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Monthly Archives: March 2012

Only Skin Deep: Uglies, Pretties, Specials & Extras by Scott Westerfeld

The cover of Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Book #7 for 2012: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Book #8 for 2012: Pretties by Scott Westerfeld
Book #9 for 2012: Specials by Scott Westerfeld
Book #10 for 2012: Extras by Scott Westerfeld

There was an article in The New Yorker a couple of years ago, which you can read here, about the current trend toward dystopian science fiction novels for YA — young adult — readers. The most prominent example of the trend, especially at the moment, is Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, the film version of which just had one of the most successful opening weekends in movie history. (Actually, it’s the first of a trilogy, so there are at least two more films coming, more likely three given the current trend to break the last book of a YA series into two films as a way of giving the cash cow an additional udder to milk).

I read the entire Hunger Games trilogy about the time the final volume came out in the summer of 2010. (Those of you dying to read my review can find it here.) It’s an immensely readable series of books and I gobbled it up in about a week, as have apparently about a billion or so teens (and possibly as many adults) around the world. I enjoyed it so much that I began looking around to see what sorts of things other YA writers have done with dystopian themes and somehow alighted on Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series. Let’s just say my results were mixed.

Here’s a quick sketch of what the Uglies books are about: The first volume, simply titled Uglies, takes place two or three centuries in the future, after our society has pretty much strip mined and clear cut the planet to the breaking point and then gone defunct. (Ironically, the strip mining and clear cutting aren’t why our current society — known in the future as “rusties,” because we left so much abandoned metal behind — no longer exists. What we actually did wrong was to inadvertently engineer a bacterium that eats reserves of petroleum and, whoops, there goes our continuing dependence on the internal combustion engine.) To rectify the mistakes of the past, society has rebuilt itself as a loose network of relatively small cities separated by deliberately preserved wilderness and our energy needs seem to be largely supplied by solar power. Transportation not involving walking is mostly handled by magnetic levitation, which allows not only for cool hovercraft and high-speed maglev trains but airborne surfboards that kids can use the same way skateboards are used today, except even more recklessly. It’s not reckless hovering that puts the dys in this particular topia, though: It’s cosmetic surgery. People have become obsessed with looking physically perfect. Radical surgical procedures have been developed that can make almost anyone flawlessly beautiful at the age of 16, after which they may become older (or, in the book’s futuristic slang, “crumbly”), but still remain kind of hot.

The heroine of the first three books (which are structured as a trilogy with a more or less continuous plot) is Tally Youngblood, a 15-year-old going on 16 who is waiting eagerly to go under the knife and achieve perfection. Right now she’s an Ugly, which means she looks about as hideously flawed as you or I do (or more like you or I did at age 15, when we were probably cuter than we are now). At 16 she will be allowed to become a Pretty and move off to New Pretty Town, where all the newly minted Pretties hang out and do airheaded things. (One of the things that our society apparently didn’t do wrong was to ruin the economy, because most people in this future society don’t seem to need to work for a living if they don’t want to. Machines do everything that needs doing. Sounds like utopia to me.)

Alas, Tally makes friends with someone from a bad crowd — and in a dystopian novel “bad crowd” usually means “group of rebels who discover that things aren’t as nice as they seem.” What isn’t so nice in Tally’s world, it turns out, is that the prettifying surgery tends to be accompanied by some unpublicized brain surgery, where people are made almost literally airheaded by having little holes punched into strategic locations in their forebrains, to keep them docile and less likely to do the stupid sorts of things their ancestors did. Through a convoluted series of events, Tally is blackmailed by the secret police (scary-looking Pretties, as oxymoronic as that may sound, known as Special Circumstances, or just Specials) to infiltrate the rebels, who live in a secret location called “the smoke,” where she is to broadcast their location and betray them. Naturally, Tally turns out to like the rebels but accidentally betrays them anyway, allowing for tons of action in the second half of the book.

As silly as I make all this sound, Uglies is actually quite readable and more than a little fun. As semi-mindless entertainment goes, it’s worth a read, by which I mean a read by human beings over the age of 15. (Human beings 15 and under probably don’t need the encouragement.) Unfortunately, Westerfeld didn’t stop with one book, and I found that the continuing adventures of Tally Youngblood grew continuingly more tedious as the trilogy went on. (Tally herself, who seems to go through a dire but logically justified personality change with each volume, also becomes continuingly more obnoxious.) By the climax of the third book, which completes the initial plot arc, I was ready to quit. But the fourth book of the “trilogy,” appropriately entitled Extras, offered a brand new heroine and a brand new premise, so I decided to stick it out.

And I didn’t entirely regret it. By the time the events of the fourth volume roll around, about three years have passed since the end of volume three and, this being a dystopian thriller, you can guess that major changes have taken place in society since volume one began. In the society of volume four (which seems to take place mostly in and around an unnamed city in Japan), the idea of becoming Pretty at age 16 has been abandoned and people have started doing their own thing. Some still become Pretty, some stay Ugly, some just become weird. In other words, it’s a kind of free-for-all society and it’s entertaining to read about for a few chapters. The heroine is a teenage girl named Asa Fuse, who’s a “kicker,” someone who generates news stories with her own hovercam and broadcasts them via whatever future equivalent of the Interwebs is currently in use. She falls in with, yes, a bad crowd and together they stumble on a strange plot to build mass drivers — basically, magnetic guns the size of mountains — that can fire immense bullets into the air with the kinetic potential to destroy cities, which appears to be what they’re going to be used for.

Asa’s own city runs on a “reputation economy” (a cute concept), where everyone has a ranking based on how many people know about them and talk about them, and when Asa “kicks” the mass driver story to the news feeds she becomes famous, which in the reputation economy also makes her rich. Needless to say, things turn out to be more complicated than they appear at first, and the second half of Extras involves Asa and her friends discovering what’s really going on and either stopping it or supporting it, depending on whether it turns out to be good or bad. (You won’t be surprised to hear that, at various points in the novel, they do both.)

Westerfeld is a competent writer and has the sort of lean, muscular, somewhat superficial style one would expect of a YA science fiction writer. He also has that magical ability that makes you just curious enough to know what’s going to happen that you keep turning the pages. But that’s not really what you want to know, is it? What you really want to know is: Are the Uglies books as good as the Hunger Games books?

Of course not. This series was actually published shortly before the Suzanne Collins novels, but nobody has leaped at the chance to make a blockbuster movie series out of it yet, have they? So clearly Westerfeld lacks the Collins touch. But why exactly aren’t the Uglies books as good as The Hunger Games volumes? I mean, the plots are similar. A teenage girl gets caught up fighting the authorities in a nasty, totalitarian future society and finds courage and self-confidence through the act of defiance. It’s a highly kickable premise, as Asa would say. What exactly does Westerfeld do wrong?

Maybe the real question is: What does Collins do right? Two things come to mind. The first is that Collins has a more compelling premise — a group of people trying to kill one another on a reality TV show. Note that I didn’t say it was an original premise. Much has been made of the resemblance of The Hunger Games to the Japanese film Battle Royale, but Stephen King used the same basic plot two decades earlier in his Richard Bachman novel The Running Man, which was made into a movie in the 80s with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and science fiction writer Robert Sheckley used it way back in 1958 in his short story “The Prize of Peril.” (Reality TV has been around for a long time.) But regardless of how overused the plot may be, Collins pulls it off as well as anybody ever has (with the possible exception of the makers of Battle Royale, which I’ve never seen) and makes it engrossing in that “I think I’ll stop sleeping and eating for a few days in order to finish reading this” way. (Unfortunately she uses essentially the same plot in all three books of the trilogy, with a major variation in the third, which gets a little wearisome, but Westerfeld goes out of his way to make the plots of each of his books completely different, and that turns out to be even more wearisome. So maybe Collins was onto something.)

The other thing Collins does right is to create a fully three-dimensional protagonist in Katniss Everdeen. Though the world of The Hunger Games is a bit sketchy — Exactly what sort of disaster befell the human race, anyway? Does she ever explain? — Katniss is so sympathetic and believably heroic that you don’t really care. Tally Youngblood, on the other hand, seems rather interesting at the beginning of the Uglies books, but by volume two I was already hoping that Westerfeld would just push her off the top of a hovercraft and get it over with. (Actually, I think he does this at one point, but Tally’s society has devised magnetic bracelets that make falling a lot less dangerous than it used to be in ours. So much for killing off our heroine.)

By the way, if there’s any moral to be gleaned so far from my survey of YA dystopias, it’s that the dystopias themselves are purely plot devices. Brave New World and 1984 were genuine warnings about the excesses of human behavior, but despite Westerfeld’s sloganeering against strip mining, clear cutting, genetic engineering, obsession with beauty, et al, the dystopias in both The Hunger Games trilogy and the Uglies series exist mainly just to be mean to people. After all, every thriller needs a good villain. These days, in the world of YA fiction, dystopias are it.


A Night Not to Remember: S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep

Book #6 for 2012: Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

For a relatively rare condition, anterograde amnesia — the chronic kind, not the occasional kind that results from popping an Ambien at bedtime or drinking too much 80-proof tequila — has inspired a remarkable body of fiction. This is the type of amnesia where you can’t form new long-term memories, where what happens in short-term memory stays in short-term memory and after that it might as well never have happened at all. I think the recent spate of stories about the condition began with Christopher Nolan’s remarkably clever 2000 film Memento, where Guy Pearce tattooed his memories on his chest in a Quixotic attempt to find the murderer of his wife. That movie was rapidly followed by Ellen DeGeneres’s memory-impaired clown fish in Finding Nemo and Drew Barrymore’s infinitely refreshable girlfriend in the Adam Sandler film 50 First Dates (which was so bad I barely saw enough of it to give it time to get past my own short-term memory). But there have been other attempts at turning the syndrome into fiction — for instance, the eminently forgettable 1994 Dana Carvey movie Clean Slate, about a man who woke up each morning having completely forgotten the previous day. (At least I assume it was forgettable, because I honestly can’t remember whether I saw it.) And the late science fiction writer Philip José Farmer beat everyone to the punch and probably produced the most ambitious variation of all with his 1973 novella “Sketches Among the Ruins of My Mind,” in which an entire town woke up every morning unable to remember what they’d done the previous day.

With all of those variations, you’d think anterograde amnesia and its many fictional variants would have been completely played out by now as a premise for fiction. Think again. S.J. Watson’s pop thriller Before I Go To Sleep is about a woman who, yes, wakes up every morning unable to remember what happened the previous day. In fact, she pretty much can’t remember anything that’s happened since shortly after she graduated from college, even though she’s now well into middle age. All she knows — and finds out again every day — is that she wakes up next to a man who has to explain to her that he’s her husband Ben, that she had an accident that left her in a state where she loses her memory when she falls asleep (so unusual a form of anterograde amnesia that even doctors seem to go a bit dull-witted when they try to explain it) and that maybe one day she’ll remember him well enough to want to have sex with him again. (Given that they never have more than a few hours’ acquaintance, you can see the problem here.) And she also has a doctor who’s both treating and researching her case, who for some reason doesn’t want the husband to know anything about him. He recommends that she attempt to create a kind of pseudo-memory by keeping a daily journal, sort of a more detailed version of Guy Pearce’s chest tattoos. This journal constitutes the majority of the novel.

Is it a good novel? Well, I can say several good things about it. I read it in a little over two days, which given my current case of anterograde attention span is pretty damned good. It’s hard to put down. And this kind of novel, where nothing is as it seems because it starts out with the protagonist not knowing a damned thing about how anything seems, not only has infinite possibilities for plot twists but for plot twists on the plot twists and Watson doesn’t stint on the unexpected narrative switchbacks. (It also has the built-in advantage of allowing the author to indulge, quite legitimately, in the tritest form of plot exposition imaginable: having characters explain the obvious to someone who, by all rights, should already know it).

But Watson’s characters keep vacillating between, shall we say, two-dimensional and two-and-a-half-dimensional. Sometimes I kinda believed that they were real people and sometimes I was all too conscious that they were just plot devices. And his dialog often has the stiff sound of obligatory exposition because, well, that’s exactly what much of it is. Still, I found that anterograde amnesia still has a remarkably powerful effect as a plot device and the premise alone held my attention through the entire book, right up to the last page, even when the plot itself didn’t (though to give the author credit his twisty plot pulled a lot of weight on its own). So, yes, I enjoyed the book and recommend it as quick-read-on-a-long-plane-flight material.

Toward the ending, though, it began to degenerate into a Mary Higgins Clark-style woman-in-peril thriller. (Does anyone still remember Mary Higgins Clark? Is she still writing? Is she still alive?) I’m sure there’s plenty of other similar suspense fiction on the market but probably not with anywhere near this effective a gimmick, which in the end is what makes it, well, kinda memorable. In a forgettable sort of way.

Ceaselessly Into the Past: Laura Lippman’s I’d Know You Anywhere

Book #5 for 2012: I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman

When I came to the back matter at the end of I’d Know You Anywhere, I found myself surprised in several different ways. It turns out that Laura Lippman, the book’s author, is a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun and author of quite a few previous novels, many of them based, however loosely, on true crimes. This is not only the biography of a rather ordinary-sounding mystery novelist, but — and I’m sure this betrays some deep prejudice of mine — someone who is a bit of a hack mystery novelist, someone who dashes off clichéd suspense fiction in the flat, lifeless prose so typical of the bestselling novels one finds on the paperback bookshelf in the supermarket, next to magazines showcasing the scandalous lives of reality TV show stars. So let’s just say that I’m glad this back matter was precisely that: back matter. If it had been front matter and had come before the novel itself, I doubt that I’d ever have bothered to read what followed.

Because I would have been completely wrong about Lippman. She isn’t a hack; she isn’t even really a mystery writer, at least not in this particular novel (though she takes a humorous jab at such hack “true crime” writers by casting one as a minor character in one of the book’s later chapters). Lippman’s tone is literary without being self conscious about it, the kind of prose that I love because it holds my attention without ever making me feel as though my attention is either being taken advantage of or flattered for its superlative taste. Lippman writes with intelligence that never spills over into pretentiousness. And while I can’t say that I’d Know You Anywhere is likely to be the best novel that I’ll read this year, it’s certainly the best I’ve read so far and I’d happily read any of the other dozen or so Lippman novels that are listed in that back matter.

I’d Know You Anywhere is about a crime (one that Lippman says afterwards is based on a real crime though just in minor ways) but the novel doesn’t so much focus on the crime itself as on the people involved in the crime and how, despite the crime’s inevitable effects on their lives, they never manage to be anything remotely like the people you’d expect them to be. The specific story being told is about a 15-year-old girl who is kidnapped and held prisoner for 39 days by a young man who is afraid she has witnessed him murdering another teenage girl. The specific reason for that particular murder is left vague — deliberately, I think — but the young man has no intention of also murdering the girl he kidnaps. In fact, he seems to like her. He simply keeps her with him, driving around Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia (through many of the areas where I lived before I moved to California, so the book’s locales are hauntingly familiar to me). And then he lets her go.

Though it is not a mystery novel, it does have a mystery: Why does he let this girl get away and not the other girls he’s killed? (There turn out to be several other victims.) I can tell you this without it being spoilerish because it’s part of the novel’s set up, not its resolution. The story is told long after the fact, largely from the viewpoint of the 40-ish woman that the 15-year-old kidnap victim has grown up to be, after she’s contacted by her kidnapper shortly before he’s to be executed; having exhausted all his legal appeals, he wants a last chance to talk to her. He won’t say why, but he insists on the opportunity to see her and the woman eventually gives in.

It’s to Lippman’s credit that this isn’t a conventional suspense novel; she dwells very little on the possibility of any physical threat to the woman or her family, which now includes a rebellious daughter, a doting son, a loving husband and a large dog. Rather, she concentrates on the psychological aspects of the story: How was the now-adult 15-year-old changed by her kidnapping? Why did she stay with her kidnapper for 39 days when she had ample opportunity to escape? What was her complicity, if any, in the murder of his final victim, who was killed two days before the kidnapper released her?

I’d Know You Anywhere is a novel that is extraordinary precisely it seems not to be extraordinary. In fact I suspect that it’s representative of what Lippman has been writing during the more than two decades that she’s been a novelist. What surprises me is that she’s been turning out fine prose like this so quietly in a genre — the crime novel — that I’ve generally kept my eye on, if only with mild interest, and that I wasn’t even aware of her. I strongly recommend I’d Know You Anywhere if you like crime fiction and have grown tired of the clichés of the genre. I doubt that I’ll wait very long before seeing if Lippman’s other books are as good as this one.

Going to Hell in Florida: Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!

Book #4 for 2012: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I’m not quite sure how to describe Swamplandia! (The exclamation point, as with Oklahoma!, is part of the title.) It’s a book about the Florida Everglades. (I guess these are the Everglades. I can’t recall if Russell ever uses that term in the book, but it’s set in Florida, there are lots of swamps and an excessive number of alligators, which sounds pretty Everglade-y to me.) It’s about the strange rural yet sophisticated cultures that grow up along the kind of byways through which tourists pass on their way to more respectable resort areas with money in their pockets to spend and kids in their pockets to spent it on. It’s about ghosts. It’s about hell. It’s about rape. It’s about an ending that would seem absurdly coincidental if the book weren’t quite so well written and hadn’t descended so far into a miasma of hallucinogenic surrealism by the time it gets there.

What it’s mostly about, though, is family.

The family it’s about comes from Ohio, but pretends to be a tribe of Florida Indians in order to run a kind of mom-and-pop amusement park called Swamplandia! on an island buried so deep in the swamps that it requires a 40-minute ferry ride to get there. The main attraction at the amusement park — perhaps “circus” actually would be a better term than “amusement park” and would tie this novel in more neatly with The Night Circus, which I read a week or so ago — involves the mother of the family, a former beauty queen in her 30s, diving into a water-filled ditch infested with alligators and emerging safely on the other side. (The alligators, which the family refers to affectionately as “Seths,” are about as dangerous as parakeets.) Swamplandia! does well as a tourist attraction without making anybody rich. And then everything goes, figuratively and quite possibly literally, to hell.

Twin disasters occur almost simultaneously. The mother dies of a particularly virulent strain of cancer, leaving behind her husband, son, two daughters and senile father, then a rival amusement park called World of Darkness opens not too far away and instantly siphons off the tourist trade. The theme of World of Darkness is, yes, hell. All of the rides and most of the snack foods are based on the premise of hot and eternal damnation. And with serious amusement park money behind it, hell proves to be a more a popular destination point than Swamplandia!’s alligator pit, so attractive that as Swamplandia!’s economic fortunes disintegrate, the son jumps ship — or, in this case, island — to go to work there. The father disappears (he has a second job, now desperately necessary to support the family, and begins to focus on it full time) and the daughters spend most of their time keeping house in what remains of their tiny Swamplandia! community, mostly just being teenage girls together.

Now here comes the big twist and I’m going to give it away because it’s not one of those neck popping twists that one might expect from the final 10 seconds of a serialized TV show but just a kind of unexpected place where the story goes: The older of the two daughters falls in love with a ghost. At least she claims that he’s a ghost. And when the hulk of an old dredging barge left over from the Great Depression turns up in an isolated place in the swamp, she claims that this was the location of his death.

To describe the plot from this point on would take too much typing and you probably don’t want me to give that much away. Suffice it to say that the sister with the crush on the ghost decides to marry him (death apparently being no obstacle), the younger sister tries to stop her but loses track of her and employs the services of a local birdman (someone who rids communities of annoying buzzards by chasing them into other communities where he can hire himself out to get rid of them all over again), the brother goes to work at World of Darkness where he inadvertently becomes a local hero, and the resulting set of individual journeys go from the bizarre to the literally hellish. In fact, much of the younger sister’s portion of the story is about a descent into what may really be hell. (The Everglades certainly seem like a good place for it.)

It’s difficult to say if Swamplandia! qualifies as a comedy, a horror novel, a family saga, a soap opera or just a fairly fast read. The characters are less quirky than the environment that they inhabit (which was something of a relief, given the quirkiness of the environment they inhabit) and the family, though they go through some travails that should qualify as nearly Shakespearean in their tragic nature, actually turn out to be surprisingly competent at negotiating the bizarre turmoil of their lives. Which shows, I guess, that being trained to wrestle alligators at a young age is pretty good preparation for just about any bad thing that can happen to you.