Imagine a world where the government is all knowing and all seeing. Fear, violence, and/or government sanctioned drugs control the masses. The smallest crime results in torture or death. Books no longer exist. Words like freedom, mother, and individuality have been banned. Sex with multiple partners or prostitutes is encouraged. Emotional connections are discouraged or sometimes even forbidden.
If you read science/speculative fiction, it should. These are the traits that the holy trinity of dystopian literature (Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451) established in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Add the The Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps the first feminist dystopian novel, with its thoughts on sex, class, and reproductive rights, and the defining elements of the dystopian novel are complete.
Let’s face it — it’s hard to write a dystopian novel that can compete with these classics. Yet to write a science fiction novel with a totalitarian government, forgotten words, banned books, and unspeakable violence and torture invites comparison. So much so that the back cover of Laura Bynum’s debut novel Veracity includes quotes that liken it to 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Fahrenheit 451.
While most probably aren’t going to label Veracity an instant classic, Bynum does manage to follow the traditional tenets of dystopian literature and still add a few twists and turns that make the book suspenseful, engaging, and thought-provoking. Until the last few chapters, which feel a bit rushed and simplistic, Veracity is a remarkably good read and a read that, at times, seems entirely too plausible for comfort.
Drawing inspiration from both the United States’ Patriot Act and recent outbreaks of viral infections, such as the avian flu, Bynum creates a world governed by the Confederation of the Willing. Sex and drugs are plentiful and encouraged. Dangerous words (i.e. courage, honor, ambassador, poem) are banned, or Red Listed, and are quickly forgotten. Mandatory implants called slates monitor word usage and keep citizens from secretly voicing Red Listed words.
Along with the slates, and the Blue Coats, a brutal police force that rapes, tortures, and/or kills any one suspected of criminal activity, the Confederation also relies on psychics to keep order. Harper Adams, the book’s main character and protagonist, is one of these psychics. Employed by the Confederation, Harper, and her best friend Candace, use their psychic abilities to read auras and help the government find traitors, troublemakers, and members of the resistance. But when Candace is killed and Harper’s daughter’s name, Veracity, is Red Listed, Harper decides to join the resistance and the war against the Confederation.
Harper’s character is one of the twists and turns in the book. She is carefully crafted, full of humanity and humility, and very relatable. In other genres of literature, this might not be so surprising; however, one drawback to many science fiction novels, particularly classic texts, is that character is often sacrificed to make a point. Classic science fiction tends to be plot driven, and character development is often sadly lacking. For example, Bernard Marx and Lenina Crowe, from Brave New World, are cleverly named characters but are rather flat. Audiences know what they do, but not who they are. These characters participate in recreational sex, go to the feely movies, helicopter off to the Obstacle Golf Course, and take their soma; activities very removed from the typical reader’s reality, making it difficult for most readers to form any type of emotional connection to these characters. Simply put, most readers probably don’t really care what happens to these characters.
Despite her psychic ability, Harper is easy to connect to and care about. She’s a single mom. She’s divorced. She loves her child more than anything else. She doesn’t really like her job. She has a somewhat unrealistic crush on/infatuation with a man she barely knows. She has a silk blouse she really likes. While Harper’s world may be somewhat unfamiliar, the every day elements of her life, most likely, are quite familiar.
Her psychic ability, while perhaps not something most audience members can relate to, does add another twist to the text. It’s more reminiscent of the Force from the Star Wars movies than it is of elements traditionally found in classic science fiction. After all, there is nothing really scientific about either the Force or Harper’s psychic ability. Instead, Harper’s psychic ability is deeply connected to emotions. Harper “sees” people’s emotions as colors: “Blobs of color are everywhere, of nearly every hue. Dull red fear and deep red anger. Mustard-yellow self-concern. Dull blue-arrogance. Light pink guilt. The prolific mold-brown of confusion…”
In the opening sections of the book, the plot is drawn just as carefully as the characters. The narrative moves slowly and thoughtfully allowing tension to build. There is a detailed description of Harper’s best linen jacket being ruined as she goes through a security checkpoint. Another vivid scene takes place in a high school classroom where students suspected of having psychic ability are singled out for testing. When a young Harper and her mother are forcibly separated by the government, the audience feels Harper’s angst:
We’re taken to the local community center, a flat, wide building shaped like the sheet cakes they sell at fund-raisers. My mother thought we’d be put in the same line but I’m pulled out of her arms as soon as we come through the front door. She’s swallowed up by a bunch of blue suits and somehow disappears. Or maybe I’m the one who goes away. All I remember is we’re together and then we’re not.
While the major themes of government control, censorship, and freedom of speech do hit the audience over the head like the proverbial ton of bricks, there are subtler points being made as well. The overall theme about the simple power of language is presented beautifully and is designed to make people think about something we use everyday, but often pay little attention to: words.
Another interesting theme is the resistance itself. The resistance is composed, primarily, of aging academics, intellectuals, and college professors. If the resistance succeeds, linguists are going to be running the world. As an aging academic myself, there is a part of this plan that appeals to me, but whether or not this group could successfully run a country is a debatable question. The infighting among the resistance, some brief glimpses of elitism, and their lack of organization suggest that Bynum herself may not be sold on this group’s ability to lead. All of this should make the audience question this proposed new government and whether or not it can create and maintain a truly democratic state. But this is what great, or even just really good, science fiction does: it leaves the reader with more questions than answers.
Veracity is a very good book, but the nitpick in me wishes a couple of things had been done just a little differently. The pacing of the last few chapters feels rushed; a few weeks worth of action is compiled in just a few paragraphs. At times (again in the last few chapters) the plot feels simplified and is perhaps a little too predictable. Another minor irk was the romantic subplot. First, I don’t know if it was needed. Second, because Harper falls in love with a man she doesn’t even know, this relationship feels like it belongs more in a Hollywood blockbuster rather than in a serious work of science fiction.
These are, however, very minor complaints about a very well written and plotted book. Veracity is a book I’ll enjoy rereading. I read it quickly the first time around, anxious to see what would happen to this world and to Harper, but with all its layers and well developed characters, it’s a book that is easily returned to and offers something new with each reading.