Kids battle totalitarian sadists in this searing sci-fi novel.
In the year 2159, roughly a century after World War III, young teenager Zay Scot and his little sister, Lina, are living an idyllic life of chores and gin rummy on Block Island. Then stormtroopers invade, burn the place, apparently kill their parents, Tavish and Ava, and haul the kids off to the mainland capital of the United North American Alliance. Like any dystopia, UNAA is a mixed bag. There are floating cars, helpful hover-bots that deliver personalized meals, awesome virtual-reality combat games at the skyscraper game center, and implanted scanners by which the government tracks everything citizens do, buy and email—for the citizens’ safety and convenience, of course. But there’s a downside: Dickensian foster homes; strict curfews; constant spying by yet more robots and cameras; the ever-present threat of electroshock-lashings from black-uniformed goons and their psychotic supervisors; and the experimental drugs they secretly sprinkle into those ready-to-eat robo-meals. Zay’s refusal to log in to the all-seeing computer system plunges him into hot water, and with the help of a dissident underground, he and Lina set out to find the truth about their parents and a giant gulag known as Cherry Hill. Butler’s yarn unfolds in punchy but evocative prose that’s full of well-realized characters. Although the political economy of this imperfect future doesn’t make a wholly reasonable amount of sense, the portrayal of its mechanisms of control is chillingly effective. Characters languish in an oppressive sense of helplessness under a state so domineering that citizens can’t share a bite of food without the government’s permission; in the background is an unspoken but ubiquitous brutality that emerges with gruesome realism in the electroshock scenes, which are both convincing and hard to read with their mixture of workaday jocularity and devilish cruelty. Steeped in teen martyrdom and paranoia about the total surveillance society, the narrative depends too much on plot contrivances, and the violence, profanity and sexual menace are a bit heavy for YA fare. The story wraps up rather patly, but the fictive world is sure to pull readers in.
An imaginative, engrossing work of speculative fiction, like an Edward Snowden rewrite of The Hunger Games.