Monday, September 6

Dark Life

by Kat Falls
Scholastic  2010

A dystopic sci-fi hybrid of life between settlers who have gone to homestead the sea and the topsiders who remain on land in overcrowded conditions.  And a child shall lead them... 

Living and farming under the sea with his family, Ty cannot wait to turn 18 and claim a homestead of his own.  One of the first children born and raised entirely in the ocean, Ty's abilities and instincts seem almost super-human.  His skin has the sheen of luminescence from eating deep sea fish, but what of his being able to see and hear things others cannot?

The arrival of Gemma, a topsider and ward of the surviving Commonwealth, comes looking for her lost brother in order to become emancipated from the welfare system and so they can live happily as a family again.  She suspects he's gone prospecting which puts her in 16 year old Ty's world, a sort of a reverse of the fish out of water.

Additionally, there's a gang of criminals who have been stealing from the homesteaders, who have been supplying the topsiders with food grown in the ocean, creating a tense situation between all sides.  The homesteaders are charged with bringing in the undersea thugs or risk losing their supplies from the mainland, Gemma must find her brother, and Ty finds himself up to his neck in danger as it becomes clear that he possesses a Dark Gift that makes him either special... or a threat.

I have to admit that I guessed most of the twists in this story early on but was compelled to read onward for the descriptions of life under the sea.  Falls does a fun job of thinking through this world and making it seem plausible even in moments when I doubted the possibilities.  In a lot of ways it's no different than a story set on a Martian colony, except that it's based on Earth, in the ocean, and that's a subject I find intrinsically fascinating.  What would it be like to live under the water, to adapt to the environment, to suddenly have the other 70% of the world available to you to explore.  Yeah, yeah, ambiguities between good and bad guys, uh huh, strange new human superpowers, whatever, just give me more of what life is like under the sea!

It doesn't come as a surprise that this has already been optioned for a movie – Falls is a professor of screenwriting, and the pacing of a feature film is all there.  Though to be honest the inevitability of the ending causes the action to feel drawn out because so much action has to be explained where in a film it would all flash by in visuals that take up much less time.  I'm starting to wonder if that isn't the actual root of the problem I have with a lot of kidlit being about 100 to 150 pages too long; that authors are writing more cinematically and in doing so find themselves given in to recording detail better handled in pre-production by set designers and special effects departments. 

The book is solidly middle grade, but I suspect that Hollywood will gear the movie toward an older teen audience much like they did with The Lightening Thief.  The book's strength is in it balance of politics and action (at least until the final action scenes) and if I could have hoped for more it would have been in understanding how and why it takes the homesteaders so long to have a teen boy explain to them why the topsiders need the frontiersmen and women more than the other way around.  But like I said, give me a story about humans colonizing the sea and I'll forgive it just about anything.


Anonymous said...

Dave I loved this book like I love my orange suede platforms, which is to say immoderately and with possibly too much forgiveness of flaws. Those shoes are NO GOOD for dancing, and I always try to dance in them.

You are right, there is a lot that's formulaic in Dark Life, but I feel like the formulaic aspects - such as having the kid arrive at an understanding of the politics between above and below rather than the adults - have a kind of classic appeal. Every kid wants to feel smarter than the grownups, and I thought bringing the reader along with his thought process was an empowering aspect, injected an a-ha moment into a book that was mostly oh shit! moments.

Looking forward to judging GNs with you for Cybils! Were we both panelists 2 years ago?

david elzey said...

orange suede platforms? seriously? i would love to see those some day.

i'm not generally a big fan of the idea that kids want to feel smarter than grown-ups; i think what they really want (and what's harder to do, which is why most writers don't attempt it) is to feel like they're a part of the adult world, or an equal force in the world in general. whether anxious to be seen as mature or arrogant in believing they know everything, these are the true sources of conflict in their lives as opposed to the "stupid adults" who tend to populate kids books.

as for the cybils, i did middle grade last year and that was fun, but i'm looking forward to dipping deep into graphic novels again.

Anonymous said...

"smarter than" was a clumsy way to put it... I agree with you more than disagree, and I'm pretty glad Kat Falls stopped short of writing 'stupid adults'. (except for the bad guy, and I do give people leeway with bad guys).

I think, at least in this case, that the rather sophisticated concepts involved in producer vs consumer economies kind of had to come out of the kid's mouth, else many readers might have glazed over.

If you're on Facebook there's a picture of them shoes on FB, from the newbury Caldecott Banquet.