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Human Sister: A Philosophical Masterpiece

June 14, 2012 by Kiersi

"Human Sister" cover art

Human Sister by Jim Bainbridge

This book gets: ♥♥♥♥♥ out of 5

Human Sister, by Jim Bainbridge – I received an anonymous email a month back suggesting I pick up Jim Bainbridge’s Human Sister. Maybe it was providence, because I was just chewing on the idea that sci-fi could be the next big wave in young adult literature, and my mind was open and waiting for a book like this to come along.

Let me just put it this way: Human Sister is challenging. It is challenging in its ideas, in its themes, and in its style. The payoff, however, is huge, and makes Bainbridge’s long discussions of neuroscience and warfare and ethics worthwhile.

Sara is not the child her parents wanted. As some of the world’s leading android scientists, they spend their time developing and understanding androids, not human children; Sara is instead raised and schooled by her grandfather, the man responsible for conceiving the first android. But life in her grandfather’s bubble becomes lonely, so Sara’s parents create an android named First Brother. But young Sara is disturbed by First Brother’s emotional distance and insensitivity, and cannot bond with him.

Soon the androids come under political attack: the American religious right decries them as unnatural, as monstrosities, and they are criminalized. After Sara’s parents and their android children flee to Canada, Sara’s grandfather begins a new, top-secret project: Michael, an android who is part organic and part Sentiren, who will learn and grow from mental infancy to adulthood much as a human would. And Sara is tasked with raising him–of being his mother, his sister, and best friend, a monumental task to manage alongside her burgeoning attraction to her cousin Elio.

There are so many twists and curves and nuances in Bainbridge’s Human Sister that it’s quite impossible to capture it–even simply to capture it’s premise–in a few sentences. Sara’s narrative is framed as a reflection, a manuscript she is writing down while mysteriously sequestered in an underwater haven with Michael. This framework taints every forward step of Sara’s life with questions. I love this style of narration (when done right), as it allows dark foreshadowing and follows her story with a sense of impending doom.

I wouldn’t call the romance in Human Sister “fiery” or “explosive” or any of those other words one uses to describe YA books. The relationship between Sara and Elio simply emerges, naturally, and progresses in a fashion that makes the reader twinge with expectancy and sigh at the results. It meanders along just as everything else in this novel does–teasing, twisting, revealing more and more of itself like a woman peeling off layers of clothing, holding back the big cards until the end. Bainbridge’s craft is masterful: the plot, while never catapulting forward like it would in an action novel, is still gripping. The prose, while sometimes overly flowery (I say this literally, as Bainbridge’s most drawn-out descriptions are about flowers and plants) is obviously crafted with care. The depth of Bainbridge’s inquiry–what it means to be human, and the moral dilemmas that accompany artificial intelligence–lies at the heart of everything in Human Sister.

I’m giving Human Sister five hearts mainly because it should be read. Though the story’s forward momentum stumbles from time to time– characters have a habit of revealing feelings or describing events in page after page of back-and-forth dialogue–I found I didn’t mind these interludes as I read along. It feels as if it has been placed correctly in this novel; if long philosophical discussions between two immensely smart people were going to happen, this is the story where it would. Better yet, Bainbridge couches the difficult topics of sex, puberty, and love in the easily recognizable format of a coming-of-age tale.

I don’t want to spoil it for you, but this novel will leave you feeling like you just watched a European indie flick. Sad, but pondering; fulfilled, and yet wondering about the future.


  1. Sounds like a wonderful book, Kiersi, and a very nice review to boot! It almost makes me wonder if the distinction between “YA” and “adult” fiction means anything!

    • Kiersi says:

      Thank you, Helen! That is a really good point–one that I wish I’d included in this review. This book really does straddle that crossover space between young adult and adult books. Whew!

  2. Great review. I’ve heard sci-fi is making a big comeback in YA. I have one written, so I hope so. 🙂

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