I love my Kindle. And I love being able to download the first chapter or few as a free sample. I’ve bought several books I otherwise might not have taken a chance on, based on the quality of the first few chapters, and been warned off others. (Best purchase based on sample chapter so far: Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City. Warning: dark. Further warning: get the print edition. The e-book has annoying formatting errors.)

For your amusement, I’m going to write up a couple recent Kindle samples I downloaded while recovering from food poisoning. They are all YA sff and mostly dystopian, partly because there’s lots of dystopian YA out there now and partly because it cheered me to contemplate places more awful than my bathroom floor at 3:00 AM.

XVI, by Julia Karr. XVI = sixteen = SEX-teen = sexting = sending sexy text messages. When teenage girls (only girls?) turn sixteen, they are forced to get a tattoo labeling them sex-teens – legally available for sex. How this is different from places in the world now in which sixteen is indeed the age of legal consent, other than the tattoo, I am not sure. Unless they are forced to be sexually available to any man who asks? It’s not made clear in the part I read.

The setting is a generic near-future dystopia in which government is oppressive, media is evil, and religion has gone the way of the dodo: Gran even reads the Bible. But everyone knows that’s mythology. Although sometimes when I see how good it seems to make Gran feel, I have to wonder if there’s some truth to it.

Worst pro-religion argument ever! Lots of things make you feel good, such as drugs, bacon, and sex. “It feels good” has little to do with “it’s good for you,” let alone “it’s the truth.” And I speak as one who enjoys both bacon and sex.

The three chapters I read were bland, obvious, and tin-eared, combining clunky info-dumping with clunkier slang. I am surprised that no editor knew or cared that “trannie,” here used to mean “motor vehicle,” is, in the real world, generally-offensive slang for “transgender person.” There’s a Resistance movement, imaginatively known as “the Resistance.” To my amusement, members of the Resistance are known as NonCons, which in fanfic circles means non-consensual, ie, rape fantasy. Very appropriate!

The heroine is preachy and judgmental, conveying what I suspect is the author’s horror at the thought of teenage girls having sex. The chapters I read, and the entire concept, reminded me of the infamous Rainbow Party, a book written to capitalize on media-generated horror over “rainbow parties,” in which teenage girls supposedly all wore different colors of lipstick and boys competed to see who could get the most colors on their dick. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be an urban legend. (Sexual Urban Legends: Penis Captivus, Vagina Dentata, Soggy Biscuit, Gerbilling, Mars Bar Party, Sex Parties & Rainbow Parties)

I will not be reading this one. Unless, I suppose, enough people think they’d be amused by a full review that they’d be willing to pony up some charitable donation money for one.
Divergent, by Veronica Roth, is an extremely high-concept YA with yet another absurdly orderly society. In this one, everyone is divided by virtue: Abnegation, Amity, Dauntless, Candor, and Erudite. Though the groups (and the unfortunate, oppressed factionless) live together, every single thing each individual does expresses their chosen virtue and only that chosen virtue. This leads to some moments of (probably) unintentional comedy, such as when the Dauntless kids all leap off a moving train. (“If all your friends jumped off a bridge…”) They fear nothing but peer pressure!

Beatrice, born into Abnegation, takes the aptitude tests which suggest which faction she should choose. (The selection method is weirdly cumbersome: first you get tested, then you select a faction (even if it doesn’t match the test results), then the faction puts you through more extensive testing.) After going through some very basic virtual reality scenarios testing courage, honesty, self-sacrifice, intelligence, and niceness, she is told that she is one of the very, very, very rare Divergents: people with multiple aptitudes. Shock! Horror! She must tell no one!!!

Even apart from the inherently implausible premise, I find it very difficult to believe that most people would not possess more than one quality, especially very common ones like intelligence and niceness. Maybe later there will be the shocking reveal that pretty much everyone has multiple traits but is told to tell no one.

Though ridiculous, the concept of social division by personality traits has enormous appeal, and I expect the book to sell quite well. It’s a novel-length version of an online personality quiz, and who doesn’t love online personality quizzes?

Well – I love them, but not enough to buy the book. It was too simple and implausible to grab me. And in a story where the fun is the personality-trait testing, the entrance tests were way too unimaginative and unrevealing to make me want to read more of them. In total, they consisted of picking a piece of cheese or a knife, being confronted by a hostile dog which then attacks a little girl, and being challenged by a creepy guy on a bus. They seemed especially flat when compared to more evocative, psychologically revealing, or fun fictional tests, like the humanity test in Blade Runner, the Giant’s Drink in Ender’s Game, the entrance to Roke in A Wizard of Earthsea, or Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat.

See comments to the SEX-teen book post: I will eventually do a review-for-charity poll to determine which of these I will read and review in full.
Across the Universe, by Beth Revis: Kindle Sample (first four chapters)

Old-school science fiction, the sort a lot of old-school sf fans think teenagers ought to be reading: Amy and her parents are cryogenically frozen to board a generation ship; generations later, the ship has formed its own, undoubtedly dystopian, society. The old-fashioned impression is solidified by the dialogue in the first chapter, which could have been written thirty years ago.

I was initially put off by the dialogue and clunky exposition of the first chapter, not to mention the author’s apparent misunderstanding of the word “impartial.” But the believable emotions and the unexpected dilemma presented to Amy sucked me in, and the next chapter, which picks up with a teenage boy who has lived his whole life on the ship, also presents a compelling moral choice and some potentially interesting characters.

I am pretty sure I know exactly where the story is going, but I might well enjoy the journey. I’m not quite grabbed enough to buy it, but I’ll try it from the library.

Across the Universe

Delirium, by Lauren Oliver: Kindle Sample (First four chapters)

Yet another hard-to-swallow, thought-experiment, high-concept, single-idea-runs-everything dystopia: love has been declared a disease, and everyone is cured when they turn eighteen. Before then, physical contact is forbidden between people of the opposite sex. (Also, yet another book in which gay people apparently don’t exist.)

And yet another book which has marriages arranged by the government! The government also decides how many children you should have, what your major will be, and no doubt the color of the jumpsuit you wear.

The prose is not bad at all, but the concept and execution are so incredibly heavy-handed that I had trouble even getting through the sample. Love causes pain, eliminate love and you’ll be free from pain. Message: no gain without pain, savor the agony along with the ecstasy. Also, nanny government is bad. I can’t imagine reading an entire book of this.


I'm not really appreciating the high-concept, the government regulates the color of your shoelaces, everything in society is geared toward a single theme, heavy-handed dystopia. There's something inherently boring about them. I can think of good examples, but they're tough to pull off.

I nominate an end to that YA sf trend, to be replaced with massive trends for space opera with lots of aliens, multicultural steampunk, military academies in spaaaaace, biotech, mecha, and schools for mutant kids. If we must have dystopias, I'd prefer chaotic dystopias where everyone's scrabbling to survive and rebuild/preserve civilization in an unhospitable landscape, but without rape gangs or cannibalism and with hope - emphasis on survival and regrouping.

I am particularly done with the "[blank] has been banned" and "the government controls [blank]" dystopias. They're starting to seem like they were created by online dystopia generators. Here, have a few ideas, make a mint:

Vibrate: Sex has been banned and the government controls masturbation.

Go: Travel has been banned and the government controls pets.

Ouch: Sickness has been banned and the government controls pain.

Sweat: Sports have been banned and the government controls water.

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