So, it’s the future, and on your 18th “cycle” you can apply to ascend into the upper echelons of society, where you will no longer labour in an ash-filled purgatory of dreary hopelessness.
Why? This is a good question. The Phoenix Cycle doesn’t specify, so for all we know, the mysterious General does it for the lulz.
Last month I received a message from Robert Edward asking me to read his story. As far as I can understand, it is the introductory story to a longer (uncompleted) work Edward has begun as part of his thesis about book marketing (or publishing, or something—I’m not entirely clear what the degree is in). The message included a link to an explanatory video, this particular iteration being custom-tailored to myself as proof that Robert had done more research about me than merely glancing at my Goodreads profile. All part of the thesis that authors need to be a bit more personal in their approach to marketing their books these days, I suppose.
Well, let it not be said that flattery won’t get you anywhere with me. Edward was polite, the story was short and free, so I gave it a go.
I’m having a hard time separating my thoughts about this thesis from my thoughts about the book. I wonder if Edward chose to write a dystopian novel because of the popularity of this form in fiction (particularly young adult fiction) these days, or if he has merely latched onto dystopia as a natural form for philosophizing (which seems to be an interest of his). I also question the merits of releasing such a meagre portion of what is supposed to be a much fuller story. If there were more to it, I could perhaps find more to say. With only this to go on, though, I can’t bring myself to be all that excited with The Phoenix Cycle.
Vagueness would seem to be a defining characteristic of this story. There is little indication of the nature of this post-apocalyptic world (I assume it is the future because it is San Francisco–based, but it’s being run by an eclectic person known only as the General, so it’s either the future or a very weird alternative history about Simón Bolívar) beyond a sharp and artificial division between a bourgeoisie and proletariat. The former, the Inner Circle, apparently live lives of luxury, while the latter appear to live in squalor. It’s not clear, though, the precise form this squalor takes. Edward implies it’s a dirty and laborious squalor, but there’s no explanation what the Inner Circle gets out of the majority of these inhabitants.
So Steve is dating Leslie, and it’s Leslie’s turn to decide whether she wants to apply for membership in the Inner Circle. This involves a very public, very dramatic ceremony in which a bunch of women deliver vague proclamations of happiness and satisfaction from their choice to join up, and then a skeezy emcee puts the potential applicant on the spot. It’s pretty obvious Leslie, despite her protestations to the contrary to Steve, will apply—there would be no conflict otherwise, and thus no story. What’s less obvious is … well, why we should care.
I’m not asking for a roadmap from the present day to when the book is set, but it would be nice to understand the stakes. I know little about Steve beyond his name, the fact he’s fairly impoverished, his possession of a mysterious cassette (I assume it’s Best of Queen), and the fact that he’s dating Leslie. (Of her, we know even less.) I don’t have a good understanding of the nature of this society, and the explanation Edward provides of the ascension into the Inner Circle is frustratingly generic. All in all, there is just so little build-up prior to the scene in which Leslie chooses and Steve freaks out. Hence, I find it difficult to care about anything happening to these people.
Dystopian novels only work when there is a reason for the dystopia. Big Brother watches in order to maintain order and control. The Hunger Games are a reminder of the absolute power of the Capitol. (The reasons don’t necessarily have to be credible, just internally consistent, much like the magic system in a fantasy novel.) So The Phoenix Cycle has the Inner Circle and the proles, but what of it?
Of course, it’s entirely possible these questions will be answered in later chapters, instalments, or what have you of The Phoenix Cycle. But this first instalment is not gripping enough to guarantee investment in future chapters. Edward waxes enthusiastically about philosophy on his blog and promises that this book will feature such ideas prominently … but I see nothing of that in this teaser. And if there is one truth to the “wisdom” floating around the Internets these days about modern publishing, it’s that with the multitudes of new books and authors—particularly self-published ones—clamouring for our attention, you have to front-load everything; you can’t hold back and promise that “it gets better, just you wait”.
Unfortunately, The Phoenix Cycle embodies all-too-well the point of this blog post about the similarities in most YA dystopias these days.