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A Girl Raised in Isolation Stumbles on an Exit

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CLEO PORTER AND THE BODY ELECTRIC
By Jake Burt

Twelve-year-old Cleo Porter lives in an outlandish future dystopia. A mysterious virus has swept the earth, forcing society into what’s known as the Great Separation. Families isolate themselves in their apartments, try to proceed with a semblance of ordinary life via food delivery and virtual technology … oh, wait.

The amazing thing about “Cleo Porter and the Body Electric,” a new cyberthriller from Jake Burt (“Greetings From Witness Protection!”), is that the author — who completed his first draft more than a year before hints of a coronavirus pandemic — anticipated the conditions of 2020. It’s a madcap adventure, full of vivid characters and breathless drone chases, but it also raises philosophical questions about how societies respond to threats of infection.

Cleo, born in 2084, has known only pandemic life. In 2027, influenza D spread to humans from livestock and across the globe, mutating so rapidly scientists could find no solution short of eliminating human contact. So in 2037, the 55 million surviving residents of North America were settled in 300 vast “living structures” containing apartments connected by a network of drones and pneumatic tubes.

Cleo’s childhood seems happy and comfortable. Her teacher is the endearing, exasperated Ms. VAIN — short for Virtual Adaptive Instructional Network — who appears when Cleo logs on to her “scroll.” Cleo attends play dates with friends inside a module that simulates sunlight and the smells and sensations of a field of grass. “Given the effects of influenza D, I dare say it was a trade-off that people were willing to make,” Ms. VAIN tells her during an impromptu history lesson. The events that follow, beginning with the misdelivery of a lifesaving medicine, lead Cleo to question those trade-offs.

I won’t give away everything that happens (and a lot happens), but Cleo does manage to step into the outside world. She describes in detail the sensation of a real breeze, of a mosquito bite. And she meets humans living like frontier people. From one of them, she hears her first critique of the lockdown. “We could’ve spent all that money and precious, precious time coming together, searching for a cure,” says her new friend. “But we didn’t. Closed up and shut down instead, n’ let the world chew on us, one bite-size piece at a time.”

Cleo takes this in and later asks Ms. VAIN, whom she trusts more than anyone, “Aren’t we … trapped?” This is the tension at the center of the novel, bound to resonate with kids who, by now, have adjusted to their own Great Separation. Because we can live this way. Cleo is fine: Her bond with her parents is intense, undiluted by outside influences. She is powerfully drawn to the digital world, where virtual personalities seem real. She has aspirations, a future. By 2096, the human race is no longer eager to escape confinement.

“Cleo Porter and the Body Electric” provides a perfect jumping-off point for conversation, precisely because it’s lighthearted, full of kinetic chase scenes and character-actor drones. The book is not without flaws. But it’s a stroke of luck that Burt happened to wander down this imaginative alleyway two years before the nation went into lockdown. He has given children and their parents something they desperately need: a way of talking about where we are now.

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