15 January 2012
This is my wife's favorite book of all time, and comes in pretty high on my own list as well. Just prior to departing on our epic vacation to Salt Lake City and Honolulu, I sat down one Sunday in December to reread this classic. (Again, as noted before, I was avoiding Kierkegaard at all costs.) As always, the novel did not disappoint. Fast-paced, imaginative, and containing all the necessary components of a well-thought out dystopia, this novel is the best science fiction novel I have read.
Unlike most dystopias, in Lund's novel the nuclear war has already occurred. World War III has wiped out most of the United States, and only pockets of survivors are found in areas that were not directly hit by nuclear and biological weapons. The novel starts with the world in the early phases of trying to rebuild itself, with a group of survivors in Star Valley, Wyoming quietly living as their pioneer ancestors did. Their pseudo-Eden is quickly shattered however when they are forcibly relocated to the Alliance, a growing society intent on rebuilding civilization without the horrors of war or violence. The method for removing these ills of society is an implant in the brain which conditions individuals to avoid incorrect thoughts and behavior.
Eric Lloyd, the protagonist of the novel, quickly sees through the pernicious effects of such a false utopia. The implants rob citizens in the Alliance of their ability to make choices themselves and ultimately undermines the good intentions behind the society. Thwarting the implant system is no easy task, however, and Lloyd goes to great lengths to free himself, his family, and ultimately the society from their electronic shackles.
The focus on free agency is a familiar track for many dystopias; but Lund is particularly adept in this realm because of his well-envisioned world and cogent dialogue between the characters regarding the positives and negatives of personal choice. I am often frustrated by the lack of honest consideration of the very real downsides of agency in dystopic novels: the protagonist is without moral flaws and a post-dystopic society flourishes with no downsides. The Alliance does a decent job of reminding the reader why we so often seek to build utopias in the first place. A world of choices is a world of ambiguity, uncertainty, and--frequently--failure. Human beings are always striving to better the world; Lund reminds us there is no quick shortcuts in this path however. And there very well may be limits to just how much we can improve society. The truth is, without a higher source of inspiration, human society will be unable to rise above our "nasty, petty, and cruel" state.
But I don't read The Alliance for a moral lesson really. The action, fast pace, and intriguing world are the real draw of this book. Lund places the action in a world that is similar enough to this one I can relate but far enough removed in time and events that I can still get lost in the fiction thereof. The first time I read this book, I started it at 8pm and read all night. Every time I said I would read just one more chapter, there was something new and exciting waiting that I just had to check out. Even now, I find it difficult to put down. That is the true mark of a good science fiction novel.