In any society, the idea of what constitutes “normal” is completely arbitrary—a thin veneer of consensus under which human beings operate, perhaps in order to feel safe and included, mutating with the influx of fads that come and go as well more substantive changes often brought about through protest and strife. The only constant is this: What is deemed not “normal” is feared, excluded, and in extreme cases, terminated.
America has been trying to redefine normal since its inception. The news is rife with stories of protests for equal rights for women, for people of color, for the LGBTQ, for the disabled. These movements are met with counter-protests from groups with a much narrower definition of what society should look like. Hate of the other is inspired by fear of what’s different and unknown. We all know how this story goes. How it will continue to go.
Bob Proehl’s sophomore novel The Nobody People, his first work of overt science fiction, frames the concepts of “normal” and “other” in terms we are also familiar with: namely, superheroes (speaking of fads). But this is not just another superhero pastiche—while the basic concepts outlined within lean heavily on the mythos of othered heroes like the X-Men, the emphasis on character development takes this story to a much deeper level—progress begins with empathy, after all.
Carrie Norris just wants someone to notice her, to be appreciated and loved, but it’s hard to be noticed when your method for coping for anxiety is to literally disappear. Carrie is a Resonant—the name given to those extranormal individuals who represent a new step in human evolution—and she’s not alone. There are thousands of people like her, with secret, abilities beyond what “normal” humans are able to do. The Nobody People is, on one level, Carrie’s coming-of-age story, picking up as she finishes her last year at the Bishop Academy, a school for students who are similarly “gifted and talented.” She’s caught up in a lot more than she bargained for when the adult leaders of the school decide that it’s time for Resonants to go public. Whether they like it or not—or are ready for it at all—Carrie and all of the other Resonant kids will soon be fighting a war for their basic human rights.
The method of their outing comes via a highly publicized profile piece written by Avi Hirsch, a war correspondent doing the best he can to raise his daughter in a world where the fact of her biracial heritage marks her physically as an outsider. At the same time, he’s also contending with his new status as disabled, having lost part of his leg in an IED explosion in Iraq. In his work, he chases danger like a junkie chases his next high, so after languishing for months due to his injury, he grabs at the chance to undertake another thrilling investigation after a contact at Homeland Security offers him exclusive intel on a recent church bombing nearby. What looks like a run-of-the-mill hate crime decidedly isn’t: in fact, there wasn’t a bomb at all. Evidence of something impossible at work is almost too much for Hirsch to take, but it turns out that he’s the perfect reporter for the story, because back at home, his daughter Emmeline is a little bit impossible too.
Fahima Deeb, a professor at the Bishop Academy, is one of a small handful of confidants of Kevin Bishop, the founder of the school and one of the oldest known Resonants. She deeply understands the conflict between wanting to live according to your ideals and fearing reprisals from the wider world: as a Muslim woman in a queer relationship, she’s worn her otherness on the outside more than many of the other Resonants who can simply pass as “normal” if they choose to. Fahima can’t change the color of her skin. She knows very deeply what it means to be feared and hated for being who she is. And she’ll use her Resonant ability—to engineer and construct any machine she can conceive of—to further the cause of Resonants fighting for equality. The choices she makes will effect the lives of thousands of people across the nation.
What is the proper response to the existence of bigotry and hate? Is it peaceful resistance, or is more militant acton necessary? These are impossible questions, but The Nobody People is a daring attempt to answer them, a parable with a science fictional sheen. Though it doesn’t offer easy answers, it succeeds quite well at evoking empathy on a deep level for its characters, and making us care a great deal about where there choices will leave them. With some strings of the plot left dangling, it’s a relief to know that a sequel is coming.