House of Stairs (1974), by William Sleator

A dystopic novel of the future, in which a collection of teens find themselves in a large room—or auditorium—that consists entirely of stairs, and a strange vending machine. This is my recollection—I haven’t read this since 1979.  The vending machine distributes food in a rather Pavlovian way: the children are being conditioned to act in certain ways; when they do, they are rewarded with food.  Once they discover what is going on—and that the behaviour being asked of them is aggression—a subset of the youths refuse to cooperate.  When I first read this text, it was a powerful introduction to the notion of mind-control, and resistance, and the necessity of thinking for oneself and standing for what one knew to be right.

I remember the conflict, the emotions, the strength the characters have to call up from deep inside to resist their basic biological needs in an effort to preserve their own sense of integrity. The final scene, once they are seemingly inexplicably freed, haunts me to this day. A spectacular novel at the time, and one I think that has weathered well the sands of time and technological advancement.

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