Adventure, Dystopia, Fantasy, Pulp Fiction, Reviews, Science Fiction

Number 36: Recommended by a Favorite Author

The Heads of Cerberus: The First Alternative Worlds Novel

Francis Stevens

I admit I was not a fan of the last dystopian novel I read. So I went back in time a little to see what I could find. And lo and behold, the pioneer of the time travel genre herself, Francis Stevens!

I love science fiction for its timelessness. Despite, or because, it deals with the future, its tone has not changed much since it began. Sure, we aren’t still debating the morality of the microscope (like Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World), but the tension between skepticism of new technology and embracing it for the creative potential it unlocks is a consistent theme.

Heads of Cerberus was written in 1919, but it still feels current. I think part of the reason for this is because she does not try to imagine the technology that might exist in Philadelphia in 2118, which might read as silly today. Technology is stalled at 1918 levels, and society is the thing that is drastically restructured.

Stylistically, it works. Pulp entertainment at its finest!

Also, I took some liberties with the category. Rather than being recommended by a favorite author, The Heads of Cerberus was actually recommended by the Monster, She Wrote audiobook I was listening to. It has introduced me to some of my new favorites.

Dystopia, Fantasy, Reviews, Young Adult

Number 41: Involves a Second Chance

The Program

Suzanne Young

In this book’s defense, it was going to feel dated.

After all, The Program is a dystopian young adult novel set in Oregon with an exciting premise that, predictably, fails to deliver.

To start with the good, the writing is clear, several of the characters are engaging, and the author is particularly good at depicting action. The plot moves along quickly, and I could be curious to see where the series goes.

Okay good parts over, complaining parts ahead.

To begin, wow. Just, wow, were we ever pick-mes back then. This book is that mentality in 405 easy-to-read pages. It is peak Mary Sue, peak not-like-other-girls. It’s hard to be reminded of that cultural moment. And in book form, no less! I was certain one of my complaints was going to be this book’s abject failure to pass the Bechdel test, but the first page proved me wrong.

The air in the room tastes sterile. The lingering scent of bleach is mixing with the fresh white paint on the walls, and I wish my teacher would open the window to let in a breeze. But we’re on the third floor so the pane is sealed shut- just in case anyone gets the urge to jump.

I’m still staring at the paper on my desk when Kendra Phillips turns around in her seat, looking me over with her purple contacts. “You’re not done yet?”

Like most heroines of the era, Sloane is beloved by men, inexplicably liked by women (who are underdeveloped compared to the male characters), and totally incapable of relating to anyone who is not in love with her. It is possible this was relatable to teenagers in the Obama years, but teens today are more sophisticated than that.

Like many premises of the era, The Program is underdeveloped, and insensitive by today’s standards. To state the obvious: depression as a plot device is icky. Mental healthcare in America is a travesty. Conflating suicidal ideation, depression, and self-harm as being one and the same (which this book does frequently) is lazy writing. This may have been okay in 2012, but we can do better now.

Aside from being insensitive, it is underdeveloped. We don’t really understand why suicide has become contagious, why it is an epidemic, or why it seems localized to teenagers. Although this vagueness can work for stories that are more about the character’s journey than the setting itself, this book is very much about the Program as a character, and one girl’s journey not to be changed by it. In a very real sense, the Program functions as the villain, and it is a poorly understood one.

Which is all a bummer. I like dystopian novels. It’s a pity this one was not done well.

I glance past her to make sure Mrs. Portman is distracted at the front of the room, and then I smile. “It’s far too early in the morning to properly pyschoanalyze myself,” I whisper. “I’d almost rather learn about science.”

“Maybe a coffee spiked with QuikDeath would help you focus on the pain.”