write) which is why I was deeply intrigued and excited when I read the blurb for Cleo Porter and the Body Electric. While Burt's book was inspired by time living in China during the 2003 SARS virus outbreak - and was at the printer well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit - I do consider it at the forefront of what I am sure will become a genre, or at least a subset of the genre of dystopian novel - the pandemic story (new label here!) There is so much to enjoy and reflect on in Burt's story, and I think it will only get better with time. This is definitely a book that teachers should consider reading out loud (over Zoom) to their students right now - there is much to discuss, from the need to begin training doctors as children in this new world to matters of equity and empathy. I can't wait to hear what you have to say about it, and to give more titles this new label!

Cleo and her parents are White.

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