Growing up in Canada and watching American TV shows, one becomes familiar with Americanisms that nevertheless are not applicable in Canada. For instance, two initialisms that are a big deal to American students and have no bearing on Canadians (unless we want to go to an American university): SATs and GPAs. Don’t exist here, for the most part. (Some schools require SAT-like tests for admissions, and most universities calculate a GPA statistic—but it doesn’t have the same titanic quality it takes on below the border.)
Many good science fiction stories begin as “what if” questions. In the case of Scored, Lauren McLaughlin asks, “What if we could generalize the idea of a GPA to a student’s entire actions? What if we could monitor them 24/7, and use algorithmic approaches to rating and ranking them?” Score highly enough, and it doesn’t matter if your parents have no money: you get a scholarship to any number of prestigious institutions. But if your score drops too low … well, I hope you like getting pregnant. Or joining the military.
Scoring, then, is supposed to be the ultimate implementation of the meritocracy. In theory the score, as an adaptive set of algorithms, is impartial. Free from prejudice and taking in the entirety of your actions through the ubiquitous surveillance ScoreCorp has been allowed to set up, your score is not based on your parents’ economic status or on any innate qualities, like your genotype, phenotype, etc. In theory, your score is entirely a product of who you are, the actions you take, and the mark you leave on the world.
I’ve been reading a lot about meritocracy and, more to the point, why meritocracy is a dangerous and misguided myth, akin to the American Dream (and McLaughlin actually brings that up later in Scored). Meritocracy is so attractive because it pretends to be a solution to all the bad things that have traditionally plagued human hierarchies—namely, discrimination based on some traits. But the problem is that a meritocracy would ignore the fact that we are human, that we have different circumstances and privilege and experience, and in ignoring our humanity it erases it. That doesn’t sound like utopia at all.
McLaughlin takes such criticisms of meritocracy and then distils them into a young adult form. She throws in some healthy skepticism of surveillance society. I like how she makes this book about corporate surveillance rather than government surveillance (Brave New World instead of 1984). We certainly have enough of both in our present society. However, corporate surveillance is a little more opaque and pernicious. It is easier to forget, because we tend to actively engage with a corporation and think we’re the ones using it. We need to remember that even if tech companies protest and lobby against government orders and laws that compel them to hand over user data, those same companies are all about weakening privacy regulations so they can collect and store more data about you for their purposes.
The score, then, is the ultimate fusion of the meritocratic myth with the surveillance society nightmare. We see class divisions opening up along the lines of the scored versus unscored. And as Imani’s precious 92 dips down into the 60s because of her “unsavoury” association with Cady, we see that the score is far from the perfect system its proponents make it out to be. It reinforces conformity in a vicious feedback loop and punishes people who decide to act out.
I wish we got more of Cady. Despite being Imani’s best friend, she only figures about twice in the whole book. I know the point of the plot is that Imani is “dropping” Cady, or pretending to, for the last month of school for the sake of her score. Yet Cady is herself such an interesting character, and she hardly features at all!
Fortunately, I liked Imani. As with Jill from Cycler, the first McLaughlin book I read, Imani is a fallible protagonist. She isn’t hyper-aware of her society’s flaws or very critical. In this way, McLaughlin creates a journey for Imani to go on as she develops into a more self-aware and critical person. Similarly, I liked how Diego’s skepticism sets him at odds with most of the others, Imani included. While I liked these two characters separately, I wasn’t as fond of them together. The banter isn’t as good as it could be, and their sometime-friendship sometime-romance sometime-rivalry progresses far too quickly.
Alas, that’s a criticism I could level at much of Scored: it’s just over far too quickly! There is so much going on here that it could easily have been another fifty pages (and don’t give me any guff about YA being “shorter” than fiction for older adults). I love what is here, but it could be so much more. It’s like baking that could have stayed in the oven just five more minutes: yes, it’s done, and it tastes fine, but it doesn’t have that golden brown coat yet, and if you leave it in a little longer, it will taste wonderful.
Now I’m hungry.
So, to summarize: Scored shows me that Cycler wasn’t a fluke, and I want more McLaughlin books! Also, it’s a neat take on surveillance societies and our obsession with ranking students and then claiming that those ranks are somehow objective or meaningful. It’s not; it never is. It’s always about power, and about helping those in power keep their power. But McLaughlin doesn’t ever get too preachy on this point: as much as the book obviously presents the score as a bad idea, she makes sure to present the case for the other side and outline why it seemed so desirable at the time. As Mr. Carol exhorts his students to do by having the scored oppose scoring and the un-scored support scoring in their end-of-year essays, we should always play the Devil’s Advocate once in a while. Dissent isn’t the most comfortable part of free speech, but it might be the most important.