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Horizon by Jenn Reese

The #weneediversebooks movement has been a popular phenomenon on Twitter and among kidlit and YA bloggers this year. The idea is to encourage publishers and authors to write and market more and better literature for children and young adults that shows and features diversity in human beings. In other words, children want to read, or adults want them to be able to read, about the many cultures, racial groups, religious groups, ability groups, and others that make up the human race. Books, especially book characters, as a whole, should reflect the marvelous diversity that exists in the human family.

One question has been where does this movement for diversity intersect with speculative fiction? In particular, since I’m reading a ton of it for the Cybils, where do diversity in characters and cultures and middle grade speculative fiction intersect? Is it just about more people of color or more people with disabilities as characters in our fantasy and science fiction books? Or can diversity be approached in another way, a way that is particularly suited to speculative fiction?

In Horizon author Jenn Reese shows a world of diverse “humans”, a world in which, by the end of the book, most of the very different creatures with very different cultures an cultural expectations have learned to live together peacefully. (I could argue with the implication that if you simply get rid of the evil dictator, evil in the rest of the world will die a quick death, but I won’t go there.) Instead I want to just list some of the peoples that Reese includes in her fantasy world:

The Coral Kampii live under the ocean but near the shore and are given beautiful tails instead of legs at puberty. Their society is closed off, conservative, and isolationist.
Equians are intelligent horse-like people who live in the desert and worship the sun. Their primary values are honor and loyalty to the community, or herd.
The Deepfell live in the deeps of the ocean and are related to but also enemies of the Kampii. They have bodies that have adapted to the pressures of the ocean depths.
The Serpentii are a snakish people who also live in the desert, usually in caves. They have been long at war with the Equians and are by this time nearly extinct.
The Aviars are bird-people with a rather militant and Spartan female-led culture.
Upgraders are technologically enhanced human-like cyborgs who seem to be the enemies of all of the other more human species in this world. Or are they?

So in Horizon these different groups work out their differences and some of them ally themselves together to fight the evil Karl Strand, a mad scientist dictator who wants to rule the world. Written like that, the plot may sound a little hokey, but it’s certainly not. The interactions between the different characters and between the different people groups are complicated, nuanced, and intriguing. Characters must overcome their prejudices, learn to accept their dissimilarities, and work together, capitalizing on the things that divide them and make them diverse, while also overcoming the things that handicap them. For instance, the main character, Aluna, is a Kampii with a tail (think mermaid) which is a disability when she is on land. However, her friend, Vachir, an Equian, carries Aluna, tail and all, into battle where she is able to use her other abilities to fight and win battles.

When we talk about “diverse books” or “diverse characters”, it’s not enough to ask only simple questions, although these are a start, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. Are there any people of color in the Above World books? I’m not sure skin color is ever mentioned, except for the Kampii’s colorful tails. Are any of the characters disabled? Well, in a way, they all are “differently abled”. The Kampii can’t walk. None of the people can fly, except the Aviars. The land peoples can’t live in the water, and the water peoples can’t live on land without technological aids. The Equians don’t talk in words, only whinnies. Are there diverse cultures? Of course, but they aren’t the cultures we know in our world, even though some of them resemble real cultural groups in our world.

Is speculative fiction, particularly this Above World trilogy, a good way for middle grade readers to explore diversity? Absolutely. I’ll leave you with a quote from the book in a scene in which the different characters are trying to build a city that will serve all of the world’s people groups:

“She pored over the city’s planning schematics every night. The ramps and elevators had been her idea, so every person could go every place, whether they had wings or tails or hooves or legs. Given enough time, she’d probably find a way to let the Aviars live underwater if they wanted.”

Now that’s an example of accommodating and celebrating diversity. #weneeddiversebooks

The first two books in this series were Above World and Mirage. I suggest reading the books in order.

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This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Cybils: Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Nominations are open through October 15th for the Cybils, the book awards for children’s and young adult literature that are administered, judged, and awarded by kid lit bloggers. The category description for YA Speculative Fiction says:

Magic, aliens, ghosts, alternate universes, time travel, space travel, high fantasy, dystopian, post-apocalyptic futures, horror, and sentient animals are just some of the many topics that belong here. If a book could happen today or could have happened in the past, nominate it in YA Fiction. But any story that’s impossible, improbable, or merely possible – but not quite yet – belongs in Speculative Fiction. Magic Realism is tricky, but more often than not ends up here. The age range for this category is approximately 12-18.

Here are a few YA Speculative Fiction books that may deserve a look, but haven’t been nominated yet. If one of these is your favorite, please nominate it for a Cybils award.

Parched by Georgia Clark.
Don’t Even Think About It by Sarah Mlynowski.
Destined for Doon by Carey Corp and Lorey Langdon. Reviewed at The Book Nut: A Booklover’s Guide.
Nightmare City by Andrew Klavan.
Mindwar by Andrew Klavan.
One Realm Beyond by Donita K. Paul. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.
Merlin’s Nightmare by Robert Treskillard. NOMINATED
Rebels (The Safe Lands) by Jill Williamson.

Do carry on with nominations for all your favorites in all of the categories, but only those books published between Oct. 16, 2013 and Oct. 15, 2014 are eligible.

Parched by Georgia Clark

“Post-apocalyptic fiction is set in a world or civilization after . . . a disaster that ruins the world. Possible apocalyptic disasters include nuclear warfare, pandemic, extraterrestrial attack, impact event, cybernetic revolt, technological singularity, dysgenics, supernatural phenomena, divine judgment, climate change, resource depletion or some other general disaster.”

“A dystopia is a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a utopia. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, environmental disaster, or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society.”

Obviously there is/can be some overlap here. Hunger Games is dystopian fiction, but it is hinted that some apocalyptic disaster caused the government of Panem to become what it was. Divergent also falls into this in between category, with most of the emphasis being on the uncovering of the dystopia underneath the seeming utopia of future Chicago. Parched is both post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction.

Disaster: fifty years of climate change leading to world wide drought and a severe shortage of water.

Ostensible utopia that is actually a dystopia: Eden, a city enclosed by white walls and a clear protective dome under which water is kept for the exclusive benefit of the Edenites. Outside Eden is the Badlands where millions live in violent anarchy with a growing shortage of water.

Government: authoritarian, led by a dictator named Gyan and a group of functionaries called the Trust.

Hero/heroine: Sixteen year old Tessendra Rockwood, an Edenite who, because of the tragic accident that killed her mother, has left the protective environment she grew up in to live in the Badlands outside the city.

Rebel group: Kudzu, a group of teens who are determined to change their world by means of non-violent resistance.

Technology: Eden is highly technological with robots called “substitutes” that perform most of the menial labor in the city, and the development of artificial intelligence is on the horizon for the scientists of Eden. Inhabitants of the Badlands exist on the edges of civilization, using primitive low-tech weapons and the cast-off technology of Eden to survive.

I thought Parched was well-written and solid in its world-building and characterizations. I did figure out one of the two major “reveals’ in the book before they were revealed, but I’m not sure every reader would. And sometimes Tess acts sixteen year old dumb while at other times she is brave, strong, and skilled way beyond her years. If the “border crisis” in Parched is meant to mirror and comment on the current border crisis in the U.S., it’s eerily prescient since the book was published in March of this year just before the border crisis began to dominate the news in mid-summer.

There is teen romance in Parched (no triangle, thank goodness), but it’s an interesting and somewhat restrained romance. There is some mild bad language, which could have have been left out, but unfortunately wasn’t. The language, violence, theme of rebellion against a repressive government, and romance make this one firmly YA, although both younger and older readers who like Orleans by Sherri Smith or Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities would also like Parched.

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

A homeschooling mom friend recommended Under the Never Sky, the first in a futuristic, dystopian trilogy of YA novels about a place I wouldn’t want to visit In Real Life. Aria lives in Reverie, an enclosed pod-like city where everyone spends their time experiencing life in virtual reality “Realms”. When she visits the outside, the “Real”, Aria is in for a dangerous surprise and a journey that will both change her and show her true self.

Perry is a hunter and a fighter; for him, violence is a way of life, a tool for survival. When he meets the Dweller-girl Aria, the two opposites form an unlikely alliance so that both of them can maybe get what they want. Aria wants to find her mother who has been lost in a research accident (or attack), and Perry wants to find his nephew who was kidnapped by the Dwellers.

Plot and characters were at the forefront of this YA novel, and the story itself was a page-turner. I couldn’t tell you what the story was about, in terms of themes, except maybe that surviving together in a harsh and dangerous world can breed inter-dependence, or even what Perry calls “being rendered” with another person.

“Aria smiled, turning toward him, her eyes dropping to his mouth. The room sweetened with her violet scent, drawing him in, becoming everything, and he felt it. A shift deep within him. The seal of a bond he’d known once before. And suddenly he understood . . .
It happened.
He had rendered to her.”

This one is a good, romantic yet wild and ferocious, adventure story for alternate universe geeks who love a good rendering on or around Valentine’s Day (or anytime really). The second and third books in this trilogy are titled Through the Ever Night and Into the Still Blue.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Are you afraid of the continued encroachment of Big Government and Big Business and Big Internet on the privacy of individuals? Are you worried about the implications of surveillance drones, cashless business models, data-mining, and internet search engines that seem to be more and more ubiquitous and indispensable to more and more people? Have you opted out of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+ and all other social media sites because you want to keep your self to yourself?

If you answered yes to all three questions, you don’t need to read The Circle, but you’ll probably want to read it because you’ll find your own opinions about privacy, the internet, and our own Brave New World, validated and extended in this fictional dsytopia where “The Circle” of everyone knowing everything about everyone is almost complete. If Eldest Daughter wanted to win her friends over to her way of thinking about what the internet is doing to humans and to their social abilities and to their privacy rights, she would give a copy of The Circle to each of them with an admonition to read at their own risk.

Scary stuff. It’s somewhat unbelievable that the main character, a young college graduate named Mae, is so gullible as to never really question, even once, the vast internet conspiracy (or benevolent business model) that is called The Circle in this story. In fact, Mae is a frustrating character, so blind to the consequences of her actions and to the implications of a society built on the concept of complete and total transparency, as to be rather mindless. However, this book isn’t about either plot or characters: it’s about propaganda. It’s about what living a virtual life in a virtual world with social media as our most vital connection could do to us. Have we become, or are we in danger of becoming, rather mindless ourselves? Are we willing to give up all of our freedom for the sake of safety and security? Could our private lives and our independent judgment be taken away, or could we be induced to give them away, piece by piece, for a mess of pottage?

SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT!

If you believe these central organizing “truths” of The Circle, read The Circle and think about the real implications of a world that is totally and mandatorily transparent. If you believe that Google and Facebook and Twitter are the opiates of the masses, and that 1984 is closer than we think, read The Circle and be vindicated. If you’re philosophically opposed to agitprop and think you already know all about the message Mr. Eggers has to preach, skip it.

Bottom line: flat characters, unbelievable plot and characterizations, thought-provoking message.

Note: I do not usually give “stars” or numerical ratings to books, and after reading The Circle, I doubt if I ever will again. I can’t believe all of the people on Goodreads who say they have read the book and are still giving it a numerical rating. The sheer farce of assigning everyone and everything a numerical value and “liking” or “not liking” it is well-parodied in The Circle. So, just don’t do it, folks. Books are not numbers. (Although I kind of like “like” buttons . . .)

And, yes, I know that the gadget I’m using to allow you to share this review on social media sites, says “sharing is caring” just below this post. Irony or the beginning of the approach to Armageddon?

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

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I’m reluctant to say it, but the writing quality seems to have dropped between this third book in the trilogy and the first one. Fans will still want to know what happens to Tris and Four and their city of factions, but they may be as disappointed as I was in the dialogue and plot development in Allegiant.

First of all, there are character motivation and plot continuity problems. POSSIBLE SPOILERS!!! At one point Four is supposed to have joined a rebellion and betrayed the entire compound in which he and Tris are living, and in addition, caused the death of at least one character. He is put on “probation” by the authorities. Then, he proceeds to go wherever he wants, talk to whomever he wants, and become involved in yet another rebellion. It seems unlikely to say the least.

Tris, too, is able to see and hear and get information way beyond the trust level that she has earned, and her ability to escape death and serious injury is nearly magical. I found it difficult to understand how the society where Tris and Four find themselves can be so security-conscious and at the same time so negligent in supervising and guarding against these teen “strangers”, some of whom are believed to be “genetically damaged” and therefore prone to violence and unbalanced choices.

Tris and Four promise each other to be completely honest and to keep no secrets from one another. Then they both tell half-truths and keep secrets from each other. And the motivation for their doing so is inadequate and unbelievable. Four believes a girl he barely knows and keeps secrets from Tris on her behalf—because he’s feeling insecure? Tris has her own secrets that she keeps for the sake of—not burdening Four?

Four and Tris become more and more physically involved with one another in this book, while at the same time arguing over issues of honesty and keeping secrets from one another and forgiveness. The book shows a true picture of how a romance can “heat up” physically while the couple involved have to endure misunderstandings and betrayals and continue to “choose each other” daily in order to stay together. But Tris and Four act extremely mature and make critical choices in life and death situations in one moment while at the next juncture they’re dealing with and exhibiting immaturity, jealousy, and possessiveness at a middle school level.

I predict that lots of fans are not going to like the ending, but the last few chapters were actually my favorite part of the book. Four and Tris really grow up fast in the last quarter of the book and show us the maturity that I wanted to see throughout this third book. To get to the ending I also had to endure superfluous characters (a homosexual couple introduced solely for the purpose of “diversity”), unexplained rabbit trails, and awkward pacing and dialogue. But I’m glad I finished the book. And I’m looking forward to the Divergent movie. (Divergent is scheduled to be released on March 21, 2014 in the United States.) However, unless the movie people–directors and screenwriters—do something really special with the second and third books in the trilogy, I probably won’t bother seeing those movies, if they even get made.

Cybils 2013 Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Some possible nominees for the Cybils awards in the Young Adult Speculative Fiction (Fantasy and Science Fiction) category:

A Matter of Days by Amber Kizer, reviewed at Semicolon.

Failstate: Legends by John W. Otte.

Anomaly by Krista McGee. Reviewed by Becky at Operation Actually Read Bible.

Captives by Jill Williamson. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.

Aquifer by Jonathan Friesen. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.

Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard. Reviewed at Redeemed Reader.

Merlin’s Shadow by Robert Treskillard.

A Matter of Days by Amber Kizer

Inspired (or scared silly) by Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone and Stephen King’s The Stand, author Amber Kizer says she first became fascinated with viruses and pandemics and apocalyptic survival when she was in middle school. “With Nadia and Rabbit’s story I got to live out one fantasy of a worst-case-scenario pandemic,” says she.

Nadia and Rabbit are a teenage girl and little brother, alive in world where a nasty weaponized virus has killed 98% of the world’s population. And what’s left is a lot of dead bodies and anarchy. It’s a pretty repulsive and violent world, but Nadia and Rabbit have been taught by their father, a marine, and their uncle, an epidemiologist in the military, to “be the cockroach”—in other words, to survive. So, using practical survival techniques and common sense, Nadia and Rabbit leave their home in Seattle to travel eastward to West Virginia where they hope to find their grandfather and uncle still living and preparing a place for them to survive in this brave new world. Don’t read any more if you want to read the novel for yourself without spoilers.

I liked this story a lot, although it had its flaws. The main thing that didn’t make sense was that Nadia and Rabbit at first think they might be the only people left in this world, but after the halfway point of the book, they meet people, other survivors, almost on every page. And there are plot developments that just seem to be dropped. At one point Nadia is captured, and her captors threaten to trade her to some one named “Jonah” who “wants all the girls.” In most stories, Jonah would show up later, and we’d get some idea about who he is and why he wants all the girls. In this story, Jonah is never mentioned again. That’s realistic, but not very satisfying as a story (see Chekhov’s gun).

Still, I recommend this story for those who have not tired of the recent spate of apocalyptic survival stories. Read-alikes would include: The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, Epitaph Road by David Patneaude, Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness, The Compound by S.A. Bodeen, Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, and Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeiffer.

2013 Cybils nomination category: Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Orleans by Sherri Smith

Ms. Smith, who wrote the acclaimed historical fiction novel, Flygirl, enters the wold of dystopian fiction with her new (2013) novel, Orleans. The book is set in the future, sometime after the year 2025, after seven ferocious hurricanes have pounded the Gulf coast, after those hurricanes and Delta Fever, a deadly virus, have decimated the population, and after the United States has turned itself into two separate countries: the quarantined Delta Coast and the rest of the U.S., The Outer States, with a Wall in between and no travel between the two.

Fen de la Guerre is an OP (blood type O-positive). The people who are left in the Delta Coast, in the city of Orleans, live in tribal groups according to blood type, because the Delta Fever is somehow more deadly when it crosses blood type, or maybe because some blood types prey on others for transfusions that keep them alive for a while. (I never did quite follow the virus/blood type/transfusion connection.) Anyway, Fen’s tribe is attacked a bunch of AB’s, and Fen ends up with an orphaned baby that she has promised to somehow smuggle to a better life.

Enter Daniel, a scientist from the Outer States, who is working on a cure for Delta Fever. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have his cure quite perfected yet, and he needs to do research in Orleans itself, despite the dangers of life in the Delta Coast. Daniel and Fen meet, under less than ideal circumstances, as captives about to be drained of their blood by a group of kidnappers/blood sellers. They become allies and help each other escape, and so the story goes on. Will Daniel find a cure for Delta Fever? Will Fen be able to save the baby girl with whom she’s been entrusted? Will the perils of the Delta claim both of their lives before they can accomplish anything or even really trust each other?

The setting is a little bit like Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities, “a world destroyed and reconfigured by climate change and the greed of oil hungry corporations and industries.” But I don’t think Sherri Smith’s book is really derivative as much as coincidentally similar, and I really liked Orleans better than I did the award-winning Ship Breaker. I have to use the H-word in explanation and say that although it deserves the moniker “dystopian”, Orleans is ultimately just more hopeful than Bacigalupi’s series. And I do like a dose of hope.

However, don’t expect too much goodness and light in this mostly grim world of deadly disease and blood feuds. The ending is ambiguous, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel to Orleans someday, if the publishing gods and Ms. Smith see fit to continue the story. I’d give it a read if they did.

Recommended for fans of dystopian fiction and Southern fiction, especially if a combination of the two genres sounds good to you.

Futuristic Computer Techie Fiction

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

For the Win by Cory Doctorow.

Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

OK, I made that genre name up all by myself. “Techno-thriller” and “genre-busting” are the terms I’ve most often seen applied to these novels. The thing I like about these books is definitely NOT the testosterone-fueled language, violence, and general boy-ness, but rather it seems that unlike many of us both inside and outside the gaming world, Mr. Doctorow and Mr. Cline have thought long and hard about the implications and trends in our technological culture, particularly those related to immersing ourselves in video games and internet alternate worlds. And the scenarios are not necessarily pretty, although the books cited above avoid an alarmist hatred of the virtual world while showing the possible dangers of our rush toward a world enmeshed in and enthralled by the virtual world of computers and computer gaming.

Cory Doctorow is, according to Wikipedia, “a Canadian-British blogger, journalist, and science fiction author who serves as co-editor of the weblog Boing Boing.” He’s also the author of the first three books on the above list, and maybe the partial inspiration for the fourth. In Pirate Cinema, Doctorow’s latest (whoops, it looks as if he’s just released a sequel to Little Brother called Homeland, so not his latest), the language is rough and there is support for stealing and for recreational drug use. However, Doctorow’s insight into the underworld of hacker culture is still fascinating, even if I don’t agree with all of his hobbyhorse ideas. In the book sixteen year old Trent is obsessed with making movies on his computer. The problem is that he uses cuts from old movies to make his new, artistically reassembled, movies. And in this England of the near-future, this plagiarism or pirating of old movies is highly illegal and punishable by death. OK, not death, but near-death: loss of all internet privileges. Because he’s caused his entire family to lose access to the internet, access which has become indispensable to workers, students, and anyone else who wants healthcare or economic or government engagement, Trent leaves home and immerses himself in the underground London world of the homeless and the disenfranchised. He also meets the artists and activists who are trying to change the law to make his work and the art of others like him legal and socially acceptable. The message of the book is obvious and a bit heavy-handed: copyright law is bad and stifles artists. Whether you agree with that premise or not (I disagree mostly), Pirate Cinema will make you think about who owns what and why. In keeping with Doctorow’s copyright philosophy, Pirate Cinema is available at his website as a free download.

Ready Player One is obviously a tribute of sorts to Doctorow’s books and ideas. In fact, at one point Doctorow, along with actor Will Wheaton, are mentioned as minor characters in the book, two of the “good guys.” In the year 2044 Wade Watts escapes the poverty and hopelessness of the real world by spending most of his time plugged into the Oasis, a virtual world that has in some cases overtaken the real world. Wade goes to school in the Oasis, and after school he spends most of his waking hours looking for the answers to the riddle that Oasis creator James Halliday encoded into his virtual universe before he died. The person who solves Halliday’s puzzles, based on the pop culture of Halliday’s youth in the 1980’s, will win a fortune.

Unfortunately for me, I missed most of the 80’s. I was busy being a newlywed, graduate student, librarian, and then having babies. Pop culture in the 80’s passed me by, went over my head, and generally didn’t interest my twenty-something self. Now if you ask me about the 1970’s . . . Fortunately for me, some of the stuff Halliday used in his puzzle tribute/Easter egg that is embedded in the Oasis began in the 1970’s and extended into the eighties, so I knew about Star Wars, Back to the Future, PacMan, Dungeons and Dragons, and lots of other stuff from the book. Other eighties cultural memories that the book references were completely unknown to me. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. The story is great, and Wade is a likable, flawed, and engaging hero.

Geeky grown-up kids of the eighties (and seventies) and geeky kids that have grown up since then will all enjoy this tribute to our computer-driven culture that still manages to showcase some of the problems with our obsession with games and computers and virtual worlds and social media. I won’t spoil the ending, but Wade learns that real face-to-face relationships have their advantages. The book does contain positive references to homosexual behavior, and God is considered irrelevant throughout the book. The bad language is typical teenage boy-type stuff, but somewhat offensive.

I recommend both Cline’s book and those by Mr. Doctorow for those who are mature enough to sort out the ideas and philosophies contained in the futuristic worlds that the authors have created. Mr. Cline and Mr. Doctorow both raise questions worth thinking about in regard to our tech-permeated world, even if I don’t agree with all the “answers” they sometimes take for granted.