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Surfing the End of the World: Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave

I haven’t written a book review in this blog for months. One reason, obviously, is that I haven’t read a book in months, but that’s not strictly true. I’ve read a few for professional reasons that I just don’t want to review. And I haven’t been able to work up the energy to review Rick Yancey’s YA alien invasion epic The 5th Wave.

The 5th Wave

I’m not quite sure why I haven’t been able to work up the energy, because it was one of the two best books I’ve read this year. That may sound like faint praise, but when the other book was Gillian Flynn’s stunning Gone Girl, it’s actually something of a compliment. I think the real reason I don’t have the energy to review The 5th Wave is that I liked it so much that I deliberately stretched out my reading of it to the point that by the time I reached the end, I couldn’t remember all the great things I’d planned to say about it at the beginning. So if this review, which I’m finally writing several months after I finished the book, seems a bit sketchy, it’s because I’ve forgotten most of what I loved about it.

But not all. One thing I loved was that Yancey has a gift for writing poetic prose that doesn’t come across as the slightest bit poetic unless you’re looking very closely, which is a terrific gift for a writer of YA novels, where the audience might be suspicious of any book that sounds like it might someday be assigned in English classes. And it also makes for terrific reading if you’re the sort of person like me who is intensely interested in the prose mechanics of a novel. It took me a while to realize that Yancey’s prose had an almost song-like cadence to it, while still sounding like the kind of writing one would expect from a science fiction thriller. His sentences are perfectly constructed. His paragraphs are perfectly constructed. And his chapters end with beautifully thought out buttons that will haunt you long after you’ve finished reading them. And all this will sneak up on you without you even noticing he’s done it.

He’s also gone out of his way to make the well-worn alien invasion tropes feel new again. It’s not that he does anything genuinely original here — I don’t think there’s a trick in this book that I haven’t seen in some other alien invasion novel — but he takes a whole bunch of tricks (the title tells you how many) and combines them into something unique. He gives away the book’s central surprise in the prologue, just to show that he doesn’t even have to surprise you with it to make it work. (It’s that the aliens arrive on earth by inserting their consciousnesses into the brains of unborn fetuses, where they will awaken in adolescence. And, no, I haven’t spoiled anything that you won’t know by page 2.) And then a fresh mothership full of aliens starts hitting us with one nasty attack after another, but I’ll let you discover what those are about by reading the book.

What I loved about it most, though, was the moral ambiguity of it all. The aliens in the book aren’t entirely evil. Even the worst of them are simply looking for a new world to live on and want to get rid of the previous occupants. The best of them…well, let’s just say that they can be as heroic as any of the humans.

The book follows two viewpoint characters, Cassie (for Cassiopeia) and Zombie (whose real name escapes me at the moment). Cassie is a teenage girl who lives alone in the woods, armed for bear, afraid of other people because she doesn’t know which ones are aliens in disguise — and you can probably imagine the ugly places a situation like that can lead. The other is part of a children’s army being trained to fight back against the aliens, because children seem to have survived the early attack waves in greater numbers than adults have. (There’s a reason for this, but it would be a spoiler to mention it.)

Most of the suspense and fascination of Yancey’s novel comes from the internal struggles of these characters, but he can write a great action scene too. Yet my favorite moments were mostly internal monologues. Which is odd, because I’ve been reading a lot of advice lately from writers and editors, including the late Elmore Leonard, saying that writers should avoid internal monologue because it bores readers, who are apparently frightened by long paragraphs without dialog. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something wrong with the fact that I love it. But Yancey’s book has been on bestseller lists already, so there must be other readers like me who don’t subscribe to the Elmore Leonard school of all-dialog narration. (In fairness to Leonard, most of Yancey’s book is first-person internal monologue, so you can think of it as dialog addressed to the reader.)

The 5th Wave is the first book of a trilogy, so don’t be disappointed if all your questions aren’t answered in the end and all the bad situations aren’t resolved. Some major plot arcs are tied up, so that should be enough to keep you happy until Book Two comes out. And if you’re like me, you’ll be lined up to download that book to your e-reader the moment it’s available.

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.

The Road to Dystopia

Book #27 (August 20, 2010): The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Book #28 (August 24, 2010): Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Book #29 (August 28, 2010): Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

When I was about two-thirds of the way through reading this trilogy of books,  my girlfriend and housemate Amy asked me what it is that makes YA — young adult — fiction different from adult fiction. It wasn’t a question I found easy to answer. Certainly it isn’t the absence of subtleties like good characterization, because no book for readers at any level can function without believable characters. (Well, maybe a Lee Child novel can, but I don’t think it’s fair to keep holding up Mr. Child as an example of poor writing because obviously he has an audience and obviously he’s adept at giving that audience what it wants.) It isn’t an absence of important issues of ethics and morality, because if anything young readers are more acutely aware of, and worried about, these things than adults are. And it certainly isn’t the lack of a compelling story. No kid is going to finish a novel that doesn’t have a story that compels the turning of page after page after page.

If anything, what separates a YA novel from an adult novel is the intensity with which these things matter. Young readers may not care about nuances of personality that would be of interest to an adult, but they yearn for a character they can believe in and have intense feelings about. Usually this means a character somewhere near their own age, who is concerned (but by no means exclusively so) with many of the same things the readers are. As for ethics and morality, often these issues become even murkier and more ambiguous in YA fiction precisely because these things are murkier and more ambiguous in a teenager’s life than in an adult’s. And plot — well, a YA writer had better understand how to create a plot that brings these elements together in ingenious and surprising ways. In other words, YA novels are like adult novels, only more so.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins seems to be the hottest thing currently going in YA fiction that doesn’t involve vampires or youthful sorcerers. It’s not even a fantasy. It’s dystopian science fiction, a subgenre that was already regarded as a cliche when I was reading science fiction back in the 1970s. Like all cliches, there’s a solid reason for its cliche-hood: It works. There are few fictional plots more rousing, more compelling, or more morally ambiguous than those that pit an individual or group of individuals against an oppressive authority that wants to crush them, kill them and portray them as enemies of the state. It appeals to that part of a reader’s psyche that yearns for a cause, that wants to be part of something larger than themselves in a way that will help them make sense out of their own confused lives.

Suzanne Collins obviously knows this and plays the well-worn premise to the hilt. The Hunger Games trilogy is set in what remains of the United States at some unspecified time in the future after a vaguely described disaster, probably having to do with global warming, has reduced the country to 13 geographically separated, seriously depopulated districts ruled over by a totalitarian regime based in a capitol (called, simply, “the Capitol”) tucked away somewhere in the Rockies. 75 years before the story begins the 13 districts revolted against the oppressive regime and lost. As punishment, one of the districts, unlucky District 13, was apparently destroyed outright and the remaining 12 are subjected to an annual punishment known as the Hunger Games, where two teenagers from each district are chosen by lottery to come to the Capitol and fight one another in a carefully orchestrated deathmatch from which there can only be one survivor.

The central character and first-person narrator of the books is a 16-year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen and it isn’t much of a spoiler to tell you that she gets sent to the Capitol to participate in the games. The first book is largely about Katniss and 23 other teenagers trying to kill each other without being killed themselves. But it’s a trilogy, so Collins can’t just let everything end when Katniss survives or fails to survive the Hunger Games. Something larger has to happen. And with this being a dystopian thriller, it’s really not giving too much away to say that the larger theme of the trilogy is the full scale rebellion of the downtrodden districts against the totalitarian Capitol and that Katniss will be at the center of this.

This isn’t an especially original plot, though Collins manages to take a lot of overused plot elements and put them back together in a fairly original manner. And if some of the characters are stock figures, all of them are nonetheless believable. Collins’ real achievement, though, is that she’s made the trilogy into a riveting piece of storytelling, one that isn’t just targeted at adolescent females and that seems to have an appeal that has spilled over substantially into the adult market. I wasn’t sure when I picked up the initial volume whether I was going to go ahead and read all three, but by the time I was a few chapters into the first book I knew that there was no way I wasn’t going to finish reading the trilogy as a whole. This isn’t great literature with deep characterization or novel insights into the human condition, but as pure storytelling with just enough depth to the characters to make you believe that they would do the things they do and to make you care whether they pull through okay in the end, it’s first-rate stuff. If you want a book or three that will keep you up late at night reading, I strongly recommend the Hunger Games trilogy.

Even if you’re not a young adult.