XVI

A book about a dystopian society that controls people through sex was a first for me. In the world created by author Julia Karr in XVI, the government has created a number of ways of controlling its citizens. Citizens are divided into different class tiers that control the kind of jobs and housing they have. All conversations can be listened in on unless they take place in a dead zone where there isn’t any surveillance. At sixteen girls are tattooed with XVI to indicate they can legally have sex and verts, an even more intrusive form of advertising are all geared toward encouraging female teens to want and have sex, that tattoo is insidious as it marks girls as bait.

Nina is one of the few girls who doesn’t seem to be looking forward to her sixteenth birthday, unlike her best friend Sandy who is counting down the days. Nina has more on her mind, like her mom’s abusive married boyfriend and looking out for her little sister Dee. She has never understood how her Mom, who was madly in love with her first husband who died when Nina was born, hooked up with a loser like Ed. Then again, there’s a lot about her mom’s life that doesn’t make sense to Nina, such as her giving up her good job and status as a Level 5, to take a cafeteria job and move to the countryside living as a Level One. Also, her mom’s insistence that FeLS, the organization that her friend Sandy is hoping desperately to be picked to join, where teen girls can move up tier status and trained as Female Liaison Specialists, a glamorous government program.

After Nina’s mom is killed, she and Dee move back to the city to live with her loving Gran and Pops, her father’s parents. Before she passed away Nina’s mom told her not to let her quasi stepdad Ed near Dee and most shocking of all told her that he father is still alive and that she has left answer’s in her little sister’s baby book.   As she tries to figure out what’s real, she has to contend with government agents and burglaries, Ed, and her growing feelings for Sal, the latter just the type of thing she has wanted to avoid all her life.

While I enjoy the way dystopian books extrapolate from our current issues and concerns into how these can worsen in the future, I felt that this book was trying too hard to deliver a ‘message’ about our potential or current ills regarding freedom of speech, inequality, reproductive rights, spying on private conversations, etc. The book came across as unsophisticated and ‘preachy’ but maybe that’s because I am not a teen. This book was one of the shrinking pool of YA dystopian fiction actually written specifically for the YA market.   Even the male/female relationships were immature and predictable.  Perhaps the same idea, written by a stronger author such as Ilsa J. Blick, Mindy McGinnis, or Joelle Charbonneau may have become something entirely more intense and powerful as it did contain a novel approach to the idea of exactly how personal government control can become. It could have been a YA version of The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, now that would have been something indeed…

The Treatment

I have read a lot of dystopian and apocalyptic books, so I recognize a unique story when I see it. That’s what attracted me to this series by Suzanne Young. The first book in the series, The Program, described a world where suicide has become an epidemic, more of a disease than the mental illness we see it as. A dystopian system, The Program, is created to initially help teens and stop them from killing themselves, but despite all its good intentions, the power The Program has over its patients quickly evolves into something much more controlling and sinister. I was fascinated by the fresh idea in this story….no natural disasters, no zombies, no high technology surveillance of citizens, none of the usual jumping off points for this genre.

However, The Treatment did not live up to the prior book. After the world building and character development of the first book, this one just became the typical “on the run with rebels” storyline. Although the main characters of Sloane and James dominate, a fellow rebel Dallas, was interesting, but we never really become as invested in her as in their experience. Another rebel, Cas, is weakly drawn. Micheal Realm pops up to of course create the typical love triangle, though why Sloane has any positive feelings toward him I could not fathom. Yes, he has saved her, but he is also selfish and manipulating of everyone and in many cases his actions are detestable.

As Realm only gave Sloane one pill, The Treatment, that will return erased memories but with potential dire side effects, and much of the plot focuses on it. It’s sort of like the dilemma of which pill to take in The Matrix. Not only do Sloane and James have to wrestle with whether one of them should take it, The Program is also very interested in this medication that could end their whole system and it makes the couple an even bigger target.

The idea that the rebel movement only consists of a handful of teens makes it rather implausible. Yes, they attend Suicide Clubs to try to recruit members, but instead of a David and Goliath situation, this seems more like a flea to an elephant, rather than a mouse to an elephant situation. Also, as high tech surveillance isn’t being used, and the U.S. is a big country, it’s also implausible how The Treatment can even find the rebels, searching for someone anywhere in the U.S. would be a bit like a needle in a haystack. The rebels are not only outnumbered, but there doesn’t seem to be any plan as to how they can stop The Program, all they do is keep running. In the end, Suzanne Young trots out a tired plot device involving the power of the press to take down a government conspiracy. Really? That’s all it takes to defeat such a powerful organization?

The other issue I has with this book was that there was nothing but a vague theory given for the suicide ‘disease’, some mumbo jumbo about kids on anti-depressants, combined with copycat suicides, and teen pressure….if that was the case, wouldn’t kids now be offing themselves right and left?

I think even the author knew this final book was a little weak, so instead of ending the book with a conclusion about what happened to Sloane and James, the final pages are about the Dallas character, yes that is something a bit different, but different doesn’t save this one, I felt let down by something that started out as a very promising read in the first book and ran out of steam in this second story.

The Program

I was quickly running through my list of ‘dystopian to read’ novels, and was on what I thought of as my Tier B list while waiting for sequels to be published by my fave authors when I started on The Program. Therefore, my expectations were low for this story by Suzanne Young. Well I owe heran apology as I was thoroughly intrigued by the concept of copycat suicides as a disease that could be predicted and cured.

In an age where there’s so much pressure for people to be successful, have great families and thriving social lives, is it ok to sometimes be anxious or depressed? If you are a teen shouldn’t that be automatic? You don’t have to work to support yourself, you don’t have to deal with marital issues or the stress of having kids, life should be great, right?   So why are teens across the nation committing suicide at an alarming rate? In a panic, the government and parents jump to a cure that may be worse than the disease itself.

In schools teens have to take daily assessments measuring their feelings and they cannot be seen crying in public without risking drawing the attention of the ominous monitors who if they think someone has the ‘disease’ take away the at risk team to a treatment center that is part of The Program, where the therapy may end up being worse than the cure for the teens taken there.

It’s the last place Sloane wants to go. Although it was very difficult for her to cope with her brother’s suicide, she has a lot to live for. After all, she is dating hot James, her brother’s best friend. However, the sickness closes in on her when her best friend, rebellious Lacey, is infected and taken away. After she undergoes treatment, she returns but is not the same person. Just like all those who have been treated, her memories are gone, including those of Miller, her former boyfriend and a friend of Sloane and James too.   Lacey even looks different, more conservative Stepford wives vibe, than rebel teen. When Miller begs his friends to drive him to Lacey’s new school, they are concerned. It doesn’t help when Miller approaches Lacey and there isn’t any reaction.

Sloane feels increasingly under pressure by her parent’s scrutiny, all parents appear to be monitoring their children closely and if they think they are infected, they will often turn their own child in rather than risk their death. When James becomes depressed, Sloane fights to keep him going and avoid the eyes of adults and the government, but when he is taken she quickly follows and what she finds is a horror show.  

She fights to hold onto her memories of her true love, but the drugs start draining those away. Luckily, she has an ally in a fellow patient, Realm, though even he has trouble protecting her from the creepy handler Roger who insinuates that he can help her save a memory or two, but for a very specific price. As Sloane struggles to hold on not only to James, but herself, Realm plays an increasingly important role in her life, but is he even exactly what he seems?

Sunrise (Ashfall #3)

Sunrise is the satisfying finale to the trilogy which began with Ashfall. I think the writers of any trilogies struggle to wrap up their epics in a way that will please their readership, and I think apocalyptic authors have an even harder struggle.   Their stories start out with a bang, literally, and have to walk a fine line by being realistic about what living conditions would be like as a result, and not being so dark that readers just won’t want to continue. I think Mike Mullin did a beautiful job walking this tightrope in his storytelling.

While many apocalyptic authors write about food deprivation resulting from an apocalyptic event, such as the starving family in Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, he takes it to an even darker level, conjuring up characters such as flensers, people who have sunk to cannibalism to survive. Yet, as sinister and bleak as it is to contemplate people who would take these actions to survive, there is a hopeful spirit to the story, personified in Alex the main character.

I have to admit that as a former high school teacher I often despaired for the future based on what I saw in many of my students. There were always exceptions, but for the most part there seemed to be a disinterest in learning, a lack of work ethic and a certain amount of selfishness that made me wonder about the future. While Alex may be a fictional character, it gave me hope that as our environmental issues grow more urgent, there will be Alex’s of the world who can lead. A typical teen, Alex in a fit of teenage pique stays home from a family road trip to play video games and sulk in the first book Ashfall. When a supervolcano erupts killing millions instantly and leaving survivors in an ash covered world where crops are killed, gas tanks are flooded with sediment, and fires burn, he takes off on a heroic quest through a maimed world to reunite with his family.

This trilogy is really about the maturation of a boy into a man. I think the inclination of most in a disaster is to look to the adult survivors to protect the children and lead in a crisis, yet Alex has been thrust into a leadership role because of not only his bravery, but his ability to come up with practical solutions and strategies. Taking responsibility for a band of refugees camped out on his uncle’s farm, dealing with his mom’s breakdown after his father’s death, and dealing with the petty politics among survivors isn’t easy. Overshadowing it all on a daily basis is struggling to find enough food to keep everyone alive. Although Alex’s girlfriend Darla is a mechanical whiz creating systems to grow hothouse kale and bikezillas for transportation, as well as being tough in a fight, for some reason Alex is still the standout character in the story maybe because he’s an everyman. He’s smart, but not brilliant, he’s a good fighter, but not Claude Van Dam, he’s personable, but not a practiced politician. It’s his very ordinariness and the fact that’s he’s an unlikely hero that makes what he accomplishes all the more impressive and earns respect.  Everything he does is because he has empathy for others and a sense of responsibility in helping people, though he often wants to withdraw from shouldering that burden, it’s his doubts that make him more heroic. He is the dream student and the dream son. When teens complain of not being taken seriously just because of their age, this book could be used as an example of the expression, “age is just a number”; that it’s not the number of years someone has, but how they live them.   Don’t ask to be taken seriously, earn it by shouldering responsibility, making the hard choices, and showing leadership…earn it.