All Amy knows is the endless corridors and grimy roach-infested apartments of the city. She’s marked as a possible troublemaker because she knows how to read, but if she keeps her head down and makes enough deliberate mistakes on the school vids, maybe they’ll send her to a training dorm to learn a trade. Until her weird classmate Axel confides that he grew up Outside, and she convinces him to help her escape the city.
Apocalypse how? Vague environmental apocalypse, a long time ago. The best we get is “back when you couldn’t breathe the air outside and the sun made people sick.” No one remembers how anything came to be — the city, the domes above the city where the rich people live, the farming town of Axel’s people — and in fact no one Outside or in the domes knows about the city, and the city dwellers don’t know about anything else. The Authorities, of course, keep everyone in ignorance, in the way that Authorities do.
One of the fantastic things about this book is how ignorant we are. As a kid there seemed great unresolved mysteries (and I read this book a lot). As an adult I was able to pick up on more clues, but even so, understanding requires inhabiting the space between the lines. The spare prose is powerfully subtle, and heartbreaking.
I find the ending fascinating, because (spoiler alert!) Amy and Axel don’t change the world. They don’t even try. They aren’t Katniss and Peeta fomenting revolution; they’re happy enough just to have “come up from level nine.” My instinct says that this has changed over time — in the ’70s and ’80s, the young characters survived their adventure and made it to a better place, and that was enough. Modern post-apocalyptic heroes need to overthrow the government and usher in a new era of freedom or the story doesn’t feel satisfying. (I haven’t done a comprehensive survey, of course, so I might be wrong about the shift, but it definitely struck me during this re-read. Anyone want to discuss some counter-examples?)
13 vs. 31: Oh, man. I can’t be remotely objective about this one; it was the start of my love affair with post-apocalyptic fiction. It consistently gave me chills as I re-read it, but who knows how much was nostalgia?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: H. M. Hoover is the best children’s author you’ve never read. I think this is one of her best books, but I’d be curious to discuss it with someone who has perspective.