Friday, June 14, 2013

Fiction Friday (17)

Given all the paranoia and righteous anger stirred up this week about the government's invasive and illegal surveillance program, it seemed like a good week to catch up on reviews of dystopian teen novels. As we move closer to a future where most people have little hope of avoiding one of the endlessly covered scenarios laid out in fiction, it's probably good to study up and be prepared. Despite being written 43 years apart, the two books here grapple with the same overarching themes of a freedom and totalitarianism. Interesting that we always fear a loss of freedom when generally speaking, we grow more free with each generation.

The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher
(MacMillan, 1967)

The second installment of John Christopher's science fiction dystopia series is far darker than its predecessor. Whereas the first book used the premise of a controlling, conquering race of aliens as a backdrop to discuss free-will and conformity, the second book is a powerful exploration of slavery and the master/slave relationship.

After Will managed to escape the Tripods and met up with the free people living in the Alps, out of the reach of the aliens, he begins training with the others working toward the eventual overthrow of the oppressors. His first mission takes him to the City of Gold and Lead where the masters live. Only the fittest young people are taken there to serve the aliens, and none ever come back. Will's mission is to go there to discover anything about the mysterious masters that might help defeat them, and then somehow escape.

One of the best aspects of the novel is the way this city is imagined. Reading it, you can almost feel its heavier gravity and sweltering heat, which compound the suffocating reality of Will's situation. The episodes of cruelty bestowed upon him by his master are powerfully written, as are the aliens attempts at friendship. John Christopher does an amazing job and describing a situation where a slave could come to feel for his master, and the strength it takes to resist the kindness of an oppressor.

Extremely compelling on many levels. (Click here for my review of the first book)

Matched by Ally Condie
(Dutton, 2010)

The premise of Matched doesn't differ much from many other dystopian stories. There are white uniformed Officials, representatives of some faceless authority, who monitor and determine every aspect of people's lives. This includes who each is "matched" with as a teen, matched being another word for mated in this situation. The officials carry the same level of dread as the firemen in Fahrenheit 451 as they confiscate forbidden objects and create a general sense of anxiety. While obeyed and respected, they are also subjects of the same level of distrust as a gentle occupying army. All in all, I thought the dystopian elements were very well done, however they really just serve as a backdrop for the love story which is truly the heart of the book.

Cassia, the girl at the center of the story, must choose between two boys, both of whom, of course, are loyal and good looking. Again, this set-up can be found in countless stories, and one presented so frequently these days in YA fiction, most notably in Twilight and The Hunger Games. The book spends much of its effort on the question of who she will choose. One is safe, one is dangerous. One is mysterious, one is familiar. But the real problem is that both are kind of too good to be true and the book spends way too much time on Cassia's dilemma of choosing between them, and making it way too clear which is the one she wants to choose. Sure, the idea is supposed to be that making any choice in a society where choices are always made for you would be difficult, and love especially so, but I still would have liked to see Cassia a little more decisive. Having choices made for someone doesn't necessarily make them indecisive, in fact, it has great potential to bring out the opposite in people.

Another problem I had with Cassia was in the attempt to make her a rebellious figure. Her defiance was in such passive ways, and typically not for reasons she believed in herself, but for a boy. She wasn't the strong kind of character that Katniss is, for example. That said, I did quite enjoy the seeing the cracks in this dystopian world slowly being exposed.

Overall, I did enjoy reading this book. It's definitely a page turner and certainly exciting enough to keep a reader's interest. However, I felt the dystopian elements were simply used as way of adding some twist to the love story. Unfortunately, the love story was far less interesting than the support used to prop it up.

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