I read a lot of young adult fiction in 2012. This was new for me. Nancy Kress was new to me too, although not remotely new to pretty much everyone else. Her newest novel, Flash Point, is the story of Amy, a teenage reality television star in a not-quite dystopia. Beneath the poverty line, with no means of supporting her sick grandmother and younger sister, Amy has no choice but to put it all on the line on national television.
While the world awaits the flash point that could lead it into economic and sociological ruin, or turn the corner into a new age of prosperity, Amy’s show Who Knows People, Baby — You? catches attention. Seemingly a souped up version of John Quinones’ ABC show What Would You Do? it forces teenagers from different levels of society into uncomfortable and often dangerous situations to elicit a response.
Amy expected the start of another of TLN’s “scenarios.” Anything could happen at any minute; she had to be ready, she had to respond–
A squirrel ran down a street and darted across her path, and she cried out.
“Hey relax, kid, it’s just a squirrel,” a man said, smiling at her.”
Viewers respond to these “scenarios” as to how how they think the participants will react. Guess all of them right, win a couple million.
Of course, this makes Flash Point something of a commentary on television as an industry, and as a weapon in the battle for the hearts and minds of society. In that way, it has many of the same bones as the wildly successful Hunger Games franchise, but in a much more believable milieu. Flash Point is, at times, very successful in its engagement on that level, playing with ideas of corporate corruption, free media, and the like.
Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as successful in its application of themes like coming of age, fitting in, self identity, depression, et. al. That lack exists largely due to the complete lack of character development throughout. Amy, a Pollyanna standard, begins and ends the novel as the perfect sister and granddaughter, a model teenager that any parent would be happy to claim. She’s responsible, attractive, self aware, and capable. Contrast that to her promiscuous and deceitful sister, and her TV co-stars who run the gamut from rich and jaded to gorgeous and cowardly, each represents an archetype and little more.
Given the importance of the protagonist in young adult fiction (the word important understates it significantly), Amy’s lack of development retards much of the novel. Hunger Games, for all its action and adventure, succeeds because of Katniss, her growth as a character and the engagement with the young adult sense of self. If Flash Point fails, and I would argue that is does, it does so because it fails that test of engagement.
There’s also the issue of the phantoms. Early in the story Kress gives Amy a vision, or phantom as it’s called in the narrative.
The phanton that sliced into Amy’s mind was so sharp it brought her to her feet. A baby rabbit, struggling to free itself from an iron trap around its leg, the cruel teeth cutting into the bloody flesh.
These visions aren’t uncommon in Amy’s life, including a half dozen times at various points in the novel. She’s used to them and they always come true. In the dystopian realistic milieu this fantasy device feels shoehorned in, particularly because it never delivers anything significant. As I read, I presumed Kress was promising relevance at some future ah-ha moment. She was not. Amy’s phatoms become a massive red herring in the narrative, but are never used to actually subvert the reader’s expectations. Not only are they unexplained and genre-anachronistic, they just don’t serve a recognizable purpose other than as a cheap method of foreshadowing.
Despite my many complaints, reading Flash Point is a lesson in why Nancy Kress has had such a long and storied career. Flaws abound, but to call it readable wouldn’t do it, or her, justice. Her use of language, pacing, and story structure are all spot on, making the novel impossible to put down even when I was baffled by its shortcomings. I certainly couldn’t recommend it over some of the other tremendous young adult novels I’ve read this year — Earthseed in particular comes to mind — but I wouldn’t lay down in traffic to save someone from reading it either.
That’s got to the biggest backhanded compliment in history.