Number 17, The Underground...Aaaaaaand GO!
Short opinion: My hat is off to K.A. Applegate for being maybe the only author on the planet capable of taking a story about teenage superheroes fighting aliens with the power of oatmeal… and making it into a surprisingly serious debate about the morality of chemical warfare.
As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of what I love about this book is the fact that it refuses to be simple comedy even though it has a nearly-perfect comedy setup. The idea of super-powerful aliens being taken down by otherwise harmless Earth substances is oftentimes played for laughs in other works of sci fi, and the fact that these are teenagers debating about oatmeal adds a whole other layer of ridiculousness to it… But although Applegate acknowledges the humor of the premise in several moments (Jake bemoaning the fact that this battle was destined to end in silliness, Rachel repeating “it’s oatmeal!” six or seven times in a row, etc.) the implications of the premise are distinctly not funny for large parts of this book.
Because this is one of those moments where the Animorphs have a crystal-clear decision between two choices, one of which is probably the right thing to do and the other of which is definitely the easy thing to do. The easy decision would be simply to dump oatmeal in their town’s water main or otherwise ensure that most of the humans would end up eating it, and then pick the partially-freed controllers from the people who just had some weird-tasting water and start getting information from them. Easy would be starting out by poisoning Tom with the oatmeal (since Jake has access to his food supply) and then using whatever advice he can give them to figure out how to poison as many other controllers as possible. Probably the right thing but honestly we’re not sure is spending A FREAKING WEEK tunneling slowly down to the yeerk pool in order to try and poison the yeerks directly, and even then only doing it as a last resort. Probably the right thing is doing everything in the Animorphs’ power to avoid harming the hosts, even when doing so nearly gets them killed. Probably the right thing means continuing to fight back with a minimal possible number of casualties.
Part of what’s so great about the way that the Animorphs reach the decision to go through the huge pain in the butt (and screaming terror, for that matter) of delivering the oatmeal to the yeerk pool in person is the understanding that, no matter how many times Rachel repeats “It’s just oatmeal,” it’s not just oatmeal (#17). According to Marco, “We have green kryptonite here… They’re yeerks. They’re the enemy.” and therefore the oatmeal is destined to be their super-weapon. The way Tobias sees it, “A drug is in the eye of the beholder… If you get addicted to the oatmeal and it messes you up…” and they’d be taking away the autonomy of the yeerks through fighting dirty with chemical warfare. Ax, meanwhile, asks my favorite question: “What about the hosts?”
This debate has a very existential kind of cynicism to it, asking multiple times: if we take oatmeal out of its original context, what does it actually mean? If we choose to interpret it as a chemical weapon (the way Marco and Ax clearly do) then does that make our decision to use it immoral by default? If we choose to see it as a drug (the way Tobias does) then what does that make us if we force people to become addicted? If it is just oatmeal, the way Rachel wants to see it, then does that make using it automatically okay?
Largely unrelated aside: it also fascinates me how much Jake and Cassie aren’t involved in this book. They both largely abstain from the debate about how and whether to use the oatmeal, which Rachel notes is uncharacteristic for them both, and although everyone respects Jake’s right to make the final call on Tom, the issue of whether to use the oatmeal at all gets made largely without his input. We also know why they both seem to be largely along for the ride in this book, because #17 repeatedly harkens back to the events of #16. When they’re all running around as roaches nearly getting squashed after they break out of their banana crate, Jake freaks out more than anyone else and also brings up having been squashed as a fly and mostly-killed in #16. During the earlier debate about how to get into the mental hospital, they discuss the fact that this should be a piece of cake compared to the disastrophe at Joe Bob Finestre’s house (#16), and they only see poor George Edelman try to kill himself because everyone convinces Jake that after last mission they really really need a vacation. Cassie pretty much explicitly says that the reason she’s abstaining from the oatmeal-morality discussion is that she’s really not sure what’s right or wrong anymore, given that she not only tried to commit murder in (relatively) cold blood last book, but also tried to use Jake as her means of doing so. We can see the impact that this war is having on the kids, because both Jake and Cassie have this attitude of not even knowing who they are anymore, much less being able to trust themselves.
Speaking of the impact of war on identity, one of the more fascinating motifs in this story is just how much time Rachel spends interrogating her own roles. She’s not really one for self-reflection, at least not compared to Tobias or Jake, and so it’s striking that she does stop and take a moment to reflect on her place within her team and within her family at several points in this book. Just before they’re about to go into the yeerk pool, she thinks “Everyone in a group has a role to play. At least that’s how it always works out. My role was to say, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s go. That’s what we came here for.’ But I was tired. And I’d had a really, really bad few days digging down to this stupid cave… So I said, «Let’s do it. That’s what we came here for.»” Rachel understands that in many ways the team needs her to be brave and gung-ho, because she’s the force dragging them forward, toward danger and also toward victory. When none of them want to be the first to tunnel down as moles, she volunteers without (outward) hesitation. When they reach the cave filled with bats and end up forced to demorph down there, she emphasizes that this is a good thing. When everyone is exhausted and cornered in the yeerk pool, she becomes the one to get them off their butts and toward an exit plan. When everyone else is too wiped out and traumatized from the battle to worry about tying up loose ends, she becomes the one to go make sure George Edelman’s still going to be okay.
Because it’s what she does. Because she’s Xena. Because she has to be, even though this book opens up with her looking down at Lucy Lawless and realizing that they’re both just acting as Xena, because there’s no such thing as Xena, because when people look at her and see Xena they’re inevitably projecting something that’s not real. However, as Rachel says, “sometimes it’s hard to get out of a role once you’ve started playing the part” (#17). She’s genuinely not sure who she is, if not Xena.
Although that’s not the only role she plays. This book also has several moments with Rachel at home, where we see her in a different role entirely. Rachel is not, perhaps, doing as well as Marco or Jake at playing the role of an ordinary civilian. It’s not often that we see PTSD come out in the form of hypervigilance or impulsivity in fiction, but we do see it a lot in this particular series with Rachel. She yells at Jordan for throwing out her rotting leftovers, snaps at her mom for expecting her to be an ordinary teenager, and generally behaves as though she doesn’t have time for her family at all. We as the reader understand why Rachel’s on such a hair-trigger, given the kind of week (month, year) she’s had at the time, but Naomi still has every right to be worried and Jordan still has every right to be annoyed. They’re not seeing Rachel’s internal justification for her willingness to blow up at anyone who so much as looks at her wrong; they’re just seeing the explosions. And Rachel understands on some level that she’s failing in the role of sister-and-daughter. That she should have priorities outside of the war, but that she’s dropping the ball on most of them.
The series seems to have another mini-motif in this cycle of books, given how much role interrogation the other four do in the surrounding novels. If the early 30’s are all about the Animorphs alone, the late teens are about role-reflection and the realization that the role of Child Whom Parents Care For is now officially out of reach. #16, as I mentioned, is all about Jake trying to figure out who a leader is, what a leader does, and how he can play the part of The Great Man From History while also being a good friend; the entire book goes back and forth between that idea and the domestic scenes where his family treats him like the baby (since he is) as he comes to the realization that, not only can they not protect him anymore, but he might not be able to protect them. Before that, #15 gets into Marco’s conflict between being a good son to his dad and being a good son to his mom, which (thanks to Visser One) are mutually oppositional roles and leave him with the conclusion that if he can only save one it’ll have to be his dad. #18 once again shows an Animorph fleeing into the arms of home and family, only to realize that those aren’t sources of comfort or safety anymore, only in this case it’s Ax coming to realize that he won’t just be going home and rejoining the andalites anytime soon, so he might as well get used to looking to Jake as his prince. Although #19 ends up focusing on Cassie alone in the woods with Karen and Aftran, a lot of what drives her out there is the scene where she looks at her parents and does the math that she is older and more hardened than they will ever be, and that she has already infected their innocence and goodness with her darkness.
This book and its surrounding fellows are a lot about settling into the war for the long haul. And that leads to (and from) the question: What are we really doing in this war? How are we going to fight it? What compromises are we willing to make, and what ones are we unwilling to touch? If it’s not “just oatmeal,” then what are we going to do about it?