I wrote recently about the fact that my mental picture of “apocalypse” is stuck in the Cold War — instantaneous disaster, as opposed to the currently more likely slow(-ish) environmental collapse. I mused about what current YA readers of science fiction will picture, which made me wonder: other than Uglies, what’s being written in the post-apocalyptic vein these days?
So I read four YA novels written around the turn of the 21st century, set in post-apocalyptic-ville (or immediately-pre-apocalyptic-ville):
The Secret Under My Skin, Janet McNaughton: Former street kid Blay, now a ward of the totalitarian state, is chosen to help Marrella prepare for her investiture as a bio-indicator. Bio-indicators used to be ritual sacrifices to keep the planet’s toxins at bay; now they’re part of an underground movement to bring science and democracy back to Canada. Blay comes to live with the scientist and resistance leader who are training Marrella, and discovers truths about her own past and future.
Apocalypse how? Here we get two apocalypses* for the price of one: the gradual environmental destruction I was hoping to find in one of these books, which happened well before the characters’ lifetimes, plus a more recent “technocaust” (the mass murder of scientists, who are blamed for the environmental disaster). A neo-Dark Ages, scientists-as-shamans, complex political machinations, brave revolutionaries, “love makes a family,” three-dimensional adults… way to push all my post-apocalyptic buttons, Janet! And it’s very well-written, to boot. I heart this book!
Star Split, Kathryn Lasky: Lasky doesn’t mess around — this novel is set all the way in 3038, when everyone is cured of genetic diseases in utero, and the educated elite are given an extra chromosome to which they can attach extra abilities and talents. The entire culture is focused on genetic manipulation, and the highest crime is unauthorized “umbellation” (cloning).
Apocalypse how? Well, that’s not so clear. This was my least favorite of the bunch, because (among other things) it’s terribly scattered. Of course heroine Darci finds out that her parents cloned her, using added DNA from the less-genetically-manipulated underclass Originals. Turns out her parents are part of a resistance movement, which is resisting the permanent change of the human race into…something else, we’re told. It’s never made clear what that means, or why we don’t want that to happen, or what the larger context is. It only matters that Darci and her clone find that their futures are (gasp!) not predetermined, because they Have Souls and that means God Loves Them.
Songs of Power, Hilari Bell: Imina, the great-granddaughter of an Inuit shaman, wants to be a shaman herself, but she’s stuck in an undersea habitat with her scientist parents and a bunch of other scientists who totally don’t get her belief in magic. But when mysterious Magic-Makers mess with their habitat, only Imina can figure out what’s going on.
Apocalypse how? The reason the habitat (and many others like it) exists is that a revolutionary group (with Commie-esque slogans, but no clear agenda) semi-accidentally released a genetic virus that will render the nutrients in all terrestrial plants unavailable to humans within a few years. Humanity will need to feed itself from the sea for a few decades until the virus runs its course, so the habitat is studying ways to increase plankton growth and thereby increase the populations of fish we eat. Aside from the gaping scientific holes in this scheme, it struck me as a lot of contortions just to get to “we can’t feed ourselves the usual way anymore.” Bell forced man-made instantaneous apocalypse to do the duty of longer-term environmental apocalypse.
(Oh, and this one’s for you, Miriam: the Magic-Makers, with whom only Imina can communicate? They turn out to be the noble Whales, defending their noble way of life from human encroachment. Is that better than dolphins, at least? Maybe?)
Among the Hidden, Margaret Peterson Haddix: This one’s similar to Star Split in that it’s about a controversial birth policy: after a national famine, followed by a military coup, families are only allowed two children. Luke is a third, born to a mother with more sentiment than sense: “You just happened, [and] I wouldn’t even let your dad talk about… getting rid of you.” So he’s stuck in his attic bedroom, with no hope for a real life ever — thanks, Mom! Until one day he sees another third child out the window, and gets caught up in her revolutionary schemes.
Apocalypse how? Until Luke meets Jen halfway through the book, we know virtually nothing about the politics of this world — Luke’s parents are uneducated subsistence farmers, but Jen’s are high-ranking government officials who allow her internet access. Jen’s view of the world is skewed too, though, so we never get a very clear picture of what, exactly, happened to cause the famine, or what the situation is now. Thumbs up to the atmospheric ambiguity, thumbs down to the confusion.
So for those keeping score at home, we have one genetic apocalypse, two famine apocalypses (one man-made and one probably not), and one environmental apocalypse with an added touch of genocide. (And one Sam, grateful that most of the books weren’t so complex or deep, because otherwise she’d be extremely freaked out.) I suppose it’s easier to set up a high-stakes challenge for the characters if you set the apocalypse right now or right before they were born, rather than building over decades/centuries.
And hey, if you need an insta-pocalypse, and nuclear war is so 1975, you could always have asteroids slam into the moon and knock it off course! I haven’t read Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, but…um…that’s not likely to happen, is it?
*”Now I find myself needing to know the plural of ‘apocalypse’.” – Riley, Buffy