Cycler has an inventive premise: for most of every month Jill McTeague is a more-or-less normal teenage girl, but for four days she physically turns into a male. (The novel doesn’t explicitly deal with how this came about, although it drops some clues. I suspect McLaughlin will address it directly in a future volume*.) Jill manages to induce a sort of split personality disorder with a meditation technique; as a result her boy-self develops a distinct persona, who inevitably christens himself “Jack.”
The novel unspools in dual, snappy, first-person, present-tense narratives. Jill’s story initially seems like it’s going to follow a standard “who do I go to the prom with?” teen romance line, but gradually veers off the rails. Jack’s story starts pretty far off the rails and only gets weirder. It gradually dawns on the reader that the situation is even more messed up than it at first seems. Jill’s mother, despite being in a nominally heterosexual marriage, seems to think she’s in a Joanna Russ novel. She’s completely unwilling to engage with Jack as a human being, but comfortable purchasing pornography to help him purge his male desires.
I was intrigued by Cycler not only because of the unusual central plot device, but also because discussion of it was so polarized. Some folks whose recommendations I take account of, like author Scott Westerfeld, praised it, but I also saw criticism of it for reinforcing sex role stereotypes.
One possible reading of Jill-Jack’s serial hermaphroditism would be as a metaphor for Jill’s discomfort with her feelings of homosexual desire. If you start from this interpretation, the book is implicitly homophobic: Jill’s gay desires are “normalized” by the fact that she’s physically male when she’s (consciously) experiencing them. I think this interpretation is incorrect (or perhaps partly correct, but insufficient). Jill struggles a bit with non-heterosexual feelings in the book, but the novel affords other opportunities for that struggle besides her own duality; the novel itself doesn’t strike me as homophobic.
Another question is whether Jack is too extreme a characterization of adolescent male desire; I didn’t think so. Jack has four days to undergo a month’s worth of teen hormonal churn and he’s effectively isolated from normal society — it’s not surprising that he’s somewhat unbalanced.
I love that the second part of this novel is titled (Re)Cycler, and definitely look forward to reading it when I get through my current library stack.
* insert the same tired rant about how this really is not a complete standalone novel, and doesn’t adequately label itself as an incomplete work. I realize that this is a sad reality of modern publishing, but it still sucks.
needs more demons? no.