In 2060, most people don’t get out much. They live their lives inside, turning to virtual reality for their entertainment, friendships and education. 17 year old Maddie, the daughter of one of the most powerful men in the US because he invented digital school (henceforth referred to as DS), lives a life of solitary luxury and has learned to accept it – that is until she meets anti-DS activist Justin who slowly awakens her to the real world.
There are many things to admire about AWAKEN, chief among them the message that we shouldn’t let our digital addictions stunt our connections to the physical world. There are some really well-done scenes that show how empty a virtual life is in comparison to a real life – for example when Maddie hears live music for the first time and dances in a crowded club juxtaposed with the sterile DS benefit she attends with her parents featuring canned music and virtual dancing. I also enjoyed seeing normal things – like a sunset and a bonfire – through Maddie’s eyes as she experiences them for the first time. It really makes you wonder how an entire culture would voluntarily sacrifice life’s pleasures and become hermits.
And that’s sort of my main problem with the novel – that I don’t really believe its premise. It has a lot to do with the spotty and oftentimes contradictory futuristic worldbuilding. Kacvinsky introduces a few neat gadgets here and there, tells us most real trees have been replaced with plastic ones, and writes of a mass of large-scale school shootings and bombings that ushered in an era of hyper-fear of social settings and the outdoors and mandatory distance education. There is public transportation (almost no cars) but it’s practically empty whenever Maddie rides it. How do people get to work? I know a lot of office-type jobs can be done virtually – but what about plumbers? Construction workers? Electricians? Etc?
Also, as a love interest for Maddie, Justin rubbed me the wrong way. Sure, he brings chocolate cake into her life, but most of their conversations involve him preaching to her about the evils of computers. It’s also clear that Justin is using Maddie for her connections to further his own aims, and the way he makes her depend on him against her better judgment is akin to brainwashing. All that makes him fascinating as a character, but because I disliked Justin so much in his role of romantic hero/ideal, I could never get into their building romance - a shame since it is a big focus of the novel.
AWAKEN is available now. A sequel, MIDDLE GROUND, is planned for Fall 2012. Find out more about the series at the author’s website.
Zombie chickens say: A mixed bag, but most definitely ripe for discussion.
Song for the Ultimate Dystopian Playlist: Digital Ghost by Tori Amos. Sample lyrics: “Hands lay them on my keys, Let me play you again, I am not immune to your net, Find me there in it.”