Sunday, June 12, 2011

Dystopic Romance

The cover on this book is simply stunning. Simple, elegant, and beautiful. Interestingly enough, the story is also about all the beauty and nature this society has lost. With a need for technology that borders on the pathological, and a complete abandonment of anything natural for that which is safe, controlled, and digital, this cover is a natural fit (pun intended) for Katie Kacvinsky's Awaken.

Maddie's father is the created of Digital School (DS), a new education system designed to keep kids safe. Slowly, violence in schools grew until schools became actual terrorist targets. When 10 years ago, 17 elementary schools were bombed and thousands of young children had been killed, Maddie's dad developed a system that provide equal education for everyone without them ever having to leave the house. Slowly, with the help of DS, the world has become completely anti-social. No one interacts, computer profiles are considered the best way to "meet" people, and society has become so detached they can't even remember what they lost.

Maddie, 17, has spent the better part of the last two years on "lockdown". When she was 15, she broke into her father's files and gave information to DS protesters. She thought the information was going to be used for protests, but instead it was used to blow up transmitting stations for DS. She wasn't arrested because of who her father was, but she was forbidden to leave the house for almost anything until she was 18 and all her digital time was carefully blocked and monitored. Still, she craves human interaction (although at times she can't admit it to herself). When she meets a boy online who encourages her to meet him in person, she can't resist. He turns out to be quite the mysterious young man who always talks about the way society is falling apart thanks to DS and the virtual world.

At first she is drawn to Justin and his world of experiences, life, and human contact. Quickly, however, she realizes this was no random meeting- Justin had been looking for her. He and his group knew about her previous attack on DS and want to use her to get information from her father. At first Maddie is furious, but she quickly realizes the protesters might be right when her father lets her be taken away to a detention center for breaking her probation. When Justin's group saves her, they take her to a safe house in a town like she had never seen before: real trees, a bonfire (when her society screams how dangerous fire is), good food (as opposed to prepackaged, vitamin enhanced garbage everyone eats now), and most importantly, people. Here she begins to see the error of her father's ways and the lengths he will go to protect his creation, no matter how obviously flawed it has become.

This story has very mild language and is of a moderate reading level. There are some slow spots, so the book might be better for a stronger reader who can wade through them. While the content could have been rather violent, it is actually very tame. The protests aren't particularly violent, and even the police don't carry real guns- just a sedative dart to stop who they are chasing. Therefore, this might be good for a strong skilled yet immature student who isn't ready for more mature content.

I have to say, I thought this was going to be a fairly straight-forward dystopia, but it turned out to be more of a romance. I found myself at times wishing we could get past Maddie's pining for Justin and learn more about the world and the resistance. Even though the romance overshadowed the world-building a bit too much, the book was still an interesting read. I think the romance might be a good bridge for a student who really doesn't read the PA/dystopia genre to read something new, since it isn't too far from reality. The overuse of technology is a really interesting angle, especially with more and more schools offering online programs. With violence and huge discrepancies in education today, the idea of Digital School isn't completely ridiculous. The repercussions, however, are clearly too great to consider it. As kids these days become more and more glued to their game stations, computers, mobile devices, and technology in general, it is hard not to forget what we lose- do kids choose to go outside or choose to turn on their game console? The ideas behind this story provide a great backdrop for conversations about technology and the difference between using it and falling slave to it. So, are you ready to break away from the computer and give it a try?!

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