Two brothers deal with a totalitarian water emergency in this debut YA sci-fi eco-fantasy.
In a near future of permanent worldwide drought, Oregon has had no rain for a year and suffers drastic shortages of water and food. After the disappearance of their mother, Margaret, a poet, and father, Richard, a scientist working on cloud seeding, 18-year-old Thomas Banks and his 9-year-old brother, Dustin, join the water-patrol, where they hand out tickets for resource-wasting infractions such as failing to recycle urine, growing vegetables indoors, taking baths rather than wiping down with towelettes, and pirating scant renewable electricity. Complicating their duties is Thomas’ girlfriend, Jerusha, whom he can’t bring himself to turn in despite her being a bootlegger with a “water-brewing system” that condenses atmospheric moisture for sale on the black market. For no compelling reason, Thomas, Jerusha, and Dustin set out on a car trip to California through a desiccated landscape scoured by dust storms and brutal water cops. Along the road, they meet a car repairman with information about Richard and join a group of “Leftovers,” misfits who break the rules by digging wells, growing produce, and drinking goat milk. Alas, the police raid their idyllic camp and haul Thomas and Dustin to a “rehabilitation facility” for a baffling (and somewhat tiresome) coercive regimen: They are plied with fresh water and rare delicacies like pizza and orange juice while starving inmates watch; then their food and water are cut off; then a guard threatens to torture Dustin unless Thomas divulges secrets from Richard’s weather research. Zerndt’s dystopian yarn gives a sinister twist to environmental dogmas, making sustainability slogans like “Go Green 4 Life” the rhetorical facade of an Orwellian police state. But like many such novels, this hit-and-miss book suffers from haphazard plotting and an imagined society that makes little sense except to adolescents who think the adult world is nothing but an arbitrary power play. Thomas and Jerusha spend much time on quasi-parental fretting over Dustin’s emotional well-being, which often slows the narrative to a crawl. Still, the author’s prose is well-crafted and evocative—“The hills look like shriveled up nut-sacks, and I can barely see what’s left of the beach with all the dust tornadoeing around”—and her characters are intriguing enough to make readers sympathize with their parched predicament.
An atmospheric but squishy tale of a thirsty American dictatorship.