I’ve been going on a bit of a YA reading spree lately, but I’ve been fairly disappointed by the fact that so many of the protagonists in this genre are female. I have nothing against female protagonists, but the imbalance in the genre is overwhelming. Where are the books for boys? Where are the coming-of-age stories for young boys and men? I wrote a paper in college about the dismal reading habits of young boys in the late 20th and early 21st century, and it really sharpened my awareness of the so-called crisis of reading among young men, and made me all too conscious of the fact that female protagonists and authors have come to dominate YA fiction. (Meanwhile, ironically, the literary playing field as a whole continues to be overwhelmingly – and embarrassingly – dominated by men; see the infographics here for more info.) Ernest Cline’s “Ready, Player One” was a nice break in that female monotony, but if anything, it left me wanting more.
So when Imran Siddiq followed me on Twitter and I looked up his recently-published book DISCONNECT on Amazon, I was thrilled to find a YA sci-fi novel told from the perspective of 16-year old Zachary (he’s a boy). Furthermore, the book is self-published, and the number of self-published books I have read hovers somewhere around zero. Well, I guess now it’s jumped up to one. I decided that as soon as I had space in my reading schedule I would download his book and give it a read-through. So this Friday, before embarking on a road trip to Chicago, I paid my dues and loaded it onto my Kindle.
Zachary is a scavenger, a sewer rat who lives in the bowels of a space station called Galilei. The space station is divided into two parts – Overworld, where the people wake up every morning to marvelous sights of Jupiter, live glamorous lives, and discard their trash and waste onto the people of Underworld. Zachary spends his days sorting through this trash, trying to find something valuable to return to his masters in “the stall”. When he comes across a valuable Intercom from Overworld, his first thought is of good food and crisp money that will impress his father. But when he hears a recorded message from a girl on the Intercom, he changes his mind and decides not to sell the intercom right away. Instead, he takes it to his old android, Patch, who hacks it for him, revealing more pre-recorded videos featuring the mysterious, beautiful girl.
This, naturally, sets off the “find the girl” chivalrous adventure, and Zachary’s quest, unsurprisingly, leads him to Overworld. There, he discovers that although Overworld looks and feels prettier at a first glance, it’s not really all it’s cracked up to be. Later, mysterious messages start dropping from the trash chutes of Overworld, announcing that the Districts in Underworld will be evacuated and dispersed, and you know something big’s about to happen. Siddiq does not disappoint. The story rolls like a gathering storm from then on, and the pace is quick and easy to follow.
Siddiq’s invented world builds and develops around Zachary, with a dystopian flair but at the same time wholly natural. Unlike other young adult dystopias like the Divergent trilogy, Lauren Olivier’s Delirium series, or the Chemical Garden trilogy, it never felt like something that could only exist as in a book or as a thought experiment. Galilei’s divided worlds felt real. It’s a situation that could arise naturally, through political and economic twists and turns. In fact, the relationship between Underworld and Overworld felt eerily similar to my own world at times – aren’t we experiencing dramatic rises in wealth inequality right now? Aren’t we as guilty as they are of systematically oppressing the impoverished? Haven’t we built entire buildings, neighborhoods, districts for our less privileged to inhabit?
Okay, I’m done politicizing. My point is, Siddiq’s world felt inhabitable, natural, possible. It was both foreign and recognizable at the same time. His world-building is doubtless the best part about the novel.
The love story between Zachary and Rosa, the girl on the Intercom, at times feels a little tired but at others is vibrant and energizing. Sometimes it’s trite; sometimes it’s powerful. Zachary’s desperation to hear her voice and his constant strain to see her again sometimes feels forced, like it’s just a plot device, but at other times it’s vividly clear how much he longs not just for female, but for human companionship. It goes back and forth, but the romance certainly serves to drive the plot along, and there are just enough valuable, precious moments to make the love story worth it.
Occasionally Siddiq’s writing gets a little twisted, jumbled, like it’s stumbling over itself. There are a few places where this is more noticeable than it should be. I won’t go into examples, because that would quickly turn into a grammar lecture, but ultimately the occasional linguistic mishaps don’t detract from the pace of the story and the vividness of the invented world.
Although there were flaws, the story was engaging and I certainly powered through it. I would recommend it for people who loved Ender’s Game and Ready, Player One, and, more broadly, for fans of sci-fi and dystopia. Check out the Kindle page here.