Pressia's world is a scary world. Eight years after the bombs went off, food and water are in short supply. Many of the inhabitants are mutated cannibalistic beasts. Infection is prevalent, due to the fact that most people have had objects or creatures blasted into their bodies during the nuclear cataclysm. And if you make it to age sixteen, as Pressia has just done, the militia is going to come in a truck and capture you.
Partridge, who lives inside the spick-and-span Dome that was constructed in advance of such a catastrophe, has his own worries. His brother has committed suicide, his mother is missing, presumed dead, having not made it into the Dome on the day of the bombs; and his autocratic father, one of the architects of the Dome plan, seems to be coming a bit unglued. Partridge comes to believe that his mother is Out There, and resolves to leave the Dome in order to find her in the ruined outside world.
And here we go.
This is Pure by Julianna Baggott, who writes under a number of names. Readers of kidlit will know her as N.E. Bode, author of The Anybodies, a fun, imaginative trilogy for middle grade readers. Grownups who like funny books about relationships (excuse me if I borrow from Netflix's increasingly lowbrow genre labels) may know Ms. Baggott's Bridget Asher books, like The Pretend Wife and The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted
Pure is Ms. Baggott's first sci-fi novel. It is long. It is weird. Fox 2000 has already bought the film rights. This review will contain a ton of spoilers, because a) I write my reviews for grownups selecting books for children, so I don't shy away from spoilers generally and b) there is no way for me to critique this book without them. Because I have issues with this book.
Young adult science fiction action romance is a category that, three years ago, nobody - and by "nobody" I mean not even the editors at venerable sci fi publisher TOR Books - would have believed was a comer, but which is absolutely THE hot genre right now.
The future is an appealing place to set a story because in it, parameters have changed. Rules can be broken, just as in paranormal fiction. In a narrative sense, the appeal of vampires, angels, Slayers, and fairies is the stuff they can do. And after a decade or so of exploring those possibilities, the future might seem like the next logical place to go. But nobody believed in sci fi for teens because it was perceived to be a) dorky and b) sterile. Too much technology, not enough beefcake.
A ruined future Earth breeds tough, strong teens and allows an author to sidestep the technojargon that accompanies off-planet settings - while its radically shifted baseline allows stories and characters to move in ways that it is hard to make realistic contemporary fiction bend. Violently. Amorally. Sometimes in the company of robots.
But the postapocalyptic setting does have its problems. First of all, it does not hold up to scrutiny very well. Worldwide catastrophic events are difficult to imagine and hell to defend. Try it, it's a fun breakroom game: first player thinks up an end to the world, then the other players pick apart his or her proposal. What. Everyone doesn't play that game? Huh.
Secondly, if the world is kind-of-sort-of going to end, it is probably going to end all the way. If 80% of the population is killed by a virus/bombs/comet, the other 20% is likely to go very quickly. No time for any of this rebuilding society stuff.
Also, the postapocalyptic world is an unmitigated bummer, which can make for a tough read.
A world in ashes therefore works best as a metaphorical landscape, a brutalist backdrop, a set of circumstances in which human values can be examined. We see it brilliantly used in out-and-out horror novels (The Stand, Swan Song); morality tales (Mockingbird by Walter Tevis, The Postman); and literature with a Capital L (Walker Percy, The Road, Oryx and Crake).
Pure doesn't do any of these things. Not that it has to, no. But Pure does another thing - it makes the story about the apocalypse. The motor that propels Pressia and Partridge through the devastated DC suburbs is Partridge's search for his mother, which turns out to be a search for the truth about the Detonations. And ok, let me just say this: NO WAY.
In consequence of these bombs that went off eight years ago, not only did everything burn, but, thanks to a combination of radiation and some kind of nano-genetic component, extremely weird shit happened to survivors. Some had other people, animals or objects driven into their bodies; some joined with buildings or the ground; some merged with animals. So this means that a pile of rubble can reach out, grab you, and eat you. The ground may rise up and swallow you. The hot guy has a trio of cedar waxwings embedded - and flapping around - in his back.
One character got Siamesed with his brother on Detonation day - while he has grown to adulthood, his brother remains child-sized, left behind. And since the little guy is fused to his brother's body like a half-sentient backpack, that phrase is true on more than one level. Pressia herself has a doll head instead of a hand.
Further, these mutations are genetic: children born since the bombs have inherited physical deformities - including the embedded objects.
Now, I don't object to super weird, in fact I think super weird is entertaining in a variety of ways, but... NONE of this science works. And if you have created a world that doesn't work in any sensible way - which is a valid thing to do - you are actually in Magic Land, which is still ok.
But magic is even weaker in the face of scrutiny than is apocalypse, and IF you are in Magic Land, AND you make your story about how Magic Land came about, you will end up piling nonsense upon nonsense to defend the nonsense that came before, and the circumstances of your plot will all collapse into a kind of silliness. Sometimes Philip K Dick ended up there. But Philip K Dick was actually crazy. Which in a way kind of validated his messes.
But. Even if you accept this plot, with its ever-more-baroque explanations - "When I installed the chips in your head that turned you into an unwitting audiovisual surveillance machine that transmits across significant distances despite the total destruction of infrastructure in our world, I cross-wired them, so that's why you didn't die when the bomb that I also installed at that time was triggered to blow" - there are other problems in this book. Problems that I might expect an editor to catch, problems like: really? the brain bomb is the way to kill this kid, in a world full of guns and knives and carnivorous patches of gravel and robo-beast-soldiers?
There is Partridge's escape from the Dome, a Dome which seems to be at least the size of a small city. He has a photo of the blueprints of the Dome, and then times out the ventilation system cycles, and identifies a sub-four-minute window during which he can escape. This would work in a building, but not in a structure as large as the Dome.
There are conversations that take place amid gunfights or while running flat-out. There is a severely wounded character leaping out a car window to take on a robo-beast-soldier. Another character gets stabbed in the back with a scalpel - your typical scalpel is one inch long, and by the way in an operating room in which someone has performed neurosurgery without the patient noticing, nobody is using knives - and dies almost immediately. Shit, you could probably stick ME in the back with a scalpel and I'd be able to drive myself to the ER.
Well. In my neighborhood, the ER is pretty local. Mile and a half away. The most distracting problem in Pure, for me, is in fact its spatial relationships. Characters walk for a couple of hours, and pass through commercial districts and then suburbs. Suburbs plural? If I walked for a couple of hours, I would barely make it to Trader Joe's. A walk of a day takes them out of the city, past the suburbs, and into the mountains. That is one small city, or some amazing walking. I am never sold on these movements - in a world where so much is explained away by techno-magic, I might have expected half-human, half-Hummer beasts of burden or something facilitating our characters' itinerary.
This world is deeply felt by its author, I can tell. There are bits that are completely arresting. It will make an exciting movie - movies are so fast-paced nowadays that sense has become a tertiary consideration anyway ("Where'd you get that sword, Neville?" "I pulled it out of a hat!" - and we DON'T CARE).
But I hold books to a higher standard: either your setting makes sense, or your story does, unless you have written Alice in Wonderland. And despite rabbit holes and breadcrumb trails, Pure is not that kind of fairy tale.