#ANewChapter: The Getaway by Lamar Giles

Jay is living his best life at Karloff Country, one of the world’s most famous resorts. He’s got his family, his crew, and an incredible after-school job at the property’s main theme park. Life isn’t so great for the rest of the world, but when people come here to vacation, it’s to get away from all that.

As things outside get worse, trouble starts seeping into Karloff. First, Jay’s friend Connie and her family disappear in the middle of the night and no one will talk about it. Then the richest and most powerful families start arriving, only… they aren’t leaving. Unknown to the employees, the resort has been selling shares in an end-of-the-world oasis. The best of the best at the end of days. And in order to deliver the top-notch customer service the wealthy clientele paid for, the employees will be at their total beck and call.

Whether they like it or not.

Yet Karloff Country didn’t count on Jay and his crew—and just how far they’ll go to find out the truth and save themselves. But what’s more dangerous: the monster you know in your home or the unknown nightmare outside the walls?

The Getaway is an example of what I’ve come to think of as “Disney-theme-park-inspired horror”—something that’s happened enough times to be an actual category, but not something so common as to be overdone and stale. Giles certainly puts his own spin on the subgenre, focusing in particular on the intersections of race and class within his exaggerated Disney World.

Personally, I found this book challenging to wholeheartedly enjoy. There were too many problems in the book’s internal logic, as well as a lack of nuance in Giles’ portrayal of racism (which seems to simply pit the evil rich capitalists against the good poor laborers, regardless of Giles’ attempts to muddy the waters with the character of Chelle). Nonetheless, it’s one hell of a ride and Giles certainly knows how to build dread and deliver horror. For a quick dip into socially conscious sci-fi horror, I’d definitely recommend reading The Getaway.

Discussion questions below the cut!

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#ANewChapter: The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

In a futuristic world ravaged by global warming, people have lost the ability to dream, and the dreamlessness has led to widespread madness. The only people still able to dream are North America’s Indigenous people, and it is their marrow that holds the cure for the rest of the world. But getting the marrow, and dreams, means death for the unwilling donors. Driven to flight, a fifteen-year-old and his companions struggle for survival, attempt to reunite with loved ones and take refuge from the “recruiters” who seek them out to bring them to the marrow-stealing “factories.”

I’d been meaning to read The Marrow Thieves for a long time, so I was glad to finally have the excuse in preparing these discussion questions for #ANewChapter. Although I was not involved in choosing the six “classic” novels for #ANewChapter, I did collaborate with Green Hill School librarian Julie Forbes in picking the three more contemporary YA selections. The experience was… frustrating, but only because it turns out the YA sci-fi market is shockingly small, especially when it comes to books written by authors of color. I kept feeling like I must be missing something, until I stumbled upon Farah Mendlesohn’s “The Campaign for Shiny Futures,” published in The Horn Book in 2014.

Mendlesohn’s witty and respectfully scathing article pulls apart many disconcerting trends in YA sci-fi, including YA reviewers’ disdain for the sci-fi genre’s prioritization of intellectual and informational concerns over emotional ones, as well as YA sci-fi authors’ relentless focus on futuristic dystopias (which Mendlesohn describes as “downright doom-mongering and disempowering”). Much of what I’d seen on my hunt for diverse YA sci-fi authors suddenly made sense, especially given the already limited market for authors of color in children’s publishing. (Things are changing… but slowly.)

Despite my repeatedly seeing the book included on YA sci-fi lists, Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves is definitely not what Mendlesohn would call sci-fi. I’m not sure I would call it sci-fi. However, I do think it’s an interesting speculative fiction novel that actually manages to start from a place of catastrophic dystopia and yet push back against the gloom and hopelessness that haunts so much of the sci-fi genre’s YA faction. I can only imagine that such determined hopefulness comes from Dimaline’s position as an Indigenous author writing (at least in part) for Indigenous youth. When, as Dimaline says, the worst has already happened, where must you go from there? How do you continue forward? How do you reclaim power, instead of giving up and letting the dystopian future claim you?

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#ANewChapter: The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

To most people around him, Matt is not a boy, but a beast. But for El Patrón, lord of a country called Opium—a strip of poppy field lying between the US and what was once called Mexico—Matt is a guarantee of eternal life. El Patrón loves Matt as he loves himself, for Matt is himself. They share identical DNA.

As Matt struggles to understand his existence, he is threatened by a sinister, grasping cast of characters, including El Patrón’s power-hungry family. He is surrounded by a dangerous army of bodyguards and by the mindless slaves of Opium, brain-deadened ‘eejits’ who toil in the poppy fields.

Escape from the Alacrán Estate is no guarantee of freedom because Matt is marked by his difference in ways he doesn’t even suspect. Around every turn in this vivid, futuristic adventure is a new, heart-stopping surprise.

Nancy Farmer left two particularly lasting marks on the landscape of young adult science fiction: The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm and The House of the Scorpion. The former is a book I particularly loved as a child, so I’m not sure why it never occurred to 10-year-old me to see if the book’s author had written anything else. Nonetheless, I’ve appreciated reading (and rereading) The House of the Scorpion as an adult, so it’s never too late to enjoy quality children’s literature.

Farmer is an interesting author to me, given that I recently finished my masters degrees in both children’s literature and library science. In my classes, representation and appropriation were frequent topics of discussion, and the children’s literature landscape has changed swiftly over the past ten years in terms of what is “allowed” and what is not. Farmer is a white American woman, but three of her greatest successes—the books that made her name—are about the lives of black and brown children. This fact is not, in itself, a problem—but it’s a fact that nowadays would certainly garner her books far more scrutiny when it comes to her research and the ways in which she represents these cultures that are not her own (even though she may have lived among them).

All that being said, Farmer remains a first-class storyteller, and The House of the Scorpion is perhaps her finest work. (Better than The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, I regret to inform my 10-year-old self.) So, if you’re looking for a character-driven soft sci-fi novel that revolves around cloning, I highly recommend this one.

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#ANewChapter: 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

Written when landing on the moon was still a dream, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a science-fiction classic that has changed the way we look at the stars—and ourselves. On the moon, an enigma is uncovered. So great are the implications that, for the first time, men are sent deep into our solar system. But before they can reach their destination, things begin to go very wrong. From the savannas of Africa at the dawn of mankind to the rings of Saturn at the turn of the 21st century, Arthur C. Clarke takes us on a journey unlike any other. Brilliant, compulsive, and prophetic, and the basis for the immensely influential Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey tackles the enduring theme of man’s—and technology’s—place in the universe and lives on as a landmark achievement in storytelling.

I personally had no idea that Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film was based on a novel—or, more accurately, had a screenplay written concurrently with the novel on which it was based. However, reading Arthur C. Clarke’s introduction to my copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey in which he describes the process of working with Kubrick was, honestly, the most interesting part of the book. I don’t say that to imply that the novel is boring. (It isn’t—or at least, it isn’t until the last quarter, when I think it quite literally loses the plot.) In fact, I think Clarke’s novel is far more interesting than Kubrick’s film version, a meandering behemoth that New York Times reviewer Renata Adler hailed as “somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring.” Of the two, I would certainly pick Clarke’s rendition.

Like Robert A. Heinlein, Clarke was a hard sci-fi author who cared a great deal about the details—what was possible and what wasn’t. Considering that this novel was published just prior to the first moon landing, Clarke’s descriptions of spaceship bathroom mechanics and equipment replacement procedures are a feat of research, imagination, and exacting logical thought. The worlds Clarke creates—prehistoric and futuristic both—are what make 2001: A Space Odyssey a memorable and worthwhile read.

Discussion questions below the cut!

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#ANewChapter: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

It is a tale of revolution, of the rebellion of the former Lunar penal colony against the Lunar Authority that controls it from Earth. It is the tale of the disparate people—a computer technician, a vigorous young female agitator, and an elderly academic—who become the rebel movement’s leaders. And it is the story of Mike, the supercomputer whose sentience is known only to this inner circle, and who for reasons of his own is committed to the revolution’s ultimate success.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is one of the high points of modern science fiction, a novel bursting with politics, humanity, passion, innovative technical speculation, and a firm belief in the pursuit of human freedom.

In reading all the 1940s-1960s novels for #ANewChapter, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress took me by surprise in just how contemporary it felt. Unlike I, Robot or 2001: A Space Odyssey, which puzzle through the possible repercussions of technological advancements without ever really considering how human behavior itself might change, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress takes its “what if” (“what if there was a penal colony on the Moon?”) and carries its resulting effects through to just about every possible aspect of human behavior: language, clothing, relationships, attitudes about gender and race, currency, economics, politics… the list goes on.

Although the book has its weaknesses—such as the self-insert character who’s mostly there to explain why Heinlein’s political beliefs are the best ones—it largely manages to surpass them through its better qualities. Mannie’s narrative voice is energetic and engaging, a regular guy sucked into leading a moon revolution by being in the wrong place at the wrong time (and by being a supercomputer’s best friend). The world of Luna is a fascinatingly detailed one, slowly unfolded across the book as more and more of Mannie’s life comes into view. The novel also provides exacting-but-understandable discussions of physics and mathematics, for the hard sci-fi fans among you. Overall, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress offers a clear look at why Heinlein was considered a pioneer of the genre and why his books left a lasting mark.

Discussion questions below the cut!

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#ANewChapter: Dune by Frank Herbert

Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, heir to a noble family tasked with ruling an inhospitable world where the only thing of value is the “spice” melange, a drug capable of extending life and enhancing consciousness. Coveted across the known universe, melange is a prize worth killing for…

When House Atreides is betrayed, the destruction of Paul’s family will set the boy on a journey toward a destiny greater than he could ever have imagined. And as he evolves into the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib, he will bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.

A stunning blend of adventure and mysticism, environmentalism and politics, Dune won the first Nebula Award, shared the Hugo Award, and formed the basis of what is undoubtedly the grandest epic in science fiction.

Ah, Dune. Colleen and I read this book back in 2016 for book club and, guess what, I stand by my bold and unflinching review of the time. However, I will admit I’ve softened just a tad rereading the book for #ANewChapter, raising my Goodreads rating all the way from one star… to two. Dune is certainly a giant of the sci-fi genre, and there is so much good and interesting material to be found here—which is perhaps where much of my personal frustration comes from, since I feel like the book’s potential falls far short of the end result.

I would say Dune is a book best read as a young person—when your imagination is still willing to work overtime to turn a mediocre book into absolute magic by taking these bones of great ideas and fleshing them out, filling in all the gaps and cheerfully explaining away any logical inconsistencies. For that reason, I think the novel is actually a great read for teens who are interested in sci-fi—or for any adults who really want to dive into the sci-fi genre’s origins.

Discussion questions below the cut!

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#ANewChapter: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden. Montag never questions the destruction and ruin his actions produce, returning each day to his bland life and wife, Mildred, who spends all day with her television “family.” But when he meets an eccentric young neighbor, Clarisse, who introduces him to a past where people didn’t live in fear and to a present where one sees the world through the ideas in books instead of the mindless chatter of television, Montag begins to question everything he has ever known.

Seventy years after its original publication, Ray Bradbury’s internationally acclaimed novel Fahrenheit 451 stands as a classic of world literature set in a bleak, dystopian future.

In reading the 1940s-1960s sci-fi selections for #ANewChapter, I was repeatedly struck by the ways in which each book captured and reflected back its time period, particularly the specific anxieties created by the Cold War. Fahrenheit 451 is no exception, with its dramatic exaggeration of McCarthyism and its portrayal of an ongoing war taking place “elsewhere” that finally ends in nuclear annihilation.

Present-day book peddlers tout Fahrenheit 451 as a book “more relevant than ever before” or “timelier than ever,” phrases which also get slapped on 1984. (Non-speculative fiction “classics” must make do with the second-tier phrase “timeless”—or rather, “timeless, despite their obviously historical setting that situates them in a precise moment in time.”) To me, however, it seems a disservice to suggest that books like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 can be entirely removed from the moment in which they were written and transplanted whole to the present day, simply because they take place in an obviously fictional future as opposed to a less obviously fictionalized past.

These two books certainly have some eternal themes—censorship, the dangers of mass media and/or technology, conformity vs. individuality—but they are also historical artifacts and that is part of what makes them interesting to read, not just the continued relevance of their main characters’ struggles. Books from the past show us the past—even the ones about the future—and hopefully you find that just as interesting as I do.

Fahrenheit 451, a staple of high school curricula throughout the United States, is easy, enjoyable reading that thoroughly captures its 1950s white American moment while also embodying plenty of deep-seated human questions that plague us to this day. For those of you who enjoy graphic novels, I also highly recommend Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation by Tim Hamilton.

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#ANewChapter: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

The Three Laws of Robotics:
1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm
2) A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

With these three simple directives, Isaac Asimov changed our perception of robots forever when he formulated the laws governing their behavior. In I, Robot, Asimov chronicles the development of the robot through a series of interlinked stories: from its primitive origins in the present to its ultimate perfection in the not-so-distant future—a future in which humanity itself may be rendered obsolete.

Here are stories of robots gone mad, of mind-reading robots and robots with a sense of humor, of robot politicians and robots who secretly run the world—all told with the dramatic blend of science fact and science fiction that has become Asimov’s trademark.

In some respects, I, Robot is what I usually imagine when thinking of 1940s and ’50s sci-fi—the characters are a bit flat and the “science” lacks much explanatory detail—but Asimov sets himself apart from much of the era’s “science fantasy” by focusing on the logical puzzles that result from his now famous Laws of Robotics. In a way, this collection of loosely connected short stories provides a good look at the type of thinking necessary in computer programming, where conflicting if-then statements can spell disaster. An easy and straightforward read, this collection published in 1950 is a great starting place for the earlier years of science fiction.

Discussion questions below the cut!

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#ANewChapter: 1984 by George Orwell

Winston Smith works for the Ministry of truth in London, chief city of Airstrip One. Big Brother stares out from every poster, the Thought Police uncover every act of betrayal. When Winston finds love with Julia, he discovers that life does not have to be dull and deadening, and awakens to new possibilities. Despite the police helicopters that hover and circle overhead, Winston and Julia begin to question the Party; they are drawn towards conspiracy. Yet Big Brother will not tolerate dissent – even in the mind. For those with original thoughts they invented Room 101

Nineteen Eighty-Four is George Orwell’s terrifying vision of a totalitarian future in which everything and everyone is slave to a tyrannical regime.

Published in 1949, this novel is generally considered George Orwell’s masterpiece—although C. S. Lewis would definitely disagree, according to one of my all-time favorite scathing reviews. Honestly, I’m with Lewis here, but 1984 has undeniably left its mark on the Western literary world and, like many classics, is probably worth reading for that reason alone.

So come, enter the totalitarian world of Oceania where everything is terrible all the time! Enjoy the literary sensation of a boot stamping on a human face—forever.

Discussion questions below the cut!

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