Saturday, March 15, 2014

Moral Ambiguity, Part 1: The Bad News

I've got a really fun and thoughtful and morally complex book that I want to talk about, but I also squeezed in a little something I grabbed from NetGalley that sounded like a Hunger Games knockoff, and I thought it could be fun.

The good news is, I finished it.  I don't think I've ever skimmed a book so skimmily--I caught most of the dialogue, but pretty much any moment that involved standing still, I was reading two or three words per page, and it was more than enough.

The premise: instead of a death sentence, criminals are sentenced to a short period in the Compass Room.  They're monitored through implants and put through tests to determine whether they're evil.  If they're evil, the Compass Room kills them; if they live, it means they're not evil, and they go free.  Because SCIENCE.

Anyway, Evelyn's been sentenced to the Compass Room, and she's confident that it will kill her.  She was convicted as a terrorist and for the murder of her best friend, and what she's guilty of is left vaguely up in the air.  She's put into the Room--NOT to be confused with the Hunger Games arena, which it is exactly like--with nine other young criminals.  Illusions test their reactions to figure out what kind of people they are--NOT to be confused with the testing in Divergent, which it is exactly like.

Let's start with the petty stuff: the title sounds cool, but "wicked" isn't a noun.  The past tense of "lie down" is "lay down," not "lied down."  The word "tenseness" should probably be "tension," and I'm only saying "probably" to be polite.  Not sure whether I should blame the author or the editor, but this book was packed densely full of these touches--somewhere between little errors and bad writing.

But the real thing that both got me excited and pushed my buttons in the book was the idea of blame, guilt, and goodness. The idea that they might be measurable, malleable, or even just that they're worth wrangling with.  I love when things wrap up neatly in fiction, but I'm also intensely aware that it's a fantasy.  Things in the real world are never simple, or black and white.  The idea that guilt is more complicated than a factual statement of events is such a seller for me in a book.

It's very clear from the beginning that Evelyn didn't kill  her friend, but it's also clear that she considers herself very guilty.  This is a YA trope that is generally pretty weak--I understand survivor guilt and all, but the book that teases you about how guilty the protagonist is and then reveals that--gasp!--they are not what you would consider guilty at all! is old hat.  I'll grant them this--Evelyn is guilty of something.  What she is guilty of and what she feels guilty about are not the same thing, but there you have another interesting seed that isn't explored.

You also have a room full of convicted murderers sentenced to death, all of whose crimes are lurid and horrible, but none of whom are really traditionally "guilty" of much.  I'm as big a believer as anyone in the idea that the bad guy wasn't born that way, but was shaped by the world he lives in and the life he's led, but that does not mean that everyone who commits murder is really a sweet, pure-hearted soul who genuinely did it to save someone else's life.  Seriously, if you took 10 people on death row, I would be willing to grant you that five of them shouldn't die for their crime (probably a few of them are even innocent), but I bet you wouldn't find that five of them DID commit murder, but for genuinely good and pure intentions. 

This sounds political; it's not.  It's just that there is so much moral complexity in the world, and very little of it was on display here.  And I know I was asking for more than I should have from this book, but between that and the rocky use of the English language, the only thing here to recommend the book is that I read it in about two hours. 

Well, skimmed.

No comments: