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.
Thanks for the review. I really do appreciate that and your honesty.
I best pay extra attention to the grammar 🙂
I was hesitant at first on a male POV YA novel involving love, but yes, there needs to be more. And you’ll be glad to know that I cut out a lot more love/desire moments between Rosa and Zachary.
Of course, Imran! I was excited when I read the synopsis on amazon about your book and I’m happy to have been able to read and review it. I wish you the best of luck going forward and I can’t wait to hear what else you’ve got in store.
Hi! Followed Imran’s link over from Twitter. 🙂 I’m playing devil’s advocate here (I’ve written a YA novel with a male protagonist, and I do agree there’s a sad lack in the current YA landscape)… but who’s to say boys can’t read books with female protagonists? Will having more books with male protagonists automatically make more boys start reading? Maybe the problem isn’t just that there are too many female protagonists, but that too many female protagonists just aren’t worthy role models in general. I feel boys can enjoy a book with a *strong* (by which I don’t just mean gun-toting, kick-butt) female protagonist and a substantive plot just as much as they can enjoy books with a male protagonist (my brother, for instance, likes “Pride and Prejudice” a whole lot more than I do). Sadly, there just aren’t too many options out there.
Hi Amanda! Thanks so much for stopping by – I hope you enjoyed the post! And also, great point. When I was a senior in college writing a research paper on the reading habits of young boys, I had the same question.(In fact, many educators have the same question, and it turns out to be a very complicated one.) Why aren’t boys interested in female protagonists? After all, so many of the books I read growing up had male protagonists. What I found in my research was that boys, and young children especially (and this is a generalization) tend to prefer to read “boyish” things. It’s something that pushes them to read more and get into books. And more than that, they need strong male characters in their lives to provide role models for them. Young boys are, as unfortunate as it is, less likely to look up to and strive to emulate female characters than they are to look up to male characters. Unfortunately, whether for cultural or genetic reasons or what have you, female heroes don’t inspire quite the same level of devotion in male children.
I was mostly researching grade-school (kindergarten-4th grade) boys, so I’m sure things change as they mature. But for younger children, it’s harder to incentivize boys to read when all the books are about girls. That said, I don’t think this is a good thing, and I think it’s important for educators and parents to teach boys that female characters can be strong and inspiring as well, but as it stands in the educational field, especially among lower-income children, that process will be quite a challenge.
It’s definitely an interesting and challenging question. I grew up preferring so-called “boy books” to “girl books” too (or books where girls did more stereotypically boyish things). Just from my own experience, I feel young girls are more willing to cross gender lines in their reading than are boys, and I agree there are probably too many reasons factoring into this than can be summed up in a blog comment.
Generally speaking, I still do prefer a male protagonist to a female one. Since I’ve started reading more modern YA, and paying attention to industry trends, I’ve actually felt a little guilty about it, like it’s somehow a betrayal of femininity that I don’t care for most female protagonists–that I’m subscribing to the male-chauvinist idea that a female character can’t carry a story on her own. But, really, I think it’s just that I’ve found too many YA female protagonists (even those written by female authors, and even those touted as “strong”) to be so shallowly drawn. (There are definitely exceptions; Ursula le Guin’s “Lavinia” is one of my favorite books, and my go-to example of what I like in female protagonists.)
Thanks for responding!
I wholeheartedly agree. I’m working on a novel right now where we have dual protagonists – one male, one female – and I think that the dearth of “compelling” female protags in literature is reproachable. That said, I have certainly enjoyed books with female protagonists, and I wouldn’t express a preference for one or the other. It has more to do with the strength of the writing and the depth of the character than it does with the gender of the characters, as I’m sure it does for everyone. Maybe it’s just harder to draw a strong and complex female lead in a culture that’s still struggling to define what that even means, than it is to do the same for a male lead.
Good point about the culture and defining roles. And I agree–at the end of the day, it’s the quality of the writing that does it for me. 🙂