Running Out of Time (1995), by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Haddix-RunningM. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 movie The Village is blatantly based on this rather interesting novel, although the screenwriter/director does not credit Haddix’s text at all.  The book, not surprisingly, is better than the movie, which, again not surprisingly, introduces a number of more sensational elements and does not include the final scenes of the novel, which show the realist aftermath of the more adventurous and exciting portion of the story.  The premise is that a community has been scientifically developed, peopled by individuals who no longer desire to live according to our society’s standards (ecologically, politically, etc.), who recreate and live in a society replicating nineteenth-century America.  This community flourishes, and is an “experiment” like reality shows such as Frontier House (PBS, 2002, DVD); people could come and watch the community through two-way mirrors.  The crisis arises when members of the community—which by now has children who do not know they are part of an experiment—begin to fall ill of diphtheria, and the promised medical supplies are not forthcoming.  It is eventually determined that the providers—who set up and control the experiment—are not going to help, that the experiment is in fact less sociological and more medical (read: political and financial) than they had been told. The adults in the community devise a plan to alert the outside world to the reality of their situation, but while help arrives, the outcome of their plan is not entirely positive. The legal system as we know it exists in the outside world, and the parents in the community are ultimately charged with child abuse.  We are left trusting in the reasonableness of a system that many readers will recognize as their own… a thought-provoking and real place to be left at the end of a rather dystopic novel.

Little Brother (2008), by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother plays to one of my worst fears, even a phobia: the abuse of power by petty officials. Border crossings are particularly troubling for me, as for years I was exactly the sort of person into whose backpack less-reputable individuals might slip something, to be reclaimed on the other side. I am not usually paranoid, but I must admit to repeated anxiety every time we approached a border or airport security in our years travelling around Europe and Asia.  So imagine my response to the opening scenes of Little Brother, in which Marcus and his friends are arrested as terrorists, merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cory Doctorow’s intent of causing the reader to question the balance of power in post-9/11 America was thus particularly effective for me. I almost put the book down, so worried was I of where the novel might take me. Then I remembered I have read all of Robert Cormier’s novels (one after another—do that and try to avoid depression and trauma), how bad could it get? I am so glad I persevered, as Doctorow’s protagonist is a brilliantly constructed example of my favourite type of teen geek, one who understands his own ability with technology—the power of the future—and yet is young and naïve enough not to understand fully the political powers that control his reality. He is a combination of so many real teens and the rarer breed: young hot-shot techno-geeks. His type—and thus his character—fascinates me.

Marcus (aka M1K3Y in 1337-speak) takes on the American Department of Homeland Security and wins: a situation that should not be possible and in most narrative instances would not be plausible. Doctorow, however, constructs his plot carefully, and we believe in Marcus’s ability to orchestrate the pranks he does, as well as the governmental responses to them. Power in the novel shifts back and forth between the teen rebels and the DHS until finally Marcus realizes the severity of what he has started, the degree to which others are suffering for his cause. The ideological aspects of his decisions are not glossed over; he has to seriously consider his own motivations, what he is asking of those around him as well as supporters he has never met. In the end, he does what I always want teen protagonists to do at such times, but so few: he goes to sympathetic adults for advice and assistance. Little Brother is thus not merely about teenaged power wielded against the adult world, as so many YA novels are, but about the conscious activism of individuals with integrity against corruption and the abuse of power. By making Marcus’s situation a part of a greater ideological battle, Doctorow raised the bar for YA literature. I’m not saying Little Brother is unique in this—Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, and Cheryl Rainfield’s Hunted spring to mind—but it seems that YA literature tends toward the self-absorbed teen perspective in a way that is both present and yet transcended in Little Brother.

Post-Human (2009), by David Simpson

Accepting that Post-Human is self-published by David Simpson, a young Vancouver author, we can overlook a number of publishing and editorial mistakes.  The plot itself is original and interesting: humankind has approached physical perfection through the introduction of nanobots into our bodies.  When a universal update goes devastatingly wrong, a few scientists momentarily off-line on Venus are saved.  The plot revolves around their search for other surviving humans, and their battle against the A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) that has taken over control of the nanosystem.  Concepts in the story remind one strongly of M. T. Anderson’s Feed (2002) melded with William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), but Simpson has introduced a number of interesting elements that bear consideration by those readers interested in contemplating where modern and futuristic technology will take the human race.  The strongest success in the novel is the characterization; Simpson’s ethnically interesting mix of characters avoids stereotypes and allows us to engage readily with individuals on both sides of the human conflicts that develop.  Overall, a very interesting novel that suffers most from a lack of professional editing and publication.

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.