dys·to·pi·a ~noun. a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.
Well, there's plenty of that going around in a pair of books I'm featuring today, both of them set in New York City but written 40 years apart from one another.
First up is the dead and the gone, Susan Beth Pfeffer's sequel to Life As We Knew It. As with the previous book, the events that follow occur after an asteroid has hit the moon, knocking it out of its former orbit. Where Life As We Knew It was set in rural Pennsylvania and followed closely the struggle for survival as seen from a teen girl's perspective, the dead and the gone shows us how events unraveled through the eyes of Alex Morales, a seventeen year old boy living in Manhattan.
Alex is the second-eldest of the divided Morales family; his older brother Carlos is a Marine stationed on the West Coast; his mom is a nurse on night duty when the book begins, possibly on her way home via the subway; his father is in Puerto Rico attending the funeral of Alex's grandmother; and at home, Alex's two younger sisters wait for him to return from his night job working at a pizza parlor. In the beginning the news of the asteroid's collision course is peripheral at best; most people are listening to the baseball game.
Unraveled is the best way to describe events that follow. As the shifting of the moon has profound effects on the planet's delicate ecosystem, tides flood the subways and knock out all satellite transmissions. Without his parents there to guide them Alex quickly moves into survival mode in order to protect his sisters and keep the family together. When his sisters ask about the safety of their missing parents Alex reassures them without hesitation that everything will be okay. Alex is as pragmatic as he is protective, shunting his emotions in order to assure their survival.
As things progress, Alex's attempts to keep things normal at home run counter to what's happening all around him. Yankee stadium becomes the repository for people to claim unidentified family. Alex's trip to the makeshift morgue tugs at his emotions - he'd like to know what happened to his mother, but he also doesn't want to know if she's dead. Without phone service he is unable to contact relatives in Puerto Rico to check on his father, so without proof he assumes his father is alive despite reports of the island being struck by a massive tidal wave. Alex and his sisters continue to go to school and remain as normal as possible under the circumstances, while bit by bit it becomes clear that things will never be normal again.
Where events felt more ominous in Pfeffer's previous exploration of this disaster scenario, here in New York City the events that unfold seem merely to hasten the inevitable. As the food shortages and flu epidemic spread, as stifling heat gives way to mountains of snow, as the rich get out of town and the poor are trapped on an island left for dead, New York comes to represent the ultimate failure of the urban model of living, an unsustainable wasteland. Alex casually learns to lie and steal and, in the end, manages to get himself and one of his sisters successfully out of New York and toward a promise of a new life further inland. It's a somewhat bleak ending, but it feels genuine and hopeful at the same time.
* * * * *
Recently released for its 40th anniversary, Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! gives us another version of the Big Apple in decay. The events are no less ecological, though the cause is man-made this time.
It's the future, the end of the millennium. You'll have to forgive a book written in the 1960's for getting the future of 1999 wrong, though in many ways the book does correctly understand some of the problems we're facing today. Harrison's premise was that the US was unconcerned with population control and that short-sidedness led to a planet where the people outstripped the resources. Greenhouse gases have ruined rich agricultural farmland, food and water is scarce, New York city is under a constant heat wave. As Harrison paints it, only the date of this scenario might be wrong as we may still be headed in this direction under global warming.
I have to break the review here to interject that this book was nothing like I had remembered it to be. I had this strange sense of double deja vu because there are familiar elements in the story that echoed both a movie adaptation of this book and the sudden realization that my disappointment was the same I felt when I first read this book as a teen. The movie was Soylent Green, and the disappointment I felt then as now was that there is no such thing as Soylent Green in the book. That is to say, if you've seen the movie and you think you know what the book is about, you don't.
Harrison tells the story of a police detective named Andy Rusch who investigates a case of murder that was nothing more than a crime of opportunity. The problem is that the corrupt politicos believe there's something deeper going on and Andy's forced to follow-through on the investigation beyond when it should have been dropped. There's a girl involved, a gangster's moll, who takes up with Andy once she's out of her meal ticket. And darting through the story is the thug on the lam who shows us the seamier underside of a New York Harbor clogged with decommissioned Liberty Ships used as emergency housing for the world's refugees.
What Harrison has done is graft a noir-ish crime story onto a New York City that has collapsed under the weight of its population. It's a dirty, ugly world with rationed water, no electricity, a black market for produce and meat, and corruption at every level of government. Where the dead and the gone gives us the quick death of NYC Make Room! Make Room! gives us the tail end of the long, slow demise. Both versions, as written, are equally plausible portraits of a metropolitan city in decay.
But in a head-to-head grudge match it's Pfeffer's book hands down as the better read. Pfeffer's book continues to draw out the disaster in diary format, one day at a time, inviting the reader to put themselves in Alex's shoes in deciding whether or not he's made the right decisions. the dead and the gone deals somewhat flatly with Alex as a protector of his sisters and there is little for him emotionally. Harrison's book has a more balanced emotional story at it's heart with Andy questioning love and what it means to live in this rotten world, but in imagining the worst aspects of his world into our future he retained some ugly racial and sexist stereotypes that, while "authentic" for a reader back in 1966, detract from the story.
the dead and the gone
by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Harcourt Children's Books 2008
Life As We Knew It
by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Harcourt Children's Books 2006
Make Room! Make Room!
by Harry Harrison
Tor Books 2008