I’ve been dystopia-ed out for well over a year now. Can you blame me? Ever since the explosive popularity of The Hunger Games, every third book I pick up is set in a vision of our near future in which the world’s population has been disastrously affected by the cataclysmic version of a nightly news issue (climate change, bee extinction*, genetic engineering gone wrong) leading to some form of authoritarian government that strips away the civil liberties of the remaining populace and violently enforces new cultural constraints; in which the protagonist fights said new world order; and, if female, also navigates some form of a love triangle**.
So, fair or not, as it has all three annoyingly ubiquitous elements of almost every other recent entrant into the YA dystopian ring—in this case, 17-year-old Sloane fights a system that snaps up teens seen as suicide risks and wipes all of their painful memories, turning them into khaki-and-button-down-wearing Stepford teens—Suzanne Young’s The Program had to wage a seriously uphill battle to succeed in winning me over.
And here’s the thing: it did.
Young gives those three familiar elements a somewhat unfamiliar spin. The epidemic is in our near future, but the adults don’t enact the New World Order because they’re protecting resources or even trying to save our species from extinction: They do it purely out of fear for the lives of their progeny***. While the heroine fights the system, she isn’t a special snowflake who is immune to The Program—it violates her, and it changes her significantly and possibly irrevocably. Third, although there are two dudes who love her (plus a skeevy sexual predator, but he doesn’t count as a love interest, obviously), there’s never really any question about who she loves back****. Beyond all that, she explores the nature—as well as highlighting the importance—of the grief process.
Every time I started to give Young the side eye for a perceived plot hole, a little while later—sometimes chapters, sometimes mere pages—she’d plug it. When I started questioning how a program like The Program could be overlooked by the ACLU or any number of other organizations, she (subtly) reminded me that my view of the situation was extremely narrow given the narrator’s perspective. When I wondered why The Program wasn’t monitoring Sloane’s cell usage, well...I shouldn’t have questioned their efficiency.
With the exception of the sexual predator—he’s a two-dimensional moustache-twirler—the adults are written as real people, some of whom are extremely conflicted about what they’re doing to their children. Even so, I developed a seething hatred for pretty much all of them, especially for Sloane’s mother, who I wouldn’t push out of the way of a speeding bus. Teen readers will not only be enthralled by the storyline and the romance, but also relate to feeling controlled and out of control, to Sloane’s struggle to hide her pain and to the desire to please one’s parents while also wanting to break free of them.
A word of warning: It has a SUPER frustrating ending. It can be read more than one way, but given the market, it pretty well guarantees that there is a sequel in the works. Holy crap, though, if it was a stand-alone, it would be a downer of epic proportions: think Brazil or Blade Runner.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.
*Wow, Kirkus and I did not agree about that one.
**Sometimes the male protagonists deal with that issue as well, but not with the same frequency as the ladies.
***Or, well, that’s their motive on a personal level. We’ll see if things look different in the next installment, which I suspect will broaden our view of the situation.
****Bonus points to Young for allowing her heroine to be sexually active without making it into An Issue.