Karen Healey's vision of the future in her third book for young adult readers, When We Wake, is a pretty depressing one. Houses built half underground, strict water rationing, the collection of human feces for compost (humanure) – these are all realities for the population of Australia in 2128. As is strident immigration control and rampant xenophobia. Habitable land is shrinking and people are anxious to maintain their share.
This is the world 16-year-old Tegan Oglietti wakes up to after 100 years of cryonic sleep. “I wanted to write a modern sleeping beauty story,” Healey says from her home in New Zealand. “My other two books had been fantasy and I could have made this one fantasy–obviously, people have done it–but the story that wanted to be told was a science fiction one.”
Tegan's 100-year snooze is induced as part of a government experiment after she's killed by a sniper at a political rally in 2028. When she wakes up, healed but confused, the world is mightily changed and she needs to figure out how to relate to a new set of friends, peers, and family. Normal life, however, isn't easy when you're both a celebrity and a scientific experiment.
While there is plenty of weird technology, chase scenes, and gruesome discoveries to satisfy even the most ardent science fiction reader's craving for futuristic adventure, there's also a definite message to her book, which Healey doesn't make apologies for. “All my books have didactic messages. I'm incapable of writing a nonpolitical book!” she says. “Young readers should know: your skills are valuable, your ideas are welcome. We're going to leave you the world, so you might want to do something about it.” Healey points out that many of her readers don't need much prodding to become excited about effecting change. “A lot of young people don't trust what we're leaving for them.” Healey's book isn't worse off from being, as Healey says, “didactic.” Her characters are complex and sympathetic and, beyond any political messages she imparts, readers are going to care what happens to Tegan and her friends.
Besides focusing on issues like climate change and immigration, Healey adds a hefty dose of feminism to When We Wake. “The world is still not an equal place and it would be nice if it were!” she asserts.
“The majority of young readers seem to be women, and even the men who are reading–the more exposure they have to feminism (and not the scary, feminists-want-to-destroy-the-family-and-burn-all-the-men-at-the-stake kind of feminism), the better,” Healey says. “We can talk about it as a positive change for everybody, not just women. That's really my life's philosophy and it finds its way into my work.”
As one might expect from a book about the future, the media plays a huge role in the day-to-day life of Tegan and her friends. “To me, media is like the idea of magic,” Healey says. “It can be used for good or ill, but is not in itself good or ill. It can be abused and manipulated, but can also be an incredibly powerful way of getting your own story out.”
While Tegan's story is told in her own first person point of view, she admits to the occasional lie and can't quite be trusted by readers to tell the truth. She's human, after all. Healey is the first to admit her narrator's limitations: “I figured, she's 16 years old. She's been through some traumatic experiences and may not want to tell the whole truth all of the time. Some things she was just mistaken about, too.” Healey just finished writing the sequel to When She Wakes. “There are some things you find out about that she had no idea of,” in the sequel, Healey reveals.
A sequel–proof that life goes on–is the perfect antidote to the depressing reality of Healey's version of 2128. Because the underlying foundation–of Healey's book, message and conversation–is one of hope. Tegan may wake to find herself surrounded by strangers and mayhem, but her willingness to take risks for the sake of her new world, to make friends, and to even fall in love a little bit speaks to the enduring presence of hope in the midst of a crumbling world.
Andi Diehn is a freelance writer living in rural New Hampshire.