Wednesday, April 6, 2011

I never think about the future -- it comes soon enough (Albert Einstein, 1930)

There's been a lot of discussion lately in children's literature circles of the appeal of dystopian fiction. Do readers like it because it helps to control their anxieties about the future? That things will never get as bad as they are in Panem, in New Pretty Town, in the Traction Cities? If this is the case (and I'm not sure it is), readers will want to stay away from Saci Lloyd's Carbon Diaries novels. These take place in a way-closer future with a disturbingly possible premise. Unlike a lot of dystopic novels, these aren't escapist.

I read the first installment about a year ago, and just finished up its sequel: The Carbon Diaries 2017. Laura Brown is our diarist and her observations about her world turned upside down with the introduction of carbon rationing by the government of Great Britain are hilarious, poignant and chastening. Laura lives in a suburb of London and lives for her punk rock girl band, the Dirty Angels. The carbon rationing is majorly inconvenient, but at the end of her diary's year we believe she's adjusted.

The sequel takes place two years later and things are a bit more precarious. Laura's now a college student, but her study time is spent looking for decent housing and scrabbling for carbon credits. The government is showing less and less tolerance for peaceful protest from its citizens. A terrorist group -- calling itself 2 after the 2°C rise in global temperatures that will bring about irreversible climate change -- engages in random attacks. Laura jumps at the chance to tour with the Dirty Angels in Europe, but she can't escape the world's problems. One band member (token male, token black and Laura's boyfriend) decides he must travel to Africa to help the drought-stricken refugees there, but he contracts malaria and the rest of the group must hustle to Italy to save him. As they try to make their way back to London, they encounter human suffering and government ineptitude beyond their experience. Laura never loses her sense of humor, but she's a different girl at the end of this novel.

I like these a lot. The combination of humor and horror is captivating. I read to learn what happens next in this plausible scenario, but I really enjoy what Laura thinks of what happened next. Laura's self-centered focus on her band and her life's dramas seems teen friendly, but the book doesn't stop there: Laura knows there's a wider world out there with bigger problems. This seems a really spot-on teenage viewpoint. Lloyd (whose first name is pronounced SAH-chee ... yay, audiobooks!) teaches this age group at what appears to be a post-high-school/pre-college institution. She's drawn from her experiences to create the characters of Laura and her friends.

A reader named Kate Harbour narrates the book. Her vocal talents might be familiar to listeners far younger than the audience for this book: fans of Shaun the Sheep or Bob the Builder. I guess it goes without saying that I've never heard her before ... although maybe I have -- isn't there a Shaun the Sheep short film before that pretty darn delightful chicken movie?

Anyway, Harbour's amazing! She pretty much creates an original voice for each one of the people in this novel. And while some are a little less distinctive than others (I had trouble differentiating between Laura's two close girlfriends), and some are kind of oddly distinct (Laura's mother -- an American -- has a strange gravelly delivery that sounds slightly off), the whole package is quite a narrative tour de force. I think it's a whole lot easier to voice a big cast of characters when many of the characters aren't human -- the exaggeration required to make the distinct voices seems a whole lot less exaggerated when the speaker is an alien/elf/droid, etc. Harbour doesn't have this option.

She's also delightful as Laura herself. Laura's smart, opinionated, emotional and really, really funny. Her diary entries are these micro-views of a world gone crazy, and Laura can't keep from rolling her eyes (in prose). Harbour expertly voices the changes that Laura undergoes in 2017; as the horrors mount, Laura's voice grows quieter and less rambunctious: I can hear her exhaustion. I also enjoyed Harbour's few trips into the world of punk music, as she growled and yelled the lyrics of the Dirty Angels. She should do more audiobooks.

The most recent dystopian novel I read is like The Carbon Diaries in its scary reality. I eye-read Andy Mulligan's Trash because it was the only book in School Library Journal's most recent Battle of the Kids' Books 2010 I hadn't already read. It's a thrilling adventure, and it was only defeated by the contest's winner.

The Carbon Diaries 2017 by Saci Lloyd
Narrated by Kate Harbour
AudioGO, 2010. 9:19

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