Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Discussing Reproduction and the Figure of the ‘Hybrid’ in Teen Speculative Literature

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

A new post on my personal blog, dealing with both fantasy and dystopian texts that focus on a “hybrid” heroine– cyborg, half-breed, or otherwise Other– that might be of interest!

Any thoughts would be welcome!


Thursday, February 27th, 2014


In Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, young adults and children play games– they play games in dystopian futures, where the idea of childhood and childhood innocence is long past. In these texts, often game play stands in for this lost innocence; we see a game being played, but it is a war game or a challenge in a virtual world that ends with deaths in the real one. What varies dramatically, however, is how these games are managed and controlled. In Ender’s Game, the fact that Ender and his friends are not in control is pointed out again and again, and even when Ender thinks he’s disobeying the rules, he really plays into the hand of the adults overseeing his progress. On the other hand, Ready Player One gives us Wade Watts, a teen growing up in a world so obsessed with the paradise of a virtual world OASIS that they can afford to turn away from the broken reality around them, who continually reasserts his agency and authority, although his background and his life experience should dictate that he has no right to. He not only breaks and disobeys rules– Wade manipulates others in and outside of the game space to become the ultimate winner. While both set up the notion that children are literally the future and are naturally creative “players” in any game, Ready Player One seems to reward rule breaking while neglecting crucial conclusions to the narrative, while Ender’s Game reinforces the idea that any move made is one that plays into the hands of those dictating the game.

Both Ender and Wade “take care” of themselves, but in radically different ways and while being monitored (or neglected) by the adults around them. When Ender is confronted by bullies, who think he is no longer being monitored by adults, he ends up attacking one of the boys brutally, in self-defense. The officer asks Ender why he didn’t simply stop when he was done, and Ender replies, “Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones, too. So they’d leave me alone. […] I had to take care of myself, didn’t I?” (19). Wade, too, takes care of himself, but not for the sake of a game– for the sake of survival. Ready Player One opens with an explanation of the fact that he’s an orphan, living (partially) with his aunt, who takes the refurbished laptop Wade has put together to pawn for money. She tells him it is to “pay his part of the rent” but the suggestion is that the money is for drugs. After, Wade goes to a broken down vehicle that he has made his safe haven, knowing that he’s had to look out for himself from early on, and no one is monitoring or even anticipating his potential.

Additionally, the construct of the enemy is one that is set up early in each book. In Ender’s Game, Dink, in explaining why he continually refused promotions, tells Ender that “It’s the teachers, they’re the enemy. They get us to fight each other, to hate each other. The game is everything. Win win win. It amounts to nothing” (108). He emphasizes that fact that he was young– six years old– when he was torn from his family and entered into the school and that since then, he has grown to see things in a very different way. His attempt to pass his wisdom on to Ender demonstrates that he doesn’t want Ender to burn out, or even continue fighting to “win all the next ones” like he had before. Instead, his enemy, in the back of his mind, becomes something else. The complicated enemy structure– the buggers, the teachers, the other student teams– in Ender’s Game is radically different from Ready Player One, which focuses on one main “bad guy”– an international company called Innovative Online Industries (IOI). The company has an “oology” division, dedicated to finding the easter egg placed into OASIS by its creator, James Halliday, to gain possession of the company and its fortune. IOI is certainly a critique of capitalism and the greed of big business, and Wade, in imagining the future of OASIS if taken over by IOI, says, “The moment IOI took over, the OASIS would cease to be the open-source virtual utopia I’d grown up in. It would become a corporate-run dystopia, an overpriced theme park for wealthy elitists” (33). In holding with the “ruthless corporate evil” stand-in, IOI sends bombs into Wade’s home in the “stacks” and plants evidence to make it seem like an accidental explosion– all after Wade refuses to help them pass through the first gate of the three gates it takes to get to Halliday’s easter egg. Ender’s enemy is multi-leveled and multi-faceted; the IOI and the man who runs it, Nolan Sorenson, are more one-dimensional fill-ins for corporate greed taken to a drastic and dramatic level.

The act of play and the act of winning are distinctively different for Ender, in the conclusion of Ender’s Game. When Ender finally is moved to command control, under the leadership of Mazer, Card writes “It was pleasure; it was play” (274). For the first time, Ender, with his friends acting under his direct command, has fun against what he is told is a “simulator”. This varies dramatically from the statements about the draining of innocence and the lack of childhood present throughout the later half of the novel. In fact, there’s a clear distinction between a childlike enjoyment of play and the seriousness of the adults– later explained by the fact that they were the only ones who knew what was at stake. Card writes, “The adults taking all this so seriously, and the children playing along, playing along, believing it too until suddenly the adults went too far, tried to hard, and the children could see through their game” (293). It is after this revelation of Ender’s that he realizes he will not play by their rules and instead, implements his own way of “winning” against the “simulated” buggers. The twist, of course, is that those buggers are not simulated and that he had never been playing AGAINST Mazer; he had been playing FOR him, against the buggers, manipulated into annihilating a race and that his “cheating” was simply what the adults were hoping for– a decisive conclusion to the war against the buggers and a huge victory. The games, here, exist on many levels: Ender enjoys the games and seems to have a natural knack for them when he’s in training and he begins to bend, break, and alter rules in order to win; all the while, the adults are monitoring and playing games with him, manipulating until they push him too far, from Ender’s perspective. This final push, however, was the desired end result and it had deadly consequences, along with serious emotional and mental repercussions for Ender. Play and pleasure, as he had initially experienced, are overwhelmed by feelings of betrayal and guilt at the genocide that he orchestrated unknowingly.

It’s quite the opposite, however, in the conclusion of Ready Player One. Play and pleasure continue in the final sequence of Wade’s quest for the egg and his takedown of Sorrento, which is facilitated by data that he had downloaded illegally and sent to news channels about the bombing of the stacks and the death of one of Wade’s fellow gunters, Shaito. He has the voices of his friends to cheer him on in the last levels of the game and is rewarded by becoming invincible in game and extremely wealthy outside of the game (though he, of course, benevolently agrees to split the money four ways with his friends ahead of time). But, with all the pleasure of game play and the satisfaction of winning– both against a computer and against the archnemesis of the book– a message comes across loud and clear: that it is time to move into the ‘real world’. The plan of his love interest, Art3mis AKA Samantha, is to use the money gained by retrieving the egg to rebuild the broken world around them, and Wade comes on board with that plan in the last few pages of the novel. Halliday’s avatar, in his final words programmed into the interaction he has with Wade, is that he realized too late that the outside world matters and that he should have experienced that rather than spending his time in games. The last lines of the novel, as Wade and Samantha first kiss, are as follows: “It occurred to me then that for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had absolutely no desire to log back into the OASIS” (372).

Both Ender’s Game and Ready Player One conclude with a task or quest of sorts– Ender’s Game continues into other stories, while Ready Player One implies the epic rebuilding of a world broken by climate change, economic depression, and general disaster by four teenagers and an eccentric billionaire– Halliday’s partner, Ogden Morrow. Ender feels guilt and horror and proceeds, but still has the skills that he learned through the commander training, while Wade simply has amassed a fortune that could help but has no means or knowledge of how to help the broken infrastructure of a broken world. While Ready Player One has a sweet and uplifting ending, it has troubling implications of what it would take to fix “reality” (ridiculous amounts of money). Wade maintains his individuality and his agency throughout the story as the unprepared-but-somehow-luckily-selected teenager, but at the cost of the end of the story, whereas Ender’s agency is rarely his to begin with. Both teens play, and both pay a price, whether they are aware of it or not.

(This blog is cross-posted on my personal blog,

Competition and Selection in Teen Speculative Fiction

Monday, May 13th, 2013

When The Selection by Kiera Cass came out, many readers described it as “a relationship or romance-centered version of The Hunger Games.” Now, with the recent release of the second book in Cass’s trilogy, The Elite, this kind of comparison has been rehashed and explored by fans or critics of the novels. To me, The Hunger Games already possessed a romantic component in the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale… but it’s true, the romantic complications in Cass’s trilogy bring on a whole new slew of issues about gender and agency in this “competition-based” subgenre of teen speculative fiction.

The Selection features the heroine, America, who is eligible to submit her name for possible “selection” as one of thirty five young women to be presented as eligible bachelorettes to Prince Maxon. The girls are allegedly chosen at random, which America quickly learns is untrue– the girls narrowed down to the thirty five presented to the Prince are not only chosen on the basis of physical attractiveness, but to a lesser extent, which caste they are from. The castes function around numbers assigned to families and give strict guidelines for what a family can or cannot do. The fives, for example, are an artistic and performance-based class, where all members hone some sort of special skill (like playing violin or crafting sculpture) and then are hired by higher castes to entertain.

A major source of conflict in America’s story comes from the fact that she never wants to register in the selection, but does so at her mother’s bidding. Her romantic interest at the onset of the story, Aspen, breaks up with her specifically so that she will register, in hopes of giving her a better life (and an automatic bump in the caste system) should she make it very far. Although America and Aspen discuss plans to marry, he is clearly uncomfortable with bumping her “down” to a six, as the wife inherits the number of her husband in marriage.

Of course, once she arrives at the palace, America finds herself attracted to the Prince and exhibiting all of the headstrong, willful tendencies typical to romance novels. He falls for her, agrees her to give her more time to grow affectionate towards him and Aspen reappears on the scene as one of the Palace guards, complicating matters further.

Throughout the novel and its sequel, political unrest increases, demonstrated by the number of rebel attacks conducted on the Palace. We grow to understand how the government became a monarchy and how the Selection came to be, as a process to boost morale among the people: after all, anyone can be a Princess. Well, as long as it is contingent upon the Prince’s love.

The crux of the difference between The Hunger Games and The Selection can be read in the respective love triangles. Katniss’s decision to go home to District 12 and eventually slowly grow close to Peeta again is a personal one. Katniss may remain a political icon as the retired Mockingjay, but she remains out of the spotlight. Most importantly, her relationship has no political consequence. While Katniss tells the reader that Peeta eventually wore her down into having children, these children are still a choice made by the couple.

In The Selection, America’s choice of a partner is a political choice and her future children are not a choice, if she decides to marry the Prince. (Alas, the third book’s publication date is, as of yet, unannounced.) When America considers herself as the potential partner of the Prince, she considers herself, as well, taking on the responsibilities of the role she must play as a future leader of the country. She weighs the power that she could yield and at times, that seems more appealing than the idea of a life with Prince Max. At the same time, when she thinks about Aspen as a romantic option, America realizes that she also has the ability to move up in caste by marrying an officer. 

While the comparison in the competition-based speculative fiction is valid, the way that gender operates in each series is very different, especially for the young adult reader. Katniss’s quiet life and the children she didn’t-quite-want to have with Peeta might leave a sour taste for many, but what about the presumed reproductive capabilities and desires of the future Princess in The Selection? Or the fact that a romantic choice that the narration leads readers to believe is between America, Aspen, and the Prince is actually between America and thirty four other girls who vie for the Prince’s affection? America, as narrator, represents her agency of choice in a different light than the actual process of the plot allows. When romance becomes political choice– and that choice is not even one really yielded by the heroine, despite her presentation as such– how can we, as readers, respond to the dynamics at play here?

Gardens, Utopias, and the Impulse of Myth

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

Given the imminent arrival of Naomi Jacobs, who will be presenting on Nature, Utopia, and the Garden tomorrow, Thursday April 11 at 4:15 in room 3209 of the Graduate Center, I figured I would share a quote I came across recently in my reading of the Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature by George Claeys.


In his discussion of Oscar Wilde, he writes, “Utopia springs from the same pulse as the myth or the eschatological desire for a better afterlife and thus yearns to realize a condition of happiness, well-being, and social harmony. Indeed, myths of the Island of the Blessed, the Land of the Cockaygne, Elysium, Shangri-La, and the Garden of Eden haunted philosophers, writers, and travellers for centuries and paved the way for the geographical utopia of the Renaissance period and the voyage utopia of the eighteenth century which believed in the transformative quality of alterity” (51).

I’m quite taken by the idea of the geographically-rooted utopia. How could this quote challenge or inform the readings we’ll be looking at for the seminar tomorrow and how can we think about place (and green space) as intertwined with the utopian impulse?

“Baby-Making” as Critiques of Capitalistic Society

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

If nothing else, in recent years, American society has become more familiar with ideas of reproductive assistance– from surrogacy to in-vitro fertilization to hormone injections and everything in between. Dystopian literary endeavors seem to have taken these ideas and multiplied them, representing the fears around fertility issues and the medical establishment’s involvement in reproductive assistance– representing fears around literally making babies in removed environments. Some of these representations don’t hinge on the medical; instead, “baby making” is used as a vehicle for a criticism of capitalistic society. The commercialization of reproduction and the way that it is branded, advertised and marketed towards dystopian societies reflects a criticism of capitalism in the most basic way… if these theoretical societies condone the blatant ‘selling’ of the creation of human life, what remains?

In MT Anderson’s Feed, Violet messages Titus with a long backstory of her life, as she knows she’s dying. She talks about her mother and father being together and writes, “I always thought it was strange that they decided to have a kid at a conceptionarium. I guess they really wanted to have me freestyle. They talked about it a lot. Well, I mean, they’d only been going out for a few months, but, you know, a lot for that. Anyway, the ambient radiation was already too bad by then for freestyle. So they went test-tube” (225). The idea of “freestyling” as code for having a child and the prevalence of the conceptionarium in a society made sterile by ambient radiation, so that freestyling becomes a choice or a resistance movement speaks deeply about the highly capitalistic society Anderson gives us. In Feed, the feeds implanted into the wiring of the human mind allow instant communication and provide a constant stream of advertisements, in addition to information and social media. Violet’s parents resist the feeds and opt out for themselves, but her father eventually chooses to allow Violet to get a feed (which leads, ultimately, to her death). In their case, once freestyling fails to produce a child, they have no other option. The parents of Titus, however, recount their decision to have Titus to him as one based in superficial desire; they choose his features based on a little-known actor and add in specific features from their own genetic pool. The making of baby Titus emphasizes consumerism and the aesthetic choices that informed the decisions of his parents, whereas Violet’s narrative underscores the fact that reproductive assistance was so necessary because of environmental factors that even those interested in ‘bucking the system’ were left with no choice.

In the much darker Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, the main character Jimmy/Snowman tells about the downfall of human society when science and capitalism become too intertwined. His stepmother, Ramona, marries his father and they immediately tell him that they want a child. Atwood writes, “Ramona would write him chatty, dutiful messages: no baby brother for him yet, she’d say, but they were still ‘working on it.’ […] If nothing ‘natural’ happened soon, she said, they’d try ‘something else’ from one of the agencies– Infantade, Foetility, Perfectababe, one of those. […] She was doing her ‘research,’ because of course they wanted the best for their money” (250). The competitive baby-making industry represented here, once more contingent on the desperation of a couple who wants to conceive, is even more explicit with the titling of the “agencies” and the marketing that these names represent. Furthermore, Jimmy’s narrative spends time imaging his father and stepmother creating a child in ‘trial runs’ that would allow them to have the perfect child and then load up the child with ‘bloated expectations’ but admits that he secretly envies the unborn child for the advantages that such a creation could give him– including the admiration and support of his father, which Jimmy felt denied of as a child.

Perhaps the most scathing critique of capitalist society is represented by Megan McCafferty in her novels Bumped and Thumped. These books present a world in the wake of the creatively-titled Human Progressive Sterility Virus, known as HPSV. At this point, most people become sterile around the age of 17 or 18, as the virus sets in, and rely upon the adoption of children birthed by teenagers, who are taught from a young age that reproduction is desirable, sexy, and profitable. The book opens by talking about the two twin sisters, Harmony and Melody, in a store called “Babies-R-U”– full of t-shirts that simulate different “sizes” of pregnancies, ‘You-Glow-Girl! stretchmark cream, and other items meant to convince young girls that pregnancy-for-profit is desirable and ‘fun’ as well as necessary. One of the narrators converses with the saleswoman about her pregnancy-simulation, and McCafferty writes, “’And you’ll note the tiny, tasteful stretch marks,’ [the saleswoman] continues, lifting my brand-new expandable-contractable MyTurnTee” (20). Shortly after, the sisters run into newly pubescent girls running excitedly around the store and they notice a girl’s shirt: “The front of the redhead’s T reads: DO THE DEED. As she hops around in excited circles, I catch the phrase on the back: BORN TO BREED. Indeed” (25). The opening of the book with this scene, along with the eventual resistance that the sisters offer to a world full of “reproductive professionals” who are sought out by future parents to get the ‘best’ for their money and infants being auctioned off to desperate, sterile adults, places emphasis on the consumerism inherent in this dystopia. Baby-making by teens becomes necessary– condoms are made illegal– and the purchase of infants as valuable and relatively rare commodities only spurs a capitalistic society towards marketing and selling a fantasy of pregnancy to young women.

Dialect and Slang as Rhetorical Power in Feed and A Clockwork Orange

Monday, March 4th, 2013

That’s one of the great things about the feed– that you can be supersmart without ever working. Everyone is supersmart now. You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in and shit” – Titus, in Feed (47).

Dialect and slang can define culture– especially youth culture. Dystopian fictions often represent class difference through changes in dialect, but in the case of novels featuring young adult or teen characters, often it is the language that used that reinforces their youth. Feed by M.T. Anderson and A Clockwork Orange by Andrew Burgess are both characterized by language, as they are written in dialect. Feed features Titus and his friends and family, who have less of a use for language after the implantation of a “feed” directly into their neurological wiring. They communicate via chat with each other and are influenced or directed by advertisements wired directly into their brains. A Clockwork Orange‘s dialect, Nasdat, is used almost exclusively by the violent youth culture– especially the story’s narrator, Alex, who changes up his speech patterns based on the people around him…and whether he wants something from them.

In Feed, everyone appears to use the same type of slang– even the President of the United States is quoted as having called another head of state a “shithead” in a speech, which some desperate government official attempts to cast as a compliment, given the fertilizing power of manure. The exception here appears in Violet, the love interest of Titus, and her father. Violet’s father is a professor of dead languages, which she explains to Titus are those that “were once important but that nobody uses anymore. They haven’t been used for a long time, except by historians” (37). The dead languages that she references appear to be variations of computer code, and when she writes examples for Titus by hand, he’s impressed by the fact that she knows how to write with a pen. Physical words– written words– seem to have all but disappeared from the world of Feed, leaving only the digitally communications transmitted via the feed behind. When Titus meets Violet’s father for the first time, he sees their house and notes that “the place was a mess. Everything had words on it. There were papers with words on them, and books, and even posters on the wall had words” (135). Titus and his generation associates written words with sloppiness, with clutter, with trash not yet disposed of. In response to this rejection of language, we see Violet’s father– a man so obsessed with the preservation of language that he is no longer understood when he speaks. Violet explains to Titus that “[my father] says the language is dying. He thinks words are being debased. So he tries to speak entirely in weird words and irony, so no one can simplify anything he says” (137). But when he actually speaks, his language is also telling– he combines slang and word usage from different eras, as if they bleed together as one in the history of language.

Language represents, then, the deterioration of culture as a whole in Feed. In A Clockwork Orange, we can read the use of slang in a similar way– except that it pertains exclusively to the youth culture in the story. Alex knows when to lapse into Nasdat and narrates the story in it, but has a grasp that older generations and those in official positions warrant a shift in tone and dialect that he refers to as his “gentleman’s goloss.” In speaking with the prison charlie, Alex says, “Sir, I have done my best, have I not?” before making sure to tell the reader that “I always used my very polite gentleman’s goloss govoreeting with those at the top” (62). This “gentleman’s goloss” appears at many other points in the novel as well– generally when Alex attempts to deceive or trick people into allowing him into their homes or speaking to his parole officer to try and convince him of his innocence and reform. It stands in contrast to the Nasdat slang that he speaks in the company of his gang or fellow prisoners in Staja (State Jail). Alex’s language is used as a tool, as manipulation– when asserting authority over his gang or over fellow prisoners, his Nasdat is flawless, but when he realizes that he has no power in the conversation, he attempts to manipulate people by showing him that he, too, can speak like an educated and polite ‘gentleman.’

Both stories immerse the reader in their dystopian context by writing the narrative in dialect, but Burgess and Anderson both reinforce the fact that the language of the story is not always the language of every character. In fact, the divergences from the dialects used by youth in the narrative seem to be powerful rhetorical moves that comment on authority, education, and willingness to participate in sometimes oppressive cultural norms– like the rampant consumerism and capitalism of Feed or the problem of youth violence in A Clockwork Orange.


Monday, February 4th, 2013

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