Dystopian worlds; and a review of The Uninvited, Liz Jensen

I’ve read a few reviews of Revolution that have said it would be a more interesting show if (well, if several things, but the relevant one here is if) instead of starting fifteen years on from the blackout, it had a chronological plotline starting from the blackout. In fact (said these reviews), very few dystopian world pieces of media really show you how they got there. They’ll talk about how they got there, in greater or lesser degrees of detail, but that won’t be the plot of the story/show/movie/book.

There isn’t anything wrong with doing it this way, to be sure. The point of a dystopian setting is roughly the same as the point of many speculative fiction settings; i.e., to explore ideas about how to be a person means when the present-day understanding of the rules of personhood don’t apply. And it’s hard to write a book about the world as we know it changing to accommodate a new reality. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of very many — can you? There’s Life As We Knew It, which scared the poop out of me by coming off way too plausible, and there’s The Uninvited (more on that in a bit), and then…what else? Maybe zombie media do it? (I don’t really read zombie books much.)

The Uninvited is a book about the breakdown — slow at first, then faster and faster. It begins with a rash of incomprehensible deaths. Here and there across the country are reports of very young children killing their caretakers in shocking, brutal ways. But Hesketh Lock’s main concern is a series of apparently unrelated sabotage-suicide cases in various large-scale businesses. Each of the saboteurs claims that he was forced to act this way by young, malicious creatures of local legend — djinns in the Middle East, trolls in Scandinavia. As Hesketh tries to keep his loved ones safe from these new epidemics, he also struggles to understand the patterns and reasons that underlie the inexplicable changes to the world he lives in.

The build-up to the apocalypse (if, in light of the ending, that’s what you want to call it) is very good, very creepy. It starts small, one child, one murder; then shifts to the business investigations Hesketh is doing. The recurring elements in these investigations — the folklore, the sabotage, the suicide attempts — are disturbing in just the right measure. The saboteurs are claiming possession and then dying before they can say much more about it. Meanwhile, the child violence is spreading. Hesketh’s narrative voice is perfect for this. He is on the autism spectrum and is very attuned to patterns.

What worked best about The Uninvited (for me) was its relatively small focus. The details of the global catastrophe — the saboteurs bringing down construction sites, factories, airports, and so forth — kick off the book, but then they are mostly let go in favor of the pandemic of child violence; specifically, in favor of the aspects of the pandemic that directly affect Hesketh. Who has a young stepson called Freddie. It won’t be spoiling anything a sensible person wouldn’t guess to say that Freddie is affected — I won’t say to what degree — by whatever is affecting so many other children in this world. Around the edges of Hesketh’s single-minded focus on Freddie are the changes to the rest of the world. Emergency services are unable to keep up with all the cases of violence; infected (?) children wander the street in hierarchical gangs trying to avoid the vigilante justice of terrified adults. A few scientists are trying to study the children to figure out what has happened to them.

I liked it that the point of Hesketh wasn’t his autism spectrum disorder. The point of him — it turns out — is his fatherhood. He loves Freddie and will do anything for him. This isn’t something you see played out very often with autistic characters. In particular, I liked it that the book doesn’t depend on his being autistic. There are a lot of books where autistic narrators are used as the same brand of unreliable narrator as children — that the reader can see more than the narrator can about what’s really going on. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I’ve seen enough books that do it to where I’m a bit tired of it. It was refreshing that The Uninvited wasn’t that.

While the shift from normalcy to panic in the world works well, I didn’t think the shift from panic to the new normal was quite as well considered. You don’t get any real sense of what the world is going to be like with this new reality, neither on the grand scale nor on the small scale of just Hesketh and his family. The resolution of the mystery of the child violence was unsatisfying to me. It doesn’t hit you hard when Hesketh realizes what’s happening, and it hardly gets played out at all. It’s just sort of, My God, THIS is what’s happening. Fin.

So, the build-up was good, and the resolution not as good. It was fun for a change to see how the world turns into one of the postapocalyptic landscapes that seem to be all over our media these days.

Do y’all like seeing the world fall to bits in fiction, or do you like it better (as people must, I guess? since that’s what movies of this type tend to feature?) when the world has already fallen to bits and the people are settled into their new normal? Can you think of other examples of books/movies/shows where you see the adjustment? I seriously can’t think of any besides the Pfeffer book. GOD that book was scary.

I received an e-galley of The Uninvited for review through NetGalley.