So, let’s talk for a little bit about Scott Westerfeld.
I had been hearing his name for some time in regards to his Succession series (well, two books might not officially be a series, so we could just refer to them by title as The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds) which always came up in that Intelligent New Space Opera discussion, along with books like Stross’ Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise or John C. Wright’s Golden Age books (The Golden Age, The Phoenix Exultant, and The Golden Transcendance).
[As an aside, I think it’s terribly interesting that all these books, all of which I quite enjoyed, seem to be working on themes, and to some extent working with some of the same tools, that Walter Jon Williams used 12 years ago in Aristoi. Why don’t I hear more about that in these discussions, especially with reference to the Wright books? But that’s a discussion for another day.]
Anyway, one of the people keeping Westerfeld’s name in the front of my mind was Gwenda Bond, who has been constantly hyping Westerfeld’s work on her blog for well over a year now. She even has a short interview with him (which you might not want to read until after you’ve read So Yesterday, since he gives away quite a bit of the mystery of the first half-to-three-quarters of the book). I think her comments late last year might have been the first place I heard of the Risen Empire books, which lead me to search out the other discussions and reviews (which all seem to be tossing around the New Space Opera rubric), and ultimately led to my buying the books. Gwenda very rarely leads me astray with book recommendations.
So I got the Risen Empire books, and really quite enjoyed them (I mean come on, it’s Zombie Empire versus The Borg, with hi tech O’Brianesque space battles, political intrigue, lesbian infiltrators, and a sassy house AI–how can you go wrong?).
Obviously I then wanted more Westerfeld, so I ran out and picked up what was his most recent book at the time, The Secret Hour, the first book in a series entitled “The Midnighters“. That book, and series, are packed as teen books (Amazon says Grades 6 to 10) so I had to sneak into the teen section of the bookstore to get it (God forbid I am seen buying books for children! 🙂 –although actually another discussion for another day might have to do with Pullman, et. al., and the secrets of the “non-adult” section of the store, and the migration of genre authors into that section), but I really enjoyed it. I love secret history in the world stuff, which is packed into the book.
I also ordered a copy of one of Westerfeld’s older works, Evolution’s Darling, which has all the sensawunda stuff that was in The Risen Empire with an added dash of PKD style “what makes a person?”. I quite dug that as well, and I wonder how I managed to avoid hearing about it when it first came out. (I am also now on the lookout for some earlier out-of-print works, Fine Prey and Polymorph.)
All of which is background for what I really want to talk about, Westerfeld’s most recent work So Yesterday, which I read last night. For the record, it is also packaged as a “teen” work, so if you pick it up in a bricks-and-mortar store, look in the teen section.
First, the obvious, I quite enjoyed the book, and tore through it in a couple of hours. Unlike the other Westerfeld YA book that I’ve read, I don’t think this one will age well–it’s very much a period work, with the period being right now.
The ultimate reader for this book is someone very much like me, except born in 1987 instead of 1973–a decently intelligent, culturally aware person, who understands people but still feels like an outsider, someone who leans more to West 7th Avenue than to Madison Avenue. Me, as I would be had I been born 14 years later, would absolutely love this book, although obviously even 31-year old me can still enjoy it.
The book has an interesting protagonist, who the audience can relate to, a love interest that is appealing but just as flawed as the protagonist, and at least one antagonist (well, sort of) who is perfectly painted as a combination of “cool” and ridiculous. The backstory for each of these characters also includes them being damaged in some way by the notion of cool–two different kinds of “fish out of water” syndrome, and a “damaged by the transient nature of ‘cool'”–and since all of us have been through some of these same feelings, we connect immediately with them. And, of course, not explicitly highlighted in the text, but obviously raised are questions about relationships between social groups and individuals, and the notions of who people need validation from–all things that we should all occasionally think about.
The main character does do quite a bit of glib stereotyping, in the language of a marketer, of the rest of the cast as they are announced (which brought to my mind another teen book, albeit one more focussed on the social aspects of cliques than on their target market aspects, Tribes) which helps to quickly realize those characters in our minds, while also revealing something about the protagonist, and also makes a comment on our society.
While the characters are well enough drawn to make you care about the story, what I found more interesting about the book was its commentary on the our consumerist society. Now, admittedly, there’s nothing in this commentary that’s going to come as something entirely new to anyone who has spent time with any anti-brand evangelists (although I was quite impressed with Westerfeld’s observation that the person who innovates is not necessarily “cool”, but rather is a generator of ideas, which are adopted by trend setters who actually arbitrate what is and is not cool–this seem much more accurate to me than models where the innovator and trend setter are presented as the same entity) but it’s a clear presentation–and a clear presentation tucked into a “teen” book. How great would it be if kids read this book and encountered some of these ideas for the first time? And even better than that Westerfeld manages to question not only the existing hierarchy, but also highlight some of the silliness inherent in a knee-jerk rebellion. This book is a very sneaky way to plant some notions of critical thinking, not just about advertising and the question of “cool”, but also about the nature of rebelling against the system.
It’s a quick read but a good one, and I’d recommend it.