Monday, December 7, 2015

MARTians

MARTians is one of the most relentlessly depressing, incisive, and thought-provoking novels I've read this year.  And I'm afraid that books with more marketing hype and smoldering love interests with Dark and Painful Backstories will overshadow this small red gem of a book, which would be a tragedy.    Almost as bad as not making your sales quota for the day.


Blythe Woolston is an excellent, excellent author.  Black Helicopters was fantastic, and now MARTians.  I've yet to read The Freak Collector or Catch and Release, but they are both on my list.  And yet, I have difficulty, even with booktalks and displays, to get teens at my library to check out Black Helicopters.  I am going to quadruple my efforts with MARTians, because this is a must-read book.  

We are told that having more things will make us happy.  We are told that we need Product X.  Never mind why.  We need it so we must buy it.  Besides, the more we spend, the more we support the economy like good little citizens.  "BUY BUY BUY!" scream the televisions, the irritating ads on the sidebar, those tacky commercials you have to sit through during a football game.  It's particularly apt that I read this book about consumerism as religion during the so-called "most wonderful time of the year, also known as "the time of the year I don't even want to go grocery shopping because of the insanity."  Yeah, I know I'm part of it.  I bought a Sonicare on Black Friday because I want better teeth.  But all the songs and the fake smiles and the ho-ho-ho un-cheer, not to mention the discomfort of people who don't celebrate "Christian" holidays ... it's a sparkly nightmare with the soundtrack by Bing Crosby.  And behind their mahogany desks, perched on Swiss ball chairs, drinking kombucha tea, all the CEOs say:


In a society that frighteningly resembles our own, Zoë Zindleman runs though calculations in her head to make it through the school day.  Sexual Responsibility isn't particularly interesting, apart from her teacher, who is either constantly weeping or sweating--it's hard to tell.  Suddenly, the feed used to instruct the students changes to an announcement from the Governor: effective immediately, all students are graduated from school and the schools will close for budgetary reasons.  As the Governor later explains, "A balanced budget means nothing.  I'm not stopping until the budget is zero.  Zero is the only balance point that matters."  Zoë leaves school with two work recommendations, one for AllMART and one for QMART, and a plastic AllMART bag containing an old book.

Although this life change is unexpected, Zoë knows that for society to function, "Everyone needs an entry-level position.  Everyone needs to start somewhere, get that practical experience, and develop natural skills."  She's very lucky to have invitations to interview at both AllMART and QMART.  Returning home to tell her AnnaMom, Zoë's calculations are again thrown off track.  Although AnnaMom loved her enough to keep her as a baby, it's not enough to stop AnnaMom from moving away, leaving Zoë alone in a foreclosed home, staged just so by Jyll the home stager.

But homes in Terra Incognita, Zoë's subdivision, will never sell.  There is no one with money to buy them.  They will moulder, ravaged for pipes and wires containing metal.  Silent testimonies against their former owners.

AnnaMom's flip abandonment of her daughter throws the usually unflappable Zoë for a loop.  Didn't she say she loved her so much, her Zoëkins?  Didn't AnnaMom give up everything to raise Zoë?  So why is she giving up on Zoë now?

Wearing her mother's third-best suit and too-large heels, Zoë takes the bus to interview at Q-MART and AllMART the next day.  She ends up waiting for a bus that will never arrive, a bus that has been cancelled because no one lives in Terra Incognita anymore.  An AllMART employee wearing a name badge proclaiming "MORT," but who introduces himself as Timmer, gives Zoë a ride back, because he lives in the same cul-de-sac.  Kind of.

Timmer is Zoë's guide to navigating the complex social rules of working for the biggest of the big box stores to have ever existed.  He shows her the Warren, an abandoned strip mall where he, a young boy named 5er, and some other AllMART employees live.  Their families have also moved on, leaving the teens to fend for themselves in a bizarre, technologically advanced and consumerism focused landscape.

Zoë becomes an AllMART employee and undergoes training with Della Day, learning the AllMART team chant and practicing her smile.  She's rewarded for anticipating customer wants, as well as encouraged to give them nudges toward pricier, unnecessary gadgets.  This isn't unethical: it's the way business works.  After just a short time, Zoë learns how high the cost of low, low prices truly is.

I started writing a more traditional book review for MARTians (you know, so-and-so is here, then this happens, blah blah blah) but it didn't feel right.  This book will make you want to think long and hard about what you do everyday, why you do it, and why you believe what you believe.  Those are some heavy hitters.  I don't want to spoil the plot, but Woolston paces it just right, adding in winky nods to other science fiction classics (the news channel with the answers for everything is Channel 42).  I felt like a gamer finding Easter Eggs when I noticed another subtle metaphor or reference.  The general progression of Zoë's enlightenment, including the need to protect a child, makes this a smart twist on Lois Lowry's classic The Giver.  Small acts of rebellion lead to greater ones.  That's how revolutions start.

Don't get your hopes up.  This is not a happy novel.  This is not a book wherein the heroine casts off her blindfold, rallies the people, and leads an all-out rebellion against the government.  Zoë's changes are small and believable.  So don't be expecting a rah-rah FREEDOM MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner at the end of the book.  I'd actually prep some hot cocoa and maybe grab an animal to pet because it is darn bleak.  But right now, looking around, I'd say things don't look much better on the other side of the page.

MARTians so dazzled me with its deft social commentary and character development that I can only tell you to experience it for yourself.  

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