Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Hell Beneath the Utopian Dome

Maureen McGowan, Compliance (The Dust Chronicles)

Young Glory, a teenager who can kill strangers telepathically, knows the bitter secret that the government would conceal from the domed city of Haven: the outside world isn’t so bad. The Dust that nearly obliterated humanity has dissipated, and with caution, the air is safe. Haven’s constant push through media, school, and every aspect of tightly controlled culture, is a lie. But breaking the silence could merit Glory her death.

Maureen McGowan’s second dystopian thriller covers similar ground as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, while telling an entirely separate story. McGowan focuses not on how the hierarchy exploits massive poverty, but on how the leadership preserves its feudal privilege by cultivating fear and ignorance. It’s essentially a primer in how bloated post-industrial civilization must court fascism to prevent sweeping social chaos.

Glory studies to become a Compliance Officer, a paramilitary enforcer charged with weeding out Deviants. In her technologically disrupted world, Deviants are rogue mutants whose advanced physical and mental capabilities threaten Haven’s bureaucratic stability. But while training to root out Deviants, Glory also runs secret night missions smuggling Deviants out of the city, while trying to conceal her own Deviant superpower from her commanders.

Readers will undoubtedly recognize McGowan’s historic parallels. Glory serves as a sort of teenage Raoul Wallenberg, using her official standing to subvert the regime that employs her. But the Resistance she assists begins proffering orders Glory finds unethical. When an enigmatic government functionary reveals that not everything Glory knows about the city is necessarily true, she begins questioning her already divided loyalties. Sound familiar?

War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.

But McGowan doesn’t just exploit the obvious historic themes. She populates Glory’s world with a collusion between immense wealth and a government that maintains the status quo. Citizens can’t speak truth when media, government, and every available source of information recycles the same set of preapproved lies. Even when reality apparently contradicts the official story, the familiar lie has sticking power. Koch Brothers, anyone?

Critic Richard Mathews claims that the best fiction written for youth is only truly comprehensible to adults. By this, he means that while youth may feel deeply the truths underlying books like this one, and understand that this says something about the world they live in. But only adults have enough knowledge, enough experience, enough accumulated wisdom to explain exactly why these books speak to us. And speak this does.

Books like this, The Hunger Games, and Moira Young’s Blood Red Road bespeak a broad gap between the life adults promise to children—hard work will pay off in material rewards later, we can trust authority figures to do right, grown-ups promises are worth the air it takes to speak them—and the reality they see around themselves daily. It must seem to teens that adults lie for practice. As a former teacher, I’m not sure they’re wrong.

McGowan explicitly presents education, or schooling at any rate, as a tool for indoctrination and for squelching the imagination. She depicts one eager student answering a classroom question: “Deviants are different and difference is dangerous.” My fellow public school graduates will recognize the underlying ethos in this statement, as overworked teachers and mocking peers colluded (consciously or not) to silence ambitious or nonconforming students.

Despite their youth, McGowan’s target audience aren’t ignorant. They know their teachers preach a gospel of studiousness and bookish accomplishment, but they face a world where schoolroom performance has less and less to do with their careers. Ain’t no poor kids gonna become hedge fund managers. And with the increasing digitization of white-collar work, college has become a tedious holding pattern, not a key to success.

American society pays homage to values like democracy, capitalism, and initiative, but youth can see this has devolved into lip service. They’re forced to choose between two political parties who agree on too many crucial issues, and care little for society’s poorest. The people working the longest hours are not the people driving the biggest cars. Too often, material success depends your personal network; shade-tree mechanics, not learned geniuses, run the world.

Works like this matter, not just because youth find them entertaining, but because rebellious characters like Glory or Katniss empower readers to resist the blatant lies around them. The essential conservatism of canonical literature classes encourage students to keep quiet and honor the past. McGowan, Collins, and Young enable teens, and adult readers with stifled rebellious youth in their hearts, to believe their ideals have real-world merit.

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