Review of When We Wake by Karen Healey
When We Wake
by Karen Healey
One of the pleasures of reading often and reading widely is the capacity for books to surprise me. A book I think I’ll enjoy turns out to be rubbish, while other books exceed expectations. This book delighted and invigorated me. I didn’t expect much from When We Wake. It’s not because it’s YA. It’s because it’s set in Australia.
I’m totally kidding. It’s totally because it’s YA. Specifically, dystopian YA. I’ve been burned enough times by it before. There’s something about the allegory of dystopian fiction that YA authors seem to grasp but don’t necessarily execute with the finesse I demand, leaving their worlds hollow and potentially nonsensical. (Pure is a good example.) So when Karen Healey says her book is about a socially-conscious teenager who dies and wakes up after a hundred years of cryonic suspension, forgive me if I’m sceptical.
I just summarized the plot for you above (did you blink and miss it?). Basically, a century from now sees the effects of global warming become more pronounced, and balances of power shift. Australia has isolated and insulated itself from refugees from worse-off places. Resources like water and meat are regulated or culturally frowned upon, respectively, while technology, education, and drugs are free and cheap. It isn’t exactly the end of the world (yet) so much as a dramatic enhancement of the rich—poor gap.
It’s a scarily realistic picture of how we’ll end up if we continue to pursue our agenda to USE ALL THE FUELS.
Socially-conscious SF is great; socially-conscious young adult SF is even better. Ambiguous post-apocalyptic dystopias like The Hunger Games have their place. However, When We Wake has the benefit of originating from our present, our world. Tegan’s admonishment that she expected the people of the future to “be better” is aimed not at them but at us, the readers of her present. We create the future. It is not fixed in place, but it is up to us to work together and change the course before it becomes too late and too difficult to shift.
Healey accomplishes this without being too preachy, however, because of her relatable protagonist. Tegan is great. She is far from perfect, making numerous mistakes like you would expect anyone to after a hundred-year sleep. But she also has remarkable, fierce independence and integrity. She doesn’t let anyone use her. I kept contrasting her to Katniss from Mockingjay, who seemed so defeated and robbed of agency and ready to serve merely as a figurehead for the larger resistance movement. Tegan isn’t having any of it. She doesn’t cooperate with Colonel Dawson; she doesn’t cooperate with Carl Hurfest; she doesn’t cooperate with the Father of the Inheritors of the Earth. She is her own person, and she might be an unwilling celebrity—the Living Dead Girl!—but damned if that means she isn’t going to speak her mind.
When We Wake also delivers a fairly big dose of realism. Activism and change is hard. It leads to arrests. The government doesn’t like to be challenged. And unlike what movies and books often portray, the general public doesn’t rise up in revolt every time a journalist exposes a scandal. Just think about some of the “shocking” revelations we’ve learned in the past few years that people have largely learned to live with. Has anything materially changed now that we have proof the NSA is watching everyone and everything? No. Because most of us are too lazy and too happy with the convenience of our computers and our Internet. I know I am.
Tegan is not some messiah, not some symbol, at least not yet. She is a sixteen-year-old fugitive from the past who has taken on an enemy much bigger and meaner than her. The ending of the book leaves her fate open for the sequel, and I respect that. It would have been too convenient, too easy, if Healey had wrapped everything up in three hundred pages. Life, change, and revolution don’t work that way.
For a book set over a century into the future, however, When We Wake doesn’t do a very good job of worldbuilding. What, flexible computers and designer drugs, but no self-driving cars? It is too easy to dismiss this as a side-effect of Tegan’s limited narrative voice and culture shock. This is, again, something I tend to encounter in YA that assumes a first-person perspective: in the author’s need to establish a conversational or confessional rapport with the audience, description and exposition fall by the wayside. That being said, Healey at least makes an effort here. Tegan describes future supermarkets, for example, and gives us a little of a primer on what is happening with the rest of the world. It isn’t accurate to say that Healey’s vision of the future is vague so much as it is inconsistent. There’s casual mention of nanotechnology and artificial skin, and they can build (prototype) spaceships. But no one has improved on water reclamation, figured out cold fusion, or invented a new form of media in the past century? While I understand that Healey’s purpose is not to speculate or extrapolate but merely establish a setting for her allegory, the SF nerd in me is disappointed by this lopsided vision of tomorrow.
Still, this book is damn good. It’s the kind of YA I want to read and the kind I want to recommend to younger people; I’m really looking forward to the sequel. Tegan is great. There is no contrived or abusive love triangle in sight; there is a love interest, but the romance is comfortably on the backburner considering, you know, they are running for their lives. A girl’s got to have priorities, right?
Perhaps something for older readers of the book might be Tegan’s adoration of the Beatles. Let’s put it this way: she can sing entire albums (in order) from memory. I don’t think I could sing an entire song, by any artist I like, from memory (I can sing along, but that’s a different type of skill altogether). She has put some time into her Beatles love—and keep in mind she was born in 2011. But the way she speaks about the Beatles as a phenomenon has more in common with someone who lived through them. I could go into a long digression about the way Healey uses the Beatles music and culture as a way to advance both Tegan’s characterization and the plot, but I’m not into that. Suffice it to say that she works some serious cultural allusion mojo here. I like the Beatles, but only casually; I don’t actually own any of their songs or listen to them regularly, and I still really enjoyed this dimension to the book. So I can only imagine how actual Beatles fans will react.
I’m trying to read more YA (and preferably more good YA) to stay in touch with what students I might one day be teaching (if I can get a job!) might be interested in reading. When We Wake is an excellent example of good YA. It has a great female protagonist, but its appeal is for a broad audience of any gender. It’s set in a future, but a future recognizably derived from ours rather than a post-apocalyptic what-if land. And it is alternatingly terrifying and reassuring, which is the best thing for a science-fiction story to be.