What a gutsy way to title a book! Another book that I took some time to warm up to, Want is a YA dystopian thriller that reminds me a little bit of William Gibson’s work. There’s an edge to this book that I wasn’t expecting. Cindy Pon’s plotting and characterization results in a tight-rope–walk of suspense. At times cinematic, other times somewhat shallower than I wanted, this is a really intriguing adventure.
The year is [some date in the future] and the setting is Taipei, Taiwan. Jason Zhou is a mei, i.e., member of the have-nots of Taiwanese society. The yous have the money and prestige, particularly when it comes to affording customizable suits that help protect them from the filthy, disease-ridden air in this over-industrialized city. But Zhou isn’t any ordinary mei: he’s part of a cabal. Along with four other people, Zhou launches an ambitious gambit to infiltrate and bomb the headquarters of Jin Corp, manufacturer of the suits. If successful, they hope to topple Jin Corp’s monopoly and upset a cancerous system. If they fail, then they lose their lives, and Jin Corp will continue to reap record profits from the oppression of millions.
If this sounds familiar, or over the top, you would be forgiven for thinking so. In many ways, Pon does not depart from a lot of the standard set-pieces of this subgenre of science fiction. We’ve got the evil mega-corporation, with a predictably immoral or amoral CEO. We’ve got evil plots to let people die from diseases intentionally released upon the unsuspecting population. We’ve got technology spying on us. And we have a ragtag group of plucky youths who feel they have the know-how and the moxie to do something about this unbearable status quo.
What helps Want succeed, perhaps, is that this setting no longer seems quite as remote as it did in decades past. Aside from the airpeds and the suits and the proliferation of bodymods, Want could easily be set a year or two from now. The way the world has developed has moved us closer to this universe of possible futures, in many ways, and Pon seizes that opportunity to create a setting eerie in its closeness to reality. This is still science fiction, but it is a disturbing echo of a future that might be yet to come.
It took me a while to warm up to Want because, honestly, the first few chapters are a bit rough. First there’s a kidnapping, but then the book jumps back several months, and then it jumps forward again to long after the kidnapping so the cabal can initiate its great gambit. And we get very little in the way of description of where we are, what’s going on, who any of these people are, etc. Beyond their names and some physical description, Lingyi, Victor, Arun, and Iris (especially Iris) remain ciphers to varying degrees. We learn one or two things about them and their relationships with one another, but we never really get to know them. Other side characters, like Joseph Chen, show up out of the blue a couple of times only to be put on a bus and never really picked up again. In short, if Want is a brilliant tapestry of science fiction, it has a few loose threads marring its otherwise captivating stitch work.
Still, when one takes a moment to consider the premise and the plot that Zhou’s gang has hatched, one has to admire Pon’s ambition here. This is a book where the protagonists are terrorists who want to blow up a building. This can’t be sugarcoated. Yes, they have lofty moral reasons for doing so, and yes, they want to evacuate everyone from the building before they destroy it. But at the end of the day, this is a book about a gang of criminal vigilantes (who kidnap, break-and-enter, intimidate, and possibly inject people with lethal influenza strains) committing acts of mass terror in order to bring down a late-stage capitalist hegemony. This shit is dark and anarchic. And I like it.
So as one cozies up to Zhou, setting aside the fact he wants to blow up a building, one also gets to see his relationship with Daiyu. Although technically a romance, I preferred reading it as a kind of ersatz friendship—because, without going into spoiler territory, let’s just say that neither is being particularly honest with the other. I appreciate how Pon attempts to create moments where each character underestimates the others: Zhou underestimates Daiyu and her you friends, who in turn often underestimate the meis. Sometimes the lessons learned from these encounters feel too quick or cheaply obtained.
Indeed, returning for a moment to the subject of characterization and the supporting cast, I’m disappointed we never get much depth from the others, or much in the way of group dynamic conflict. There’s a little bit towards the end. I was expecting one particular character (the suave one, if you’ve read the book) to betray the rest of the group, and when they didn’t, I was upset—not that I disliked that character and wanted them to be a traitor, but I was just bored of these four supporting characters existing without much in the way of personality beyond stock traits of “the closer”, “the hacker”, “the healer”, and “the fixer”, hmm? Like, sure, we learn Arun’s backstory, but the rest of the characters never really grow or change much.
If I sound like I’m being very critical of a book I’m giving three stars to, it’s just because I am impressed enough by Want to hold it to even higher standards. Yes, I am moving goalposts here. It’s what I do! This is one of those books I could picture as a movie: Pon has some incredibly tight, well-paced action scenes. I expect that if this were ever adapted they’d probably change the ending (though, you never know, an indie flick might keep the ending the way it is, bittersweet and kind of lovely). The issues with characterization are flaws, yes, but they never overshadowed my enjoyment of the story.