Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits that protect them from pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by this city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother, who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost.
With the help of his friends, Zhou infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes of destroying the international Jin Corporation from within. Jin Corp not only manufactures the special suits the rich rely on, but they may also be manufacturing the pollution that makes them necessary.
Yet the deeper Zhou delves into this new world of excess and wealth, the more muddled his plans become. And against his better judgement, Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO. Can Zhou save his city without compromising who he is or destroying his own heart?
Like any kind of fantasy, I’ve always had something of a rocky relationship with dystopia. I read The Hunger Games back when I was 17 and I liked it, but not as much as everybody else did. I got through the first couple books of the Divergent series, but never bothered finishing the trilogy, realising in the gap between the second and third books that the only reason I had read the first two was because of a romance I didn’t really care about any more.
This pretty much sums up my relationship with YA dystopia:
I felt like most of what I read was a melodramatic vehicle to deliver a lacklustre love triangle in which neither of the men the girl was torn over (and they always were men) were interesting. So when I read Aila @ One Way or an Author’s review of Want by Cindy Pon and, contrary to my experience of YA dystopia so far, it sounded super relevant and interesting, I was intrigued.
Want did not disappoint. One of my favourite bloggers, CW @ Read Think Ponder once wrote a fantastic blog post about the role of dystopic fiction – which I totally recommend that you read – and the part that most stuck in my mind was her definition of what the genre actually is. She wrote. “…dystopia should contain some social or political commentary, such as discourse on government, social institutions, or have societal implications.” Back when I first read that, the reason behind my general antipathy toward dystopia – that I had never really bothered analysing before – hit me: the reason I didn’t like most dystopia is that it’s an important genre that had become watered down into something completely irrelevant. Divergent just doesn’t stand up well against A Handmaid’s Tale, I guess.
This is why Want is a breath of fresh air wrapped in a story that is depressingly familiar and anxiety-inducing in its prescience. Set in a futuristic Taipei, it tells of a society in which the majority (known as meis, meaning ‘have nots’) die at young ages due to air poisoned by pollution, while the richest 1% (known as yous, meaning those who have) are safely encased in breathing apparatus that costs millions to obtain – so is completely out of reach of the normal person. After a successful kidnapping and ransom venture, Jason Zhou and his fellow 99%-er rebel gang infiltrate the world of the yous in order to take them down.
Pon looks at current issues with climate change and takes them to the farthest reaches of disaster. In her Taipei – much like in current times – cleaning the air is a difficult, but by no means impossible task. It’s made impossible by those with the ability to help – the yous – refusing to do so because 1) the situation doesn’t affect them and 2) they financially benefit from it. The rich are protected from the noxious air by the suits made by the Jin Corporation, so they continue to buy from other rich companies that are in turn run by people with their own Jin Corporation suits… and on and on and on with one result: nothing changes and meis continue to die.
Watching people die isn’t enough of a motivation for the yous to make changes – in part because they don’t often actually see it. The yous and the meis live lives so utterly separate it’s as if the yous have lost the ability to recognise the humanity of the meis and their suffering at all, let alone to see it as their problem. It is, ultimately, ignorable. It would be nice to think we non-fictional people would never be capable of this kind of passive cruelty, but the fact is we’re doing it all the time. Children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo mine cobalt which is then used to make our smart phone batteries, while countless rivers in Asia are completely destroyed by the textile industry, just one aspect of the destruction caused by demand for fast fashion. So much of our day to day, from clothes to technology to food, comes at the expense of people in countries far away from our own, people living below the poverty line who don’t have a platform or the resources to make themselves heard, and therefore are not seen. Just like with the yous and the meis in Pon’s world.
Pon however, takes it a step further and complicates the story by demonstrating that this lack of empathy indeed goes both ways. When Zhou joins the you community and meets Daiyu, an heiress, he is thrown off when he finds she is a nice person, albeit one complicit with the status quo through being born into a privileged you family. What had previously seemed like an easy task, bring down Jin Corp and the yous with it was harder when, rather than a nameless, faceless hoard he could easily hate, the yous turned out to include people like Daiyu, a decent and smart human being. Through Zhou’s relationship with Daiyu, Pon explores the polarities we live in and how when communities actually mix with one another, so many of them prove to be false.
In Want, Pon weaves a rich world that is compelling and painfully relevant, but cautiously optimistic in its approach to some of society’s greatest problems.