Today I’m delving back into YA dystopian, a genre I have avoided in recent times due to its tendency to bring on feelings of despondency and gloom. It was an overproliferation of YA dystopian that led to my creation of the Utopirama! feature way back when. But times change and the use of a dystopian, consumer-driven setting in MARTians by Blythe Woolston is so subtle and original that I couldn’t help but give it the thumbs up. We received a copy of MARTians from Walker Books Australia for review – thanks! – and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Last girl Zoë Zindleman, numerical ID 009-99-9999, has just been graduated. Early. Her options: wait for her home to be foreclosed and stripped of anything valuable now that AnnaMom has moved away, or move to the Warren, an abandoned strip-mall-turned-refuge for other left-behinds—a safe place, and close to AllMART, Zoë’s new employer, where “your smile is AllMART’s welcome mat.” Zoë may be the last girl, but her name means “life,” and Zoë isn’t ready to disappear into the AllMART abyss. Zoë wants to live.
MARTians is set in a world of exurban decay studded with big-box stores, where its inhabitants are numbed by shopping and the six o’clock “news.” MARTians may be the future, but it is frighteningly familiar.
And here are Five Things I’ve Learned from MARTians by Blythe Woolcroft:
- Your smile is the ALLMart Welcome Mat.
- Your employment, promotion prospects, level of debt, ability to afford housing and general well-being all depend on your ability to keep customers shopping, so keep on smiling, ALLMart employee! *clapclapclap*
- Customer confusion results in a lack of consumer confidence. Know. Your. Product (and keep smiling!).
- Make sure you direct the customer through at least two different departments on their way to the checkout.
- Don’t quibble about your name-badge. Everyone’s an individual at ALLMart
First up, I should point out that although I really enjoyed this book, I’m afraid it will be overlooked or seen as lacking by other YA readers due to a few key issues. For a start, it was both short and a standalone. These were both enormous positives from my point of view, but I know how YA readers love their series.
Secondly, there was no romance at all, despite featuring two protagonists of the same age and opposite sex stuck in an inescapable and rather bleak situation. “HOORAY!” I cried, when I got to the end without being alternately bored and irritated by pace-slowing, bland, repetitive teen romance. Again, I thought this was an enormous plus and offer kudos to the author for not getting sucked into the black-hole-like gravitational pull of peer pressure to put romance in every single YA book.
Finally, there were plenty of aspects of the story that COULD have been fleshed out far more deeply – the character of “Belly” and her mysterious fate, the whereabouts of Zoe’s mother, what happened to Dolly Lamb and 5er’s family – but to do so would have made this a super-long book and resulted, I think, in a shifting of the subtly disturbing and pervasive atmosphere of dystopia.
You see, I think the great strength of this book is that the dystopian aspect isn’t all in your face. There isn’t a zompocalypse or some major environmental disaster that throws people together in a minute-t0-minute battle for survival. Instead, the society described here is so close to our current consumerist society to be deeply disturbing on a psychological level, but just different enough to assure the reader that this is all fiction. In Zoe’s world, you are either a consumer or a worker and there really isn’t much scope to be both successfully. Individuals are taken straight from school graduation to prison, if deemed not capable enough to succeed as a worker. Major retailers control the pay packets and lives of their workers. And ordinary families disband, leaving whole suburbs of houses empty, in order to chase work and security, while the dwellings left behind are stripped of useful materials by those struggling to survive.
There is quite a bit of dark humour throughout the book – I only noticed the cheeky nod to literary classic The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the end! – and Zoe is a relatable, if naive, narrator. Timmer provides the lightness that is needed to avoid the whole thing descending into a depressive state and overall, I was thoroughly impressed with the way the author handled the story within such a restrained word count.
While this certainly isn’t going to be a blockbusting, seat-of-your-pants, thrillride of a read for many people, I am giving it my Top Book of 2016 tick of approval because it really is a standout in a YA market that has a tendency towards churning out books that aren’t prepared to take a risk in generating original characters or plots.
You can see my other Top Book of 2016 (so far!) picks by clicking this attractive button:
Until next time,