You may recall a great deal of outrage several months ago over a horrible-sounding self-published YA novel, Save the Pearls, about a future in which black people (Coals) rule and white people (Pearls) are oppressed, and also must wear blackface in order to protect themselves from the now-deadly sun. (Blackface shown in a truly ill-conceived video promotion on the author’s website.) From what I gather, the black hero grows a tail at some point. And no, I’m not going to review it, not even to mock, except to say that I read the first two chapters free, and they were pretty hilariously bad. It’s self-published, so any attention is good attention. Let it die the death of obscurity.

However, it did remind me that the “racism flip” idea had been done before, and not just in slush piles. I wondered how a better writer might handle it.

In Noughts and Crosses, a YA novel by a black British author, white Noughts have been oppressed ever since black Crosses colonized the world. Nought Callum has always been best friends with Cross Sephy, the daughter of the wealthy family his mother works for. Though his mother is unjustly fired and the kids are forbidden from associating, they continue to secretly meet, and eventually begin a romance. But their innocence ends when Sephy coaches Callum into passing the tests to get into her Cross school, setting into motion a series of painful reminders of just how separate and unequal their lives really are.

The world is a very literal racism flip: everything is the same, except that the social positions of black and white people are reversed. (No other races are ever mentioned.) I would have preferred a real alternate history with cultural changes, but though simplistic, the raceflip does work to drive home its message: magazines only use dark-skinned models. Band-aids only come in brown. The history books never mention any white scientists or explorers or inventors.

For most of its length, it’s an anvillicious but fairly well-written problem novel (problem: racism is bad) about the travails of a teenage interracial couple. Their travails do get increasingly melodramatic as the story continues, and hey, it’s obviously retelling Romeo and Juliet, but I was still not expecting the accidentally hilarious swerve into jaw-dropping melodrama that occurs near the end.

Spoilers make a terribly dramatic choice )

Moral: Don’t have unprotected sex with your kidnapper. It is possible to write a racism flip novel which is not itself racist. But it is very difficult to write one which doesn’t paint in very broad strokes of black and white.

More seriously, these oppression-reversal stories come out a lot better when the author belongs to the real-world oppressed group - the author is more sensitive to how oppression actually works, and can appreciate and explore the wish-fulfillment and "take that!" aspects. When written by the real-life oppressing group, they tend to be accidentally racist, sexist, etc.

Noughts & Crosses
I don’t often say this, but I regret reading this book, a collection of short stories by Lindholm (aka Hobb). Not only did I dislike nearly all of them, but many of them were creepy and unpleasant, full of child abuse, animal abuse, preachiness, and despair. In particular, two stories were largely centered around cat corpses. There’s a theme I can do without!

I got the book from the library because I love Lindholm’s Ki and Vandien series, and enjoyed almost all her novels written as Lindholm. (I see cheap used copies of Harpy's Flight
here.) I also liked Hobb’s first two “Assassin” and “Ship” books enough to read most of her other novels, even though the rest ranged from okay to terrible.

But I had forgotten, or traumatically repressed, that of the two Lindholm short stories I’d previously read, one was the charming Ki and Vandien adventure “Bones for Dulath” (not reprinted in this volume, probably because it’s too much fun,) but the other was the awesomely depressing lizard messiah story (which was reprinted, probably because it’s so full of DOOM.) It also contains my new nominee for the ultimate Never befriend a person with problems story.

“Silver Lady and the Fortyish Man” is an exception to the doom parade. It’s a cute urban fantasy romance – a bit too cute for my taste.

“Finis” is a vampire story with a predictable twist ending.

“Drum Machine” is an annoying, preachy sf story about genetically engineered babies, the Horror of Sameness, and how if we eliminate mental illness, we will eliminate creativity. SIGH.

“Cut” is an annoying, preachy sf story in which the price of allowing girls to get abortions without their parents’ permission is that anyone over 15 can now make any bodily alteration without their parents’ permission, but parents can do anything to their children if they’re under 15. The heroine’s grand-daughter is going to voluntarily undergo female genital mutilation, and make her infant daughter do the same. This story was effectively manipulative, but when I’m being manipulated, I’d like it to be little less obvious. The foreword notes that “Cut” isn’t supposed to be an anti-abortion polemic, which is surprising given how exactly it reads as one.

The Inheritance

Cut for spoilers regarding DOOM, child abuse, dead cats, and the Lizard Messiah. )
rachelmanija: (Fishes: I do not see why the sex)
( May. 31st, 2011 07:50 am)
I would never be a crazed sex-teen!

Someone could write a good teen dystopia based on the screwed-up messages that modern American society sends to teenage girls: If you have sex with boys, you’re a slut. If you don’t, you’re a prude, a lesbian, or a reject. If you dress fashionably, you’re a slut. If you dress conservatively, you’re a prude. If you really are a lesbian, you don’t exist, unless you proclaim your identity, in which case you’re shoving your sexuality on innocent heterosexual victims. If you use contraception, you’re a slut. If you don’t and you get pregnant, you’re a stupid bitch who’s ruining society.

XVI was clearly inspired by some of those messages, but it’s not good. Its problems begin with the phrase that undoubtedly sold the book, “sex-teen.” That is an inherently ridiculous word. It might work in a satire, but in a work intended to be serious, it can only produce unintentional comedy. Luckily for me, the book had lots of that.

Meet Nina, the heroine. Ginnie is her idolized mom, and Sandy is her sex-crazy “best friend.” The quote marks are because… well, judge for yourself:

Ginnie always taught us that thinking for yourself is the most important thing. When I see how Sandy blindly follows whatever the latest Media-induced frenzy is - I know my mom is right. But it's hard being the only person who thinks like me. Sometimes I wish I could just be like everyone else my age and not think at all.

[…]

Her clothes fit her a lot better than mine fit me. As Gran would say, "She's built like an MK lunar pod." Which I'm sure is why her stepdad looks at her the way he does.

[…]

Sandy’s Saturn blue plether pants were so tight there was no way she could have gotten them on over underwear – and it was obvious she hadn’t. […] The outfit made me cringe. I sincerely hoped the Sandy I knew and loved was under the Media-hyped crap she was wearing.

Isn’t Nina charming? Wouldn’t you love to spend an entire book with her?

When I was sexsixteen, I too was judgmental and looked down on many of my peers and thought I was more special than you. But I didn’t despise my friends! I loved my friends! And that, I think, made me merely self-centered rather than awful.

Here’s Nina again, rescuing an apparently homeless person and being more compassionate than anyone ever:

I should have gone. Anyone else would have left him. […] It seemed like the older I got the more I believed that everyone, homeless or not, deserved to be treated at least like a human.

Her friends, of course, are baffled and horrified that she would help a homeless person. But it turns out that he’s actually upper-class and only dresses like he’s homeless so he can sneak around being rebellious, so he is acceptable boyfriend material for Nina. (There is an official ten-tier class structure.) While Nina is currently low-class, she came from a high class and her mother voluntarily demoted herself for political reasons. All the sympathetic characters in the book are high-class or formerly high-class. Only Sandy the wannabe-slut is genuinely low-class.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I plunge into the plot, here’s the background:

Girls who turn sixteen are tattooed with the number XVI and called sex-teens. They are then legally able to have sex. I think that while they aren’t legally required to have sex on demand, they are assumed to be sex-crazy and so they are treated as fair game, and while they could theoretically press charges if they’re raped, those cases will invariably be dismissed. But it’s not very clear. They may or may not also become legal adults in other ways.

I couldn’t tell whether or not boys were tattooed, or if they were tattooed at the same age. I also have no idea why the government was so obsessed with making sixteen-year-old girls available for sex, especially since it turns out that the government also collects sixteen-year-old virgins. Given how central the sex-teen concept is, it’s oddly under-explained.

While modern teenage girls are also under a lot of pressure to have sex, may be called sluts, and can often be raped with impunity, there’s no enormous mystique about how since eighteen is the legal age to have sex, you can only have sex once you turn eighteen and absolutely have to have sex the instant you turn eighteen OMG. If a modern girl under eighteen wants to have sex, she… has sex. Since the XVI society doesn’t strictly penalize underage sex, I don’t buy the way that everyone acts like no one ever has sex before sixteen, and everyone must have it the instant they turn sixteen.

Don’t ask me what the ramifications are for non-heterosexual girls. Only straight sexuality exists in this world. (Only straight sexuality exists in all of the recent teen dystopias I’ve read, but it’s a particularly weird omission for the one which is entirely about teen sex.)

In further implausibilities, there’s an organization called FeLS, which I kept reading as FeLV (Feline Leukemia Virus), a diplomatic corps made up entirely of low-class virgin teenage girls. All sixteen-year-old low-class virgin girls must be available to be selected for it, unless they can buy their way out. Almost none of them ever come back even though the term of service is only two years, but nonetheless it’s supposed to be wonderful and glamorous and all the sixteen-year-olds who are still virgins are dying to become part of it.

I have no idea how the virginity test works, other than that it’s “physical.” I guess they check for a hymen. There are many factors which make this a dubious method of virginity testing. The hymen can be broken in other ways. Some hymens stretch rather than breaking. More significantly, and as I believe most modern American girls know, you can have oral, anal, manual, and intercrural sex without damaging the hymen. (Okay, most modern American girls probably don’t know the word intercrural, but I bet they know the concept.) So the virginity test is meaningless. They’d be better off borrowing King Math's magic broomstick from the Mabinogion and having the girls step over it to see if a baby falls out of them.

The utterly non-shocking twist at the end is that FeLS is actually a sex slavery ring run by and for the government. When Nina finds this out, and her “friend” Sandy is about to join FeLS, Nina tells Sandy what’s really going on so Sandy can make her own informed decision.

Just kidding! Like that would ever happen. Nina actually decides to make sure Sandy fails the physical virginity test by giving her a large, vibrating, brand-name, sparkly pink dildo, the “Sex-teen Sizzler,” which she knows Sandy will be unable to resist.

Nope, kidding again! This is not a book in which girls enjoy their sexuality without men around. What really happens is that Nina doesn’t tell Sandy anything, but decides to get her to have sex with a boy so she’ll fail the virginity test. Cue ridiculous angsting over whether Nina should offer Sandy her own boyfriend for this purpose.

Nina, of course, never has sex, and her boyfriend doesn’t want to have sex either. Her actual best friend, Wei, is sex-teen but still a virgin. All the positively portrayed teens want to stay virgins, while the only teenager who wants to have sex, Sandy, is a dumb slut.

There is a hint of a promising story in this mess of a book, which is that Nina has good reasons to hate and fear the thought of sex and romantic relationships – her mother is in an abusive relationship – and that creates a conflict between her increasingly undeniable sexual impulses, and her desire to both stay safe and rebel against social expectations by avoiding sex and romance.

Unfortunately, all that consists of about fifteen pages total. The rest of the book is taken up by a largely nonsensical mystery plot. Ginnie, Nina’s mom, is murdered, and with her dying breath tells Nina that her supposedly dead father is still alive. Nina and her younger sister Dee, who was fathered by the abusive Ed, are sent to live with their grandparents.

(Ed is a member of another evil government agency, B.O.S.S. I am not kidding. I immediately guessed that Ed killed Ginnie (no else is even presented as a plausible suspect), that he’s not really Dee’s father, and that the only reason Ginnie was with Ed was some idiotic revolutionary plan, because an intelligent woman would never stay in an abusive relationship unless she had a master plan that requires it. Right on all counts!)

At her new home, Nina learns that not only was the “homeless” boy she rescued coincidentally the son of one of the revolutionaries her father was involved with, but the only girl she befriends from her new apartment building is coincidentally the daughter of some more of them. This conveniently allows other people to step in periodically and give Nina bits of information, a little at a time, even though there are at least four people who could have told Nina the entire story at any time.

But aimless plotting, incoherent worldbuilding, an unlikable heroine, clunky prose, and preachiness is not all that’s wrong with this book. There is also the very, very bad decision to attempt future slang by calling vehicles “trannies.” Not only is it a real-life pejorative term, but just picture the mental image I got every time there was a line like, A trannie came out of nowhere, nearly knocking me down. Not to mention lines of dialogue like, “I told him you really like trannies,” “Girly trannie,” and “Sal’s cool. His brother has all those great trannies.”

I also laughed at every use of the word “sex-teen.” Never not funny!

But what bugged me the most were the anti-sex, anti-female desire, and anti-sexy clothing messages, mostly directed at poor authorial punching bag Sandy. Nina is constantly obsessing about the slutty way Sandy dresses and how it will tempt men to rape her. Here’s Gran on the same topic: “Why, two years ago she was as sweet and innocent as can be. Now she’s on the verge of becoming a wild sex-teen!”

Sandy, unsurprisingly, is raped and murdered at the end. At the casket, Nina muses, For all her sex-teen ways, she’d been so naïve and trusting. Victim-blaming to the very literal end!

Terrible. Terrible. Terrible. And there are many terrible aspects I didn’t even mention. Other intrepid readers, should any step up to the plate, will find unspoiled depths of awfulness to plumb.

Scariest of all, judging by the lack of closure to several major plot points, there will probably be a sequel or two. I eagerly anticipate XVII (Semen-teen), and the conclusion, XVIII (Ate-teen).

Thank you very much to the sponsors who made this post happen! If you enjoyed reading this review, please consider making a donation to the organization this review was written to benefit, The Virginia Avenue Project. ("Using the arts to help kids discover their full potential! 100% of Project kids graduate from high school. 95% go to college. 98% are the first in their families to do so!"

If you do donate, feel free to say that Rachel Manija Brown sent you. Please don't say, "I'm here because of sex-teen!" Given the nature of the Project, that could cause some unfortunate confusion. ;)

XVI
There are some rather interesting discrepancies between the votes in general, and the votes of sponsors who are actually ponying up some cash. In overall totals, we have Bumped (teen pregnancy is bad) in the lead, followed by VI (Sexteen) (teenage girls having sex is bad), and then Divergent (basing society on a personality quiz is bad.)

However, I'm going to prioritize the requests from sponsors, and that breaks down as follows:

Sexteen in the lead, with six sponsors for a total of $ 100 in donations.

Across the Universe follows, with three sponsors and a total of $ 40 in donations.

Only one vote each for Wither ($25) and Bumped ($20).

Right now, it looks like it will be Sexteen. But it's not too late to either vote or comment with sponsorship! Sexteen advocates, sponsor to make sure your book stays in the lead! Advocates of other books, sponsor your favorites! The link below goes to the poll, which is still open.

Bounce: Newspapers have been banned and the government controls sadness.

ETA: [personal profile] movingfinger suggested that Bumped (society encourages teen pregnancy) sounded like the sequel to Wither (everyone drops dead by 25.)

I wrote a little synopsis tying them all together into the ultimate teen dystopia!

There's not enough water to go around. First the government tries to solve this problem by banning love, in the hope that that will cause less sex and so reduce the population, so there'll be more water for the remaining people. But the Resistance resists. Then the government tries confiscating the resulting babies. When that doesn't work either, they all pile into a generation ship.

While the adults are in cold sleep, the teenage girls begin having sex, thus creating the first generation. But as we all know, generation ship societies get weird, and then end up basing society around personality quizzes. Then space radiation mutates everyone, so they all drop dead by 25. Solution? Encourage teen pregnancy!
I did not deliberately select my sample reading for simplistic high concepts, but wow, did I get a lot.

A high concept is a plot which can be easily and representatively summarized in a short sentence. If doing so would misrepresent the actual experience of reading the book, then the book does not have a high concept. “Snakes on a plane” gives you a good idea of Snakes on a Plane; “A bus is wired to explode if it drops below 50 mph” gives you a good idea of Speed. Those are high-concept movies. If you like the concept, you’ll probably like the movie. “Nine people go on a quest to drop a ring into a volcano,” though technically correct, does not give you a good idea of the experience of reading Lord of the Rings.

The majority of the opening chapters of YA dystopias I’ve read have been so monomaniacally focused on their high concepts that they reminded me of the panel of the “Life in Hell” comic strip about the nine types of college professors which depicted the “One Theory Explains Everything Maniac” as a rabbit shaking his cane and shouting, “The nation that controls magnesium controls the world!”

Individually, some of them show promise. Collectively, they are tedious and one-dimensional. I was not especially impressed with the worldbuilding in The Hunger Games, but the first few chapters did show a world in which people had problems and apart from the Hunger Games, committed small crimes and often got away with them, and had personalities and relationships dictated by personal concerns rather than bizarre socially mandated rules.

In most of the books I’ve sampled, the first chapters are about little but the one-note concept, the characters think about little but the concept and speak about little but the concept, and the government is absurdly fixated on peculiar things, like the food individuals eat and the colors they’re allowed to wear, and, except for the obligatory Resistance, completely effective in controlling every moment of every person’s day. The heroines are naïve but spunky girls, unconvincingly ruminating at great length about how their societies came to be and how they function. It’s a paper world, sketched on the back of a sermon.

The Water Wars, by Cameron Stracher. Dystopia is drought. Water is strictly rationed, and the Water Allocation Board runs everything. Everyone is always desperately thirsty. The heroine is fascinated by a hot boy whom she sees… shock horror! …wasting water. Not badly written, but it didn’t grab me.

Wither (The Chemical Garden Trilogy), by Lauren DeStefano. Dystopia is all the men dying at 25, and all the women at 20. (Why such exact ages?) This is attributed to a virus, though it seems more likely to come from genetic defects, as this occurred to the children of the first post-genetic engineering generation. The result, which I don’t think logically follows, is that girls are at constant risk of kidnapping and forced marriage. I would think it would be much more likely that people would simply start marrying in their mid-teens. Not badly written, but it didn’t grab me. I was also a little put off by two separate vomiting incidents in two chapters.

Bumped, by Megan McCafferty. Dystopia is enthusiastically encouraged teen pregnancy. This one is different: it’s a satire, and it’s actually kind of funny. None of the others had any deliberate humor whatsoever, so this came as a very pleasant surprise. The targets are more wide-ranging than “teen pregnancy,” which suggests that it may be able to sustain itself for the length of a book. The slang is believable, and there’s a plausible teenage voice. I’ll probably read this one eventually, as the first few chapters were nicely written and amusing.

Birthmarked (Birthmarked Trilogy), by Caragh M. O’Brien. Dystopia is the government confiscating a percentage of all babies born. In the chapter I read, about a teenage midwife, it was not made clear why, or if she even knew why. Something about the writing style and storytelling of this one did grab me – while still closely focused on baby-snatching, it allowed a small amount of breathing room for individual relationships and emotions. I’d try this from the library.
Dean Koontz writes thrillers, some involving science fiction or fantasy, some just bad guys chasing people, with excessively wholesome protagonists, hilariously evil villains, and cute kids and pets. They are very good airplane reading.

I read a bunch of Dean Koontz novels in high school, and then two things happened simultaneously: my tastes matured, and he decided that rather than merely sneaking lectures into his thrillers (sneaking in the sense that a child banned from an area stealthily returns hidden under a blanket, but nevertheless) he should devote entire pages to discussions of What Is Wrong With America (not enough "traditional values.") Also, his prose kind of sucks.

What's good about Koontz, in less-lecture mode: He is really, really readable. REALLY REALLY READABLE. I found this book at my parents' place the other day, idly decided to read a chapter before bedtime, and could not put the damn thing down until I had finished it, even though I had to get up at 6:00 AM the next day and I didn't finish it until past midnight. Part of this is that his premises are often quite genuinely cool, though his ability to follow through on them varies.

The Bad Place opens with an amnesiac man waking up with a bag full of hundred dollar bills and a handful of black sand clenched in his fist. Some spooky guy starts chasing him and firing off blasts of blue energy rays, the amnesiac guy finds that he knows how to hot-wire a car and uses that to flee. He checks into a motel, shaken and confused, and wakes up the next morning, still amnesiac, covered in blood that isn't his and with an alien bug crawling around on his chest!

I am a total sucker for that sort of premise. Especially when it revealed that he is amnesiacally teleporting in his sleep, a process which is screwing with his memories, and that he comes from a family of completely bonkers evil psychics.

Unfortunately, the book focuses less on him and more on the overly cutesy married PIs he hires to investigate his life, and the teleporting is more of a plot device than what the story is about. It never really explains what was up with the alien world he teleports to, either. Very strong first third, increasingly incoherent second two-thirds. Warning for MASSIVE INSECT SQUICK - if you thought the teleportation accident in The Fly was gross, this is about a billion times grosser. And the "horrifying backstory" was kind of hilarious, featuring generational incest culminating in a "hermaphrodite" who inseminated hirself with hir own sperm to produce freaky psychic kids!

Still, it did give me rather fond memories of what I recall as being more coherent Koontz novels. My favorite in high school was Watchers, which has a sweet romance and a super-intelligent genetically engineered golden retriever. I also remember liking Lightning, which had a complicated and twisty time-travel plot, and Hideaway, the latter mostly because I liked the relationship between the main couple and the little girl they adopt. Be aware that pretty much all Koontz novels contain sadistic villains and conservative political lecturing.

The Bad Place

Watchers

Lightning
Dean Koontz writes thrillers, some involving science fiction or fantasy, some just bad guys chasing people, with excessively wholesome protagonists, hilariously evil villains, and cute kids and pets. They are very good airplane reading.

I read a bunch of Dean Koontz novels in high school, and then two things happened simultaneously: my tastes matured, and he decided that rather than merely sneaking lectures into his thrillers (sneaking in the sense that a child banned from an area stealthily returns hidden under a blanket, but nevertheless) he should devote entire pages to discussions of What Is Wrong With America (not enough "traditional values.") Also, his prose kind of sucks.

What's good about Koontz, in less-lecture mode: He is really, really readable. REALLY REALLY READABLE. I found this book at my parents' place the other day, idly decided to read a chapter before bedtime, and could not put the damn thing down until I had finished it, even though I had to get up at 6:00 AM the next day and I didn't finish it until past midnight. Part of this is that his premises are often quite genuinely cool, though his ability to follow through on them varies.

The Bad Place opens with an amnesiac man waking up with a bag full of hundred dollar bills and a handful of black sand clenched in his fist. Some spooky guy starts chasing him and firing off blasts of blue energy rays, the amnesiac guy finds that he knows how to hot-wire a car and uses that to flee. He checks into a motel, shaken and confused, and wakes up the next morning, still amnesiac, covered in blood that isn't his and with an alien bug crawling around on his chest!

I am a total sucker for that sort of premise. Especially when it revealed that he is amnesiacally teleporting in his sleep, a process which is screwing with his memories, and that he comes from a family of completely bonkers evil psychics.

Unfortunately, the book focuses less on him and more on the overly cutesy married PIs he hires to investigate his life, and the teleporting is more of a plot device than what the story is about. It never really explains what was up with the alien world he teleports to, either. Very strong first third, increasingly incoherent second two-thirds. Warning for MASSIVE INSECT SQUICK - if you thought the teleportation accident in The Fly was gross, this is about a billion times grosser. And the "horrifying backstory" was kind of hilarious, featuring generational incest culminating in a "hermaphrodite" who inseminated hirself with hir own sperm to produce freaky psychic kids!

Still, it did give me rather fond memories of what I recall as being more coherent Koontz novels. My favorite in high school was Watchers, which has a sweet romance and a super-intelligent genetically engineered golden retriever. I also remember liking Lightning, which had a complicated and twisty time-travel plot, and Hideaway, the latter mostly because I liked the relationship between the main couple and the little girl they adopt. Be aware that pretty much all Koontz novels contain sadistic villains and conservative political lecturing.

The Bad Place

Watchers

Lightning
.

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