Review of Pure by Julianna Baggott
by Julianna Baggott
So what if someone set us up the bomb, or several bombs, and instead of nuclear winter and all the survivors dying of cancer, they got fused to each other and bits of glass and animals and broken doll heads? Pure is a horror story about atomic detonations gone wrong. Yeah—if that isn’t a terrifying thought, I don’t know what is. Julianna Baggott postulates a post-apocalyptic world that is the fevered vision of a madman in a dome. And that’s where it all starts falling apart.
I’m so over dystopian fiction. On to the next semi-fantasy book bubble, please. Can we go back to vampires or something?
I don’t have anything against (u/dys)topian fiction, mind you. Done well, it illuminates darker aspects of society—the same aspects that often enough act to organize and drive the progress on which we survive—and the dangers of not standing up, speaking out, and acting for change. From Brave New World to The Handmaid’s Tale, dystopian fiction reminds us that the quest for a perfect world will always carry within it the seeds for that corrupted ideal of perfection, the dream hijacked in the name of personal power and “the greater good”.
I was also intrigued when Baggott deigned to explain the genesis behind her new world order. Most authors eschew this part of the narrative, and while I understand the allegorical imperative, it still annoys the part of me that is interested in the events that transform us from now to then. That being said, I don’t think I would have enjoyed Pure any more if Baggott had remained close-lipped on that subject. For me, the bottom line with dystopian fiction is easy: your world has to make sense. Yours is not a good dystopia if I don’t think it’s very plausible.
I’ll ignore, for the moment, the suspension of disbelief required for atomic bombs to cause the transformations they do. Kids, if you’re reading Pure, take a moment: radiation doesn’t give you superpowers, nor does it fuse you to other objects. You just get cancer and die. This has been a public service announcement. Don’t play near reactors.
So the Dome and the Detonations are all part of a mad scientist’s master plan that also includes turning the 99% into an underclass of mutants who serve the 1% in a “New Eden”. Uh-huh. Because I know the first thing I’ll want when I live in a perfect society is ugly servants! Brilliant idea. Even if I did want that, I still wouldn’t fund this mad scientist’s proposal. How does he get the codes required to launch the nuclear arsenal? Or if he builds his own bombs, where does he find the fissile material? Baggott alludes to a government that has nationalized Christianity and the fact that Willux has “no oversight”, but I still don’t see how he could have fooled all these world governments. Someone would have learned about his plan and sent in Seal Team Six.
I’d like to say that the backstory is Pure’s biggest flaw, but I’ve only scratched the surface. I didn’t hate this book by any means, but I certainly feel let down by Baggott’s plotting. Beyond what’s a fairly good story about the quest to reunite a son with his mother, there’s nothing very interesting happening here. If the plot of Pure were a universe, then Ω would equal 1.
The world and story reminds me a lot of Bioshock: the various mutated creatures like Dusts and Groupies are the Splicers; the Good Mother and her band of ragtag fused mothers/children are some helpful Little Sisters. Pressia, Partridge, and Bradwell stumble through this world like video game characters controlled by an awkward, probably intoxicated college kid—and like a video game, Baggott feels the need to put up some invisible walls and show us only as much of the world as we need to see. Pure has a little bit of an economy cast issue going on (TVTropes). For instance, the OSR (Operation Sacred Revolution) is supposed to be this hegemonic, imposing government/militia that controls everything outside the Dome. Turns out it’s just one crazy guy and his abused wife. Huh.
It’s this kind of logic that makes Pure difficult to love, at least for me. There’s no question that Baggott is a skilled writer. I was reading this at a baseball game and gloated a little to my dad when Partridge and Pressia learned that they’re half-siblings. “It was so obvious!” I chortled. But it was obvious in a good way. Baggott foreshadowed it in a way that allowed me to figure it out, and that takes skill. Even if her characters make sense, though, her world and her plot don’t, and that’s what gives me pause.
If Pure arrived at a different time in this dystopian fiction bubble, I might have received it differently. But it’s about on par with Mockingjay, which was itself a weak and watered-down version of The Hunger Games. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, and seen done better, elsewhere. By all means, bring on more dystopian fiction. But make it plausible, make it good, and make it count. Or else I will check out and go find myself another Umberto Eco book.