Want

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?

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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:

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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.

Vivian Versus America

This review contains spoilers for Vivian Versus the Apocalypse.

Vivian Apple has been through a lot since the first rapture. Now that the evil Church of America Corporation have complete control over the country, her only choice is a life on the run. After tracking down Beaton Frick himself, Viv and her best friend Harp know a little about the circumstances of the first rapture – totally fake, of course, and involving at least one instance of mass murder. They know they have solid evidence against the church, but after Peter’s capture, they are unsure how to proceed. After finding Vivian’s not-so-raptured mother and the sister she never knew she had, things are more confusing than ever.

It’s fortunate then, that Vivian’s new sister, Winnie, is part of an anti-Church militia, bent on taking the Corporation down by any means necessary. Together they travel to LA to the Church headquarters.

How do you go about taking down a cult that has captured the majority of Americans in its thrall? Vivian and her new friends are going to have to figure it out…

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I read Vivian Versus the Apocalypse about a year ago. I liked it well enough, but there was nothing about it that made me desperate to pick up the sequel. At this point, I honestly have no idea why this was, because Vivian Versus America, by Katie Coyle is a brilliant book.

The truth is, there will always somebody trying to make a profit on the end of the world. In this case, it’s the Church of America Corporation, who in addition to publishing The Book of Frick (much loved bible substitute), also sell clothes, food and home accessories, all of which will make you just that little bit more Godly.

You can buy your way into heaven, it turns out.

Vivian Versus America is a super depressing book. The Church has risen to such shocking power as a result of the fact that the world probably is ending. America has been battered by severe storms and for months the sun has been misbehaving. Just as people were adjusting to the prospect of a future that was brutally limited, Beaton Frick appeared with a way out. It was built on aggression, ignorance and hatred.

People ate it up.

Vivian and Harp are two teenage girls – barely more than children – but once the Church have publicised their names and images and labelled them the enemy, people don’t hesitate to attack them in the street. In this America, a person can only be with the Church or against them, and if you fall into the latter category believers feel no obligation toward you or your safety. As the situation progresses and society disintegrates (and the Church of America step in with a new, well equipped police force, obviously) it is not only believers who are guilty of violence.

‘We just have to believe we’re capable of better. Because the Church doesn’t. They count on us being scared and weak; they count on us turning on each other. And some do…. But there are millions and millions of people in this country, Viv. The people who scare you… they’re only the loudest. They’ve got access to the screens and microphones, and they’re counting on the rest of us keeping our heads low, because we’re too afraid to fight back. But just because we’re not as loud doesn’t mean we’re alone.’

Katie Coyle explores the darkest aspects of human nature. She looks at how easily we can be led into a place of violence and aggression when we’re desperate to escape from feelings of fear and hopelessness. As I’ve already mentioned, this in no way limited to the believers. Everybody has blood on their hands by the end.

The weird thing about reading this – and probably what stopped me from starting it for so long – is that Vivian is by far the least interesting character in the book. She’s a very typical YA protagonist. The good girl turned warrior with all the inherent insecurities to boot. Her romance bores me, and she takes risks for it that made me roll my eyes hard. I was fascinated however, with the other women in her family. Much of the first book is dedicated to the problems of Vivian’s mother and by the beginning of …Versus America she has been cast as the other great villain of Vivian’s life. Winnie, Viv’s sister, I loved and I still wish we could have gotten more of. She’s brave – she’s pretty much decided that she’ll take down the Church or die trying. She’s accepts people for who they are, without tolerating their bullshit. The calm objectivity she projects enables her to have relationships with her estranged mother and her resentful sister. She understood, much more than Vivian, that any moment could be the end. She wasn’t going to die with unfinished business. The relationships of these three women added another fascinating layer to the book.

‘I know now that my mother will always be searching. I can’t divert her from her quest for herself; I can’t insist that I alone should be enough for her. She is more than just my mother – she’s a person all of her own, and she has the right to seek answers. She’s just not satisfied yet. I realize that a part of me loves this about her, even as it hurts.’

This is one of the first dystopic fictions I’ve ever read that I actually felt in my heart. Looking at the news right now there is a grim reality to this book that is inescapable. It’s a compelling story.

‘…the world is dark, and frightening. The country is huge and unknown. Some lay in wait, wanting to manipulate us, to turn us against one another – for money, or for power. It doesn’t matter. All I know is they will not be able to do it if we hold tight to each other. If we find in ourselves the capacity to love without fear or condition, to accept the humanity of others as simple, irrefutable fact. I believe we are capable of this.’