Fight the System

As an imaginative young teen stoked on science fiction and fantasy, I was half in love with an easeful apocalypse. Oh, not the bleak, scary scenario of On the Beach, but rather the “cozy catastrophes” of John Wyndham and Brian Aldiss. (I particularly enjoyed the depopulated autumnal British countryside of the latter’s Greybeard.) How pleasant to fantasize about wandering through a deserted Manhattan, sleeping in the Plaza Hotel’s best suite and looting from Macy’s and F.A.O. Schwarz. J. G. Ballard’s empty swimming pools and abandoned Cape Canaveral held immense allure. Back in reality, darting hither and yon through a bankrupt gravel quarry in the twilight, I could pretend that the rusting forms of machinery all around me were the strewn girders of a ruined city.

However, at the same time, as a young adult I never was so much moved by Armageddon’s wimpy cousin, the dystopia. Oh, I enjoyed reading them, especially if they were satirical — everything from Brave New World through Fahrenheit 451, from The Space Merchants to “The Marching Morons” — but I never resonated with them enough to place myself in their narratives. Oppressed prole turned freedom fighter, struggling for justice, running the risk of capture and torture, but intensely bonding with fellow liberation-seeking comrades (with the possibility of combat-fueled, mortality-tinged romance always bubbling just under the guerilla sorties) — how could that generally miserable stint of altruistic self-sacrifice possibly compare to what I read in M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, whose mad protagonist, alone on the planet, embarks on a campaign of blowing up civilization’s iconic monuments, solely for his own psychic satisfaction? No, the ultimate liberty I sought did not involve any heroics against injustice, but only the circumstantial enforced idyll in a destroyed world I was not tasked with repairing. Better to fight a thousand Triffids than one tyrant!

Assuredly, there must have been some deficiency in my imagination, or a distinct lack of the gene for heroism, because nowadays young adult dystopias are one of the most popular kinds of science fiction, proliferating wildly. Cory Doctorow, Scott Westerfeld, and Paolo Bacigalupi have all essayed the form from within their genre roots. The most widely read in recent years is Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, sure to peak even higher with the imminent movie release. Her success has inspired many other writers, who have found an eager audience.

Author Moira Young, writing in the Guardian, endorses the notion that young readers see their own lives as regimented and over-controlled, and identify with the virtuous struggles of the heroes in a dystopia, longing for a nice clean-cut case of a vile machine to rage against. Do some current books bear out her thesis? Let’s look at a (possible) series newly begun, a series in mid-course, and one that’s just culminated.

The more complex dystopias display a certain understanding that everything about society is interrelated. A masterpiece like Orwell’s 1984 or Zamyatin’s We, as well as, to a lesser degree, the Hunger Games series, diffuse their malaise across all levels of existence, showing how pervasive and multiplex both the root causes and the consequences of thought control, totalitarianism, fiscal inequality, and other oppressive strictures can be. In a book such as Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room! (the basis for the film Soylent Green), a dystopia arises from the sheer physical limits of the planet’s carrying capacity, and every aspect of life is stamped with the exigencies imposed by the situation.

Other dystopias are not quite so sophisticated, relying on one villain or focusing on a single facet of our shared civic life.  This model of dystopia crystallized with a novel first serialized in Galaxy magazine, Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, in which ad agencies ran the world. Alan Nourse’s The Mercy Men made doctors the oppressors. The nadir of this mode probably came with Pohl and del Rey’s Preferred Risk, a novel cobbled together hastily to supply a barren contest with a winner, in which insurance agencies controlled society.

This simplistic Galaxy approach never goes out of style. A few years back, the very young writer (aged seventeen at the time) Isamu Fukui issued Truancy, about a bad world that appeared to revolve exclusively around the subjugation of students. Lauren McLaughlin’s Scored is much more sophisticated and insightful, but shares some of Fukui’s narrowed scope.
In the future of Scored, the lives of students are entirely dominated by the need to maintain a high rating from ScoreCorp, the Big Brother-style surveillance-cum-assessment organization whose cameras are everywhere, installed with permission from grateful civic authorities. Score high enough, and you get a free ticket to college and the good life. Score lower, and only menial career paths are open to you. Opt out of the system altogether — as the unscored kids do — and you face prejudice, contempt, and virtual exile. Scores are updated at regular intervals, and kids have been turned into fearful narcs, grade grubbers, and automatons: think Pink Floyd’s The Wall or the episode of The Simpsons in which school uniforms drained the spirit from Bart and his friends.

Our protagonist is Imani LeMonde (whose surname bears rather a lot of allegorical weight for such a young woman). Always a good girl and achiever, with one tiny spark of rebellion (she hangs out with her pal Cady, a taboo “lowbie” or low scorer), Imani finds her assured, predictable path falling apart when her own score plummets. Events thrust her into closer contact with a brooding and attractive unscored fellow, Diego Landis. Consciousness raising and a stuttering romance ensue, seasoned with fear, betrayal, and social sanctions. In the adult world, Principal Wheeler serves as heavy-handed villain, and history teacher Mr. Carol as good-hearted adult mentor.

If we take Scored simply as a futuristic high school hell, a pocket dystopia, it hums like a colorful top. McLaughlin pulls a smart move by making her heroine bit of a prig and a tool. Her conversion is all the more dramatic and meaningful than if she had been a rebel from the start. Imani’s home life — and her lower-class heritage — are believable and touching,  Diego is a satisfying Good Bad Boy, and the philosophy behind ScoreCorp, which involves obedience to “the five elements,” reeks delightfully of Maoism or North Korean Perfect Leader worship. The back-story about global economic collapse is ripped right from current headlines, and McLaughlin’s plotting is assured and suspenseful, with no earth-shattering and unlikely general revolt by the climax, but only important personal and incremental changes.

But when a reader starts to ponder this society outside the high school walls, it grows less convincing. Is there truly no more acceptance or enthusiasm for a future Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, brilliant college dropouts? Are such entrepreneurs really banned by law? Is there no provision for adults (who are explicitly not subject to scoring after graduation) to enter college at some later date in their careers? Why does the immense level of artificial intelligence inherent in the computer brain behind the cameras of ScoreCorp manifest nowhere else, and why can’t such a powerful entity even update scores in real time, à la Twitter today? How do students from outside the U.S. enter the college system? How does this system really differ in kind or degree from the de facto rules of stratification in place in 2011? What’s in all this for ScoreCorp, beyond money? (There are hints that this last question might indeed be answered in a sequel.)

Ultimately, the classroom inferno of Imani and her peers works like the Village in The Prisoner: substantial and horrifying in isolation, but less so in a larger scheme.

* * *

Much New Weird fiction partakes of a dystopian ambiance. China Miéville’s New Crobuzon is only a few leagues removed from Mordor and the other evil empires that are the fantasy world’s equivalents of SF’s dystopias. Most New Weird cities are crumbling, inefficient, jury-rigged metropolises where life is nasty, brutish, and short. They are dystopias of entropy, rather than intentional evil.

Philip Reeve’s London in Fever Crumb and his crater-embedded continental city of Mayda in A Web of Air are no exceptions to this rule. And although explicitly and science-fictionally set in our far future, Reeve’s world partakes of the cognitive estrangement of the New Weird, as well as some of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth ambiance.

Our heroine, the spiky, feisty, yet confused young girl named Fever Crumb, lives “millennia” after the Downsizing, or collapse,of our contemporary civilization.  A cult of her day reveres the ancient child deity “Hari Potter,” while at the same time an unknown older god has devolved to the general exclamation of “Cheesers Crice!” All this in a London holding only about 70,000 souls.

The city has but recently emerged from a long rule by the Scriven, a mutant race of Homo superiors. Humanity won its freedom only through a bloody purge led by the Skinners, who slaughtered all the Scriven. Now Londoners clump along in poverty, living off excavations of Ancient technology, much of this haul passing through the hands of an elite caste of Engineers. (All this forms a distant prequel to Reeve’s Mortal Engines Quartet, by the way.)

Fever is the only female Engineer ever, brought into the society as a foundling by Dr. Crumb. When she is sent to an internship with an archaeologist named Kit Solent, her monastic life is upended. She discovers she is half Scriven and that Dr. Crumb is her real father. Simultaneously, London comes under attack by the Movement, nomadic conquerors intent on transforming the city into one of their enormous mobile “traction fortresses.” Fever flees all the turmoil, with Kit’s two orphaned tykes in tow, and at the end of the first installment is ensconced with a troupe of migratory mummers.

A Web of Air finds Fever two years later — considerably wiser, though still resisting emotional worldliness — in the (Portuguese?) town of Mayda, helping to stage the glorious morality play Niall Strong-Arm; or, The Conquest of the Moon! (This title is typical of Reese’s droll wit, which finds expression on almost every page.) Mayda’s narrow-minded populace is in thrall to a Luddite cult of sea-goddess worship, which hardly favors Fever’s Engineering interests. Nonetheless, one citizen of the town, Arlo Thursday, seems intent on reinventing manned flight. Fever throws her lot in with him, and they soon find themselves subject to deadly assaults, not the least of which emanate from far-off London, in the form of a killer agent of the Orwellian “Suppression Office.” By novel’s end, Fever has suffered a humbling defeat and the loss of her first love, and is heading back to London with her Scriven mother, Wavey Godshawk, who now rules the city. (Lucky U.K. readers already have access to the final book of the trilogy, Scrivener’s Moon, but U.S. fans will have to wait a bit longer.)

Reese’s depiction of life under narrow-minded and capricious regimes in an era of impoverishment does not foreclose lots of joy and humor, both for the characters and his readers. His Dickensian cast brims with vitality and zest. Fever Crumb is both pathetic and heroic, damaged yet resilient, wise yet foolish. Her adventures involve an endless quest after happiness and improvement, despite circumstances. Reese happily indulges in shameless Perils of Pauline melodrama: at one point in Web, Fever is tied to a set of tracks, about to be run over by…a house! And he also sets up touching and complex moral issues, such as the ethics surrounding a species of bioengineered seagulls who are losing their sapience over generations. This is writing and storytelling of the most ingenious and enthralling sort, science fiction that does not shirk extrapolation or confrontation with the decline and fall of our precarious civilization.

* * *

If you can conceive of Cormac McCarthy and Russell Hoban teaming up to rework Harlan Ellison’s post-apocalyptic tale “A Boy and His Dog,” and then passing it off to Gene Wolfe and Paul Park for a rewrite, you might have a faint conception of what Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy resembles. Gritty, disturbing, heady stuff.

Right from the start of volume one, The Knife of Never Letting Go, Ness makes a bold and alluring move by setting his story exotically on another planet, a strategy too often overlooked in these days of foreshortened futures. Called simply New World, the planet held two surprises for the human colonists who arrived some two decades prior to our story’s start. First, the presence of an aboriginal sentient race dubbed the Spackles. And second, a virus that conferred ungovernable telepathic broadcast and reception powers on males alone. This resulted in instant chaos, as men became open books (or open sewers), their every passing notion, however private and unwholesome, now available to all. Women, remaining immune, became alternately bastions of stability and hated pariahs, depending on the temperament of various men.

Our hero, Todd Hewitt, has had the misfortune to reach an uneducated adolescence in the all-male village of Prentisstown, a tiny dictatorship under Mayor Prentiss, which Todd believes to be the sole redoubt of humanity on New World. But events soon propel him and his faithful mutt, Manchee (whose thoughts also resound), out into a larger sphere, where he first meets a newly crashed girl from space, Viola Eade. Together Viola and Todd will be pursued from one strange settlement to another, while conquering their initial fears of each other to fall earnestly in love. But close behind them is an army from Prentisstown intent on spreading its hatred and lust for dominion. At the end of the first book, Todd and Viola are separated within sight of safety, the city of Haven.

The Ask and the Answer finds the kids still achingly apart. Mayor Prentiss and his army have conquered Haven and designated it their new capital, rounding up Spackles in a concentration camp. Believing he’s buying Viola’s safety, Todd reluctantly become the mayor’s assistant, as Prentiss grooms him as an heir in lieu of his own son, Davy. Viola eventually joins a women’s resistance movement, the Answer, and she and Todd find themselves on opposite sides of the human war. And then comes the landing of another new spaceship, heralding more colonists, along with a massive assault by hordes of “wild” Spackles.

Monsters of Men — “War makes monsters of men” — is all conflict, all the time, for its first half. Mayor (President) Prentiss and his posse are besieged by Spackles in a welter of battlefield guts and glory, putting Todd through a bloody education, while the women of the Answer wait patiently at a distance. Viola treats with her friends from space for their help, and succeeds in shifting the balance in favor of Todd and company once or twice. Ultimately, through a surprising intervention involving a transcendent human, peace is obtained. But the mayor’s machinations continue, resulting in intense suffering for Todd and Viola, as well as the other intelligences of this challenged planet that nonetheless offers so much potential for harmony.

Besides juggling high philosophical and ethical concepts, Ness also offers stylistic daring in the first-person narration from Todd’s point of view, full of fractured language à la Riddley Walker. He also gives intimate interior voices to Viola and one of the Spackles known as 1017, creating a multifaceted telling. And the emotional webs between Todd and the mayor and Todd and Viola (and even Todd and his conversational dog and horse, Angharrad) are extremely knotty and compelling, providing seas of enjoyable angst for the YA soul.

Ness’s trilogy partakes of many of the sophisticated themes and tropes of “mature” science fiction. A veteran reader will think of such monuments as Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus; Park’s Starbridge Chronicles; Adam Roberts’s Salt; Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth; Orson Scott Card’s Ender books; Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite; and even Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. Additionally, Ness is plainly honoring Crane’s Red Badge of Courage and, of course, Romeo and Juliet. All this rich impasto results in a YA novel that could only come at the end of a long chain of science-fictional literature, as far removed from, say, Heinlein’s seminal YA adventures as a Prius is from a Model T.

These uncompromisingly dire but not despairing books from Ness, along with those from McLaughlin and Reeve, offer the heartening affirmation that young readers of science fiction — and their tag-along elders — still seem willing to face whatever tough times the future holds with ingenuity, resourcefulness, and hope.