This Time of Darkness, by H. M. Hoover (1980)

This Time of Darkness cover
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.

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11 Responses to This Time of Darkness, by H. M. Hoover (1980)

  1. Patrick Kavanagh says:

    I loved this one, too! Reading The Hunger Games also rekindled a lot of nostalgia for this post-apocalyptic YA genre I grew up reading.

    Started reading Wool by Hugh Howley last year (didn’t finish it), which is more sophisticated, but also involves survivors living underground for generations and believing that there is no life on the surface. Sounds familiar!

    • Sam says:

      Sorry it took me a month to approve & reply to your comments — I get so much damn spam that Gmail has apparently decided everything from WordPress is spam!

      Anyway, I have a whole shelf of “they live underground and believe there is no life on the surface, UNTIL…” books. I hadn’t realized Wool was in that category as well; City of Ember was the most recent I knew of (but I rarely read books for grownups).

  2. Waterwench says:

    I LOVED “This Time of Darkness” when I was growing up and am actually re-reading it now. I loved the difference between the two characters–Amy has learned to be self-reliant because none of the adults in her society can be trusted, and Axel has been terribly damaged and is vulnerable due to his experiences. At one point, she is puzzled because he seems to want her to be “weak”‘! I love that part! And it’s awesome that the crazy, James, is the one adult from the city who actually helps them to survive.

    • Sam says:

      Yay! Oh, thank you for commenting. Good point about the character contrast — especially since the girl is the self-reliant one and the boy is softer… until they get Outside, where Axel is more sure how things work. I didn’t feel that either character was especially gendered, which is appropriate for their young ages and I think makes this book work for boys and girls pretty equally.

      Incidentally, I recently gave this to a friend — an adult reader of children’s science fiction who had never heard of it — and she loved it. I felt so vindicated. :)

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  4. Martini-Corona says:

    In regards to trilogies — I think they started with adult sf and fantasy and trickled down. Probably Tolkien and Asimov (the Foundation trilogy) kicked it off. John Christopher was technically writing before my personal YA era (the late ’80s/early ’90s) but he did write another YA trilogy, called “The Sword of the Spirits,” which wasn’t as popular (or good, in my opinion). But I remember a fair number of trilogy series when I was reading YA stuff — Mercedes Lackey was ALL OVER trilogies during that period. And a lot of the movie/TV novelizations of that era (like Star Trek and Star Wars) were written in trilogy form. I guess it’s hard for me to gauge what is YA fiction and what is just YA-accessible adult sf/fantasy — I also read quite a lot of C.J. Cherryh, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Margaret Weis/Tracy Hickman, and they were all prone to writing multi-volume series. I think it comes down to a combination of marketing and fan response — if you’re reading to “escape,” that’s much easier to do if you have serious world-building going on that you can roll around in, geek out about, etc. It’s not really worth laying that kind of groundwork for a one-off.

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  7. Sam says:

    Martini-Corona & Sheila:

    Yeah, it’s interesting about the Tripods — that was the only counter-example I could think of myself, and it’s also the only trilogy I could come up with from that era. Now, of course, everything’s a trilogy. I wonder if the under-200-page novels of the ’70s and ’80s just didn’t have enough time for the kids to save the world?

    And why, for that matter, do we have so many more trilogies now? Is it just that Harry and Bella made it more financially feasible for publishers to sign that kind of contract, or is there more going on?

    As for adult neuroses, yeah, I think there is something there. Of course, it’s going to be true that themes in YA science fiction will be similar to those in SF at large, and themes in SF reflect the adult world (as you say, Sputnik-era SF is often about discovery, and Cold War-era focuses more on paranoia and autocratic dystopias). I don’t read enough adult SF to notice any trends about what’s different in YA vs. adult SF of those eras… do you?

  8. Sheila Ruth says:

    Aw, Martini-Corona, you took my counter-example! I was going to say the Tripods! I loved that series when I was younger.

    The Time of Darkness sounds like a good book!

  9. Martini-Corona says:

    I suppose the easy counterexample would be the Tripods trilogy where (spoiler alert) they DO change the world, but with tragedy along the way, and ambiguity going forward. Sorry, my John Christopher obsession is getting kind of boring.

    But I know what you mean about raising the stakes vs. previous YA works. The Homeward Bounders would be another one in this category — no uplifting, world-saving ending there.

    Do you think themes in YA works are a function of adult neuroses? Are authors these days more prone to writing empowerment fantasies because they themselves feel powerless? As opposed to, say, 1950s-era YA sci-fi which seems primarily (to me) to be about discovery and exploration (the white male protagonists of ’50s stuff didn’t really need empowerment — wasn’t even on the radar), or ’70s-’80s stuff about paranoia…

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