I’m traveling again. This means two things, lots of reading time and very little time to write. During my trip I’ve been reading a lot of YA. I’m not sure why, other than I’ve been putting them off for another day. It’s been fortuitous though as I find YA to be perfectly suited to the traveling reader — short, easily consumable, and often obvious in its subtext.
Below are three novels I read this week and my thoughts:
London Eye by Tim Lebbon
Cut off from the rest of the world, London is two years into the fallout of a devastating incident that’s left the city toxic. Jack and his friends all lost family on what has become known as Doomsday. They’ve been gathering evidence about what’s been happening in London — the survivors are evolving. At great personal risk, this group of young people will venture into London to witness the truth first hand and try to find the family they lost.
London Eye is written very much in the mold of dystopian YA. The government is lying to the people and controlling “it” for its own gain. As a plot device, it’s mostly successful, although the localized nature of the Lodon incident doesn’t necessarily wash. While the United Kingdom government is given free reign to experiment on its now poisoned populace, no lasting mention is given as to why other countries are allowing it to go on unchecked.
This group of young people Lebbon focueses his story on are in conflict with the government directly as opposed to trying to motivate outside agents to intercede on their behalf. Where this mechanism works perfectly in traditional dystopia in which society has broken down completely, outside of London life goes on largely as it does today. Begging the question, why is this all necessary?
Add to that a plot that doesn’t really develop beyond ‘let’s find my family’ and ‘oh God what if my family is dead’, and an ending that’s rushed beyond hope, London Eye just isn’t a very good novel. Lebbon is an accomplished writer and the bones are here for something worthy, but it doesn’t get there, in need as it is of another 50,000 words of character development and story.
Earthseed by Pamela Sargent
Recently optioned by Paramount Pictures, Sargent’s 1983 classic Earthseed has been rereleased by Tor in trade paperback. Set in a distant future, a group of teenagers hurtle through space on Ship, a sentient generation starship tasked with populating a habitable planet with humanity.
To Zoheret and her shipmates, Ship has been mother, father, and loving teacher, preparing them for their biggest challenge: to survive on their own, on a new planet. With the day nearly upon them, Ship puts them to the test and dormant instincts take over.
Earthseed is something of a combination of Lord of the Flies and The Hunger Games, equal parts insight into human nature and into the nature of oppression in an unequal society. Zoheret is a tremendous protagonist, who refuses to bend into the shape our society, or even her’s, would want her to be.
After finishing I was surprised to learn there were two sequels published in 2007 and 2011, decades after Earthseed. The story in the first novel is absolutely self contained. And while it may stimulate the completionist’s need to have every loose end tied up in a neat bow, I found myself in a satisfied place that warranted no further exposition. Highly recommended.
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
I’m admitting two things up front. First, The Wind Up Girl, Baciagalupi’s only ‘adult’ novel to date, was a gut punch no holds barred piece of fiction. I hated reading it, but felt like it was important I did so. Second, I recognize that young adult fiction by its nature can’t contain the same kind of oomph Wind Up Girl derived. With that in mind, take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt — Ship Breaker pulls its punches, and as a result, fails to resonate in any meaningful way.
In America’s Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, teenaged Nailer scavenges for copper wiring to make quota. The Fates smile on him when he discovers a luxury clipper ship beached. Worth his life in salvage, Nailer has to decide whether to strip the ship for all it’s worth or rescue its lone survivor, an upper class girl who could lead him to a better life.
It’s a pretty standard YA yarn. Gutter rat meets rich girl, falls in love(ish), and claws his way to a better life for himself and those he cares about. Given this unimaginitive narrative, with few, if any, twists, it becomes tantamount that Bacigalupi impress and astound with his setting and subtext. It’s certainly true that his setting feels authentic, if slightly stunted by the narrow window he shows, but where Wind Up Girl was freed to be as nasty as it has to be to convey reality, Ship Breaker has to ease back on the throttle to consider its audience. The setting is poorer for it.
In terms of subtext, telling the story entirely from Nailer’s point of view restricts the narrative, almost entirely, from venturing into the why and how of society’s collapse. Ship Breaker allows the reader to see how the world has collapsed in a post-climate change environment, but Nailer’s lack of knowledge (and education) does not give Bacigalupi any room to wax about the fears he so strongly expresses in his adult work.
All that goes to say, Ship Breaker is a much more entertaining story than Wind Up Girl, and a thousand times more fun to read, but I can’t help but feel let down by its lack of impact. It’s entirely possible that with his hook now set, Bacigalupi will come roaring back with The Drowned Cities, which I’ll be reading very soon.