Monday, August 4, 2008

Gone by Michael Grant - review

Gone by Michael Grant
Postapocalyptic young adult science fiction with a healthy dose of (clean) teen romance. The Stand, minus the cusswords. Left Behind, minus all of the judginess and most (but more about that later) of the sexism.

(And don't look so surprised: I read the first Left Behind book. As hacky postapocalyptic horror goes (think Robert McCammon's Swan Song, a guilty pleasure if there ever was one), it was not bad... but as propaganda, it was mesmerizing. Quite a lot of attention was paid to women: their inherent badness, the ways that they can transcend that badness. (Stay at home, cook regular meals, no smoking. Burqa optional.) This I half-expected, but I was quite surprised at the animosity toward cities. Apparently they're ALL Sodom. Or Gomorrah. And taxi drivers are all thieves.)

That little digression is germane, because Gone is so very like Left Behind in plot. Here's Gone's apocalypse: one afternoon, everyone aged 15 and up disappears from Perdido Beach, California. Upon investigation, the kids discover that their town has been cut off from the rest of the world by a huge, impenetrable bubble - a sphere 20 miles wide centered on the nuclear power plant outside of town.

Luckily for the kids of Perdido Beach, the kids do not leap to the conclusion that everyone else has been Raptured away, and that they have been left behind because they are not worthy of God's love. They spend a fair amount of time just kind of flipping out, before getting down to the business of starting life over after the big Reset button has been pressed, which is always my favorite part of post-apocalyptic fiction. What form of government will be chosen? How will the food supply be rationed? Who will emerge as the natural leaders, engineers, police, child care providers, and doctors after the people who once filled those positions have been done away with?

And, of course, who will emerge as the Bad Guy?

What follows is a fun, not-necessarily-predictable page-turner of a YA novel. There's a fair amount of internal conflict, quite a bit of external conflict, a lot of running around, some of it a little pointless, some supernatural stuff, and, oh yeah, talking coyotes.

Some of the kids develop extra-normal powers: telekinesis, healing touch, superstrength, etc. This is a fine thing for a couple reasons. As anyone who has ever written a comic book knows, superpowers make fight scenes more interesting: they escalate rapidly and end abruptly. Also, that healing touch mitigates some of the not-inconsiderable gore in Gone.

I just wish it wasn't always the girls who make the peanut butter sandwiches, who bail the boat out, take over the day care center and the makeshift hospital. Of the three main female characters, one has the healing touch, one is a strategist, and the third is a "reader": her power is that she can tell how strong another person's power is. And by the end of the book, they all have boyfriends.

Soapbox bonus:
I've been thinking about the violence and gore in this book ever since I finished it. These kids lose limbs, live through agonizing pain, die, are burned horribly, and, in one case, turn into gravel. It made me think of movie ratings.

We saw The Dark Knight the day it opened, and I came away very impressed, but also astonished that it was rated PG-13. The physical and emotional violence and the depictions of pain in that movie were profound and disturbing. But there was no sex and very little cussing, which, I guess, puts it at the same level as Transformers if you're the MPAA. It's the same with Gone and many other kid's books. The authors may keep the sex and language extremely muted, but seem to have no such reservations about pain and violence.

Just a thought.


Michael S. said...

Interesting points all, and true as far as they go, though I'd contend a few points.

It's not only the females who are caretakers: Albert runs the McDonalds and feeds everyone. (He's basically a cook.) And there are also female characters who emerge in other ways in the second book (which I was lucky enough to read in manuscript). To be made more of: Dekka, who is black and gay; as well as Brianna, who is egotistical and foolhardy and not a cook; as well as a few others. But that's a privileged take and so probably not kosher here.

But the violence in the book, while present, isn't actually described very much. So I find the term "gore" to be a bit misleading. The novel is very intense, and there is a lot of violence (death, dismemberment, other horrors), but the writing is careful not to dwell on the descriptions of these things. Intense and disturbing? Hell, yes. Gory? I don't know that I agree.

Love your blog, by the bye. Just great fair-handed reviews of everything.

Michael Reynolds said...

As the work-at-home father of two young children I want first to say that Mary's child care work may seem like a typically female role, but it isn't in my house.

That aside, you make some interesting points, and I agree with a lot of what you wrote.

I suppose one of the drawbacks to writing a series -- and GONE is slated for more books -- is that I'm seeing, and planning for, what happens over the horizon. So I know what I'm doing with characters long-term. Of course the readers -- lacking psychic powers, sadly -- can only judge what I've actually written.

Which is a long-winded way of admitting that yes, in this book the female characters are often cast in "girl" roles. I start with the world as it is. But that's not where I'm going, not where I'll end up.

In addition to writing as Michael Grant, I am, with my wife, Katherine Applegate, co-author of 150 or so books, the majority of which had female leads or very strong female characters. In ANIMORPHS, for example, the character Rachel started out as the classic pretty girl and ended up as the perfect warrior.

You're mostly right about female characters in GONE. But I doubt you'll feel the same way as the series progresses.

Thanks for reading and reviewing the book. Great site.

-- Michael Grant

YNL said...

Thanks, Michaels, for your insight and your comments.

I had a feeling that Dekka was being set up to play a more central role in the second book - I'll look forward to that!

If I tend to be a bit rigorous in my examination of female characters in juvenile fiction, it's because I have a lot of girl readers teetering at the edge of reading all It Girl, all the time, and I need to chuck something else at them, something that has eye-opening girls in it.

While I have your ear? Didn't put this in the review because it's not germane, but that cover? Yowch. Astrid looks like a Mormon wearing the wrong lipstick. I ran it by the other librarians, and most thought it was Christian fiction, which, you know, is a pretty hard sell in YA. The book deserves better representation.