J. B. Stephens, The Big Empty. Penguin; Razorbill, 2004.
This consists of four volumes: The Big Empty (2004), Paradise City (2004), Desolation Angels (2004) and No Exit (2005), but they should be considered as one book with four chapters.
The book (and I will continue to refer to it as one book) begins a few years after Strain 8 has devastated America (the rest of the world is never referred to, a curious, but not unusual American trope). In the emergency a man (Gerard MacAuley) has risen to power and organised the evacuation of the American interior (the Big Empty of the title) to the two coasts. Why he has done this is never quite clear, an aspect of the tale which leaves Stephens head and shoulders over most of his/her competitors (I suspect her, because of the interest in emotional angst. Not all women do it, but very few men do.). MacAuley may be an opportunistic tyrant, but there are many more hints suggesting that he is a man in a panic, desperate to save America and taking decisions that seem right in an emergency. This—the wrong things we do in a state of emergency—will prove to be one of the thin silver threads of the novel’s political weave.
But the story isn’t about MacAuley. Instead it’s about living in disaster and under a repressive state. In the first part, The Big Empty, Keely is recruited to a secret commune, Novo Mundum, via her email. On the way she is joined by Michael and his airhead girlfriend Maggie (with whom he was about to split up and who he rescued from a robbery gone wrong), Diego who has lived in the Big Empty, Irene—on the way to Novo Mundum with her father and brother and separated when she tries to help Diego, Jonah, also a tag along and Amber, a pregnant teenager whose boyfriend has decamped to Novo Mundum. The first part is all about getting there.
The second part, Paradise City introduces us to Novo Mundum where Dr. Slattery rules with the help of his brother Frank. NM is a commune set on a college campus and all is idyllic. Each teen finds a place: Amber’s pregnancy is seen as a boon, Jonah becomes a plumber, Michael rises to the top of the tree as a security expert and boyfriend of Dr. Slattery’s daughter. Then it all starts to go pear-shaped. Irene starts to realise that Diego (who has been injured) is being kept sedated. Keely and Liza discover documents that suggests Slattery is making viruses, and Michael’s friend Gabe is killed by electric wire which Michael designed and installed. When they find experimental subjects of the virus all of them but Jonah flee with Liza in tow.
Desolation Angels tells of the struggle to cross the Big Empty—meeting up with Maggie and her gang of barbarian killers and rapists on the way—and to get to Houston where the meet up with Keel’s mother. No Exit takes them back to Novo Mundum where they bring down Slattery. In the distance, we can also see MacAuley’s regime beginning to crumble.
Structure of the book as a whole
There are a number of things that interested me about this book. Superficially it has the “there and back again” of many YA problem books which take us away from adult care, into wrong adult care, and back out again towards adult secured safety. In actuality however, the adults who have been left behind have already (for various reasons) abandoned their caretaking role, and its an irony that Dr. Slattery’s megalomania actually originates in his desire to care for his community. The argument that Stephens pursues here is about the nature and expression of caring, not who is doing it.
The use and subversion of avatars
This takes us to something I’ve been considering more and more both in terms of YA fiction and science fiction in general. It stems from that whole “sf doesn’t do character” argument. I’m not, here, going to give you a list of the sf writers who do write effective characters, nor am I going to pursue the idea I used in the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, that the “character” in sf may be the planet or the “what if”. Instead, lets accept that sf characters are often pretty bland. I think there is a reason for this: they aren’t “characters” in the proscenium arch, let’s watch someone develop sense at all, nor are they intended to be. Instead, they are avatars.
Now, let’s not all jump on me at once. I am in no sense using this as a derogatory dismissal. From my point of view, there is no such thing as a bad technique, only a technique used inappropriately/without understanding its power.
The avatar in science fiction (and they exist in plenty of other genres too by the way) is there to be steered through problems and give us the excitement of thinking we are clever—a waldo for the brain. My favourite avatar, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, is precisely this kind of intellectual extension. I’m not half as bright as Miles, but for a few hundred pages I get to clothe myself in his intellect.
Sometimes tho’ an author will play with us, let us get inside an avatar and then force us to question that relationship. Here’s an example of subversion of avatars: in Karen Traviss’s first Star Wars novel, Hard Contact she uses four presumed avatars. Four clone warriors, identical in every fashion. They should, by the conventions of the adventure genre, be blanks, tabula rasa for readers to steer. But in the process of dissecting the evil that is good men creating clones and then pretending they aren’t really people, Traviss forces us to accept that these aren’t avatars. By the end of the book we recognise these men’s individuality because they insist to themselves that they are individuals.
I’ve said avatars function in other genres: in series romance for example, the heroine is often drawn in fairly faint brush strokes precisely so that we can don her form. Too clear a heroine and we are watching her, not being her, and the whole point is that she should be an aid and enhancement to our emotional response.
But I suppose I should get back to YA fiction and this text in particular. In very many of the YA fictions I’ve read there is a “group avatar” structure. Think of this as Beverly Hills, 90210 ensemble fiction. Rather than one character we want to watch, there are several characters we are encouraged to want to be. And just to make sure the reading demographic is right, there will be “someone for everyone”. Again, I caution against reading my words as necessarily derogatory; I’ve never wanted to be any of the characters in Beverly Hills, 90210 but I spent much of my childhood wanting to be Sabrina Duncan in Charlie’s Angels.
Too often these ensemble characters are by the numbers. Even K. A. Applegate’s Everworld sequence, which in all other ways I rate very highly, resorted to four kids, three boys and a girl, each of whom has defined character traits and even when they turn out to have hidden secrets somehow they stay much the blanks they began.
JB Stephens isn’t having any of that. Each time we think we’ve got the player attributes figured out, s/he gives them a little twist. Let’s take Michael’s girlfriend Maggie for example. A total flake, incapable of looking after herself and worse, incapable of realising that, she suddenly turns around to the others and says she’s had enough. She walks off into the bush. What threw me about this is that it was totally in character yet broke the “we have to follow her and see her grow” structure that I usually see in these books. When we meet her again, she’s shacked up with a gang leader, is still utterly dependent but has made her life in manipulation of the male. Not only aren’t we being asked to identify any more but we are being asked to feel a bit repelled. Elsewhere there is an interesting scene where Keely thinks how much she likes being snuggled by two boys at once (Stephens later kills off one of the boys, but s/he did have to sell the book) and again, suddenly this avatar isn’t quite so comfortable.
One by one, Stephens has the initial ensemble develop in ways that aren’t terribly comfortable. If we wanted to see these characters as skins to don, then frankly, they’ve got itching powder inside. One consequence is that although Keely hooks up with her Mom, there is none of the “we have learned the world is dangerous and we want to go home” narrative I’ve seen too much of. Nor does Keely take her new lessons to improve her relationship with her Mom. Instead, it’s Mom who has to do the changing, and Keely goes home because the military drags her there, and she goes with a whole load of new ideas about politics. This discomfort helped me through what I would usually regard as an overemphasis on relationships (which I note some of the Amazon comments have complained about). There is too much, but it never actually became the centre of the story, more just what was happening as the real issues – how to stop a plague—were sorted out. Which is quite realistic really.
In the final book Stephens has also begun to show us glimpses of a restive population. The emotional development of the characters has been paralleled by their political development—an aspect missing from many YA books—and paralleled again by the political restiveness of the country. I’d also say that leaving so much hanging is rather effective. This is a fully built world in which the characters only get to see (and take part in) one part of the story.
The book is actually quite simple, it’s science fiction mostly in terms of its survivor narrative, but it ignores many of the “we are all going to hell in a handbasket” structures of dystopian fiction for YA—in many ways its actually rather utopian. In the end “highly recommended”.