A quick review of Rootless, a YA novel by Chris Howard, coming out in November 2012. Thanks to Netgalley and Scholastic for providing the ARC!
**SOME SPOILERY DESCRIPTIONS**
Note: Reading this without a physical copy or any background research, I wasn’t sure whether it was YA or adult. Most books with teenaged protagonists are YA–and I think this one is too. But I guess there’s a YA continuum, or I’m old and out of touch*, because there’s a lot of violence and cussing in here. I guess in a world where PG-13 movies regularly have people getting blown to pieces, that’s just how it goes. Anyway, Y/A or adult–does it matter? A conversation for another day.
Quick summary: Banyan is a 17-year-old boy who lives in a world where nothing grows but the GM corn of GenTech. Banyan builds trees from scrap metal, a trade his father taught him before disappearing and leaving Banyan to fend for himself. The book follows Banyan as he gets entangled in a search for the last living trees on earth.
Overall, this felt a little hurried to me. The prose felt a bit flat, and while the plot hit its beats I could see many of the twists coming from a ways off. At one point, where things were going from bad to worse, I checked the Kindle progress bar and…yup, we were at 66% exactly. So, kudos for structuring the story so that it delivered on its promises, but no kudos for prose and characters that didn’t keep me engaged enough to forget what we were doing.
The spine of the book, it seems to me, is the creation and examination of a world in which corporate biotech has taken over all creation. After twenty years of Darkness, the only crop that will grow is corn, and only GenTech is allowed to grow it. Each kernel on an ear is stamped with the purple GenTech logo, and anyone caught planting or trading corn illegally is killed.
The scope of the world here is a little hard to grasp, in part because our narrator is only 17 and is busy trying to stay alive and save the world. There’s not a lot of time for him to ponder questions like: is the whole world in this shape? Does GenTech own corn production in every country? How do people breathe, if there are literally zero trees and no other plants besides corn? What’s going on with the atmosphere? Are pelagic algae making up for the loss of land-based plant life? And if there are no plants, and no animals besides locusts, where is GenTech getting the raw materials to flavor its wide-distribution microwaved popcorn food? Can a whole planet really survive on nothing but chemicals and corn? How long could that possibly last? And so on.
Howard does address some of the fallout issues of his treeless world. The ocean has become a raging Surge, eating steadily away at any exposed land because there are no roots to secure the earth. Some people suffer from a lung-crusting disease that makes it hard to breathe, but it’s unclear whether this is due to a change in the atmosphere, or chemicals used to grow the GM corn, or…?
I admit, while I was reading this book I found myself becoming more conscious of the trees in my life. I’m lucky enough to live in a city with a lot of trees, right next to one of the largest wilderness parks in the nation. I’m married to an architect who has schooled me on all the ways that trees improve our cities and our lives. I’m definitely pro-tree, but Howard’s book still made me think a little differently about them, and feel a little more grateful for all that they do. It also made me ponder how close we may be coming to a world in which genetically modified, proprietary plants start to crowd out their wild, independent cousins. That…would not be a good world.
The final third of the book feels a little formulaic to me, complete with family revelations and a Hollywood-style uprising of the masses. I have <a href=”http://munrovian.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/in-time-vs-blade-runner-hideously-uneven-cage-match/”>taken issue before</a> with the trope of the easily-accomplished revolution, and I take issue with it here. I don’t really understand why storytellers feel like they should do this. The idea that a huge (multinational?), entrenched, heavily resourced organization could be toppled by a few scrappy upstarts willing to risk it all…to me this feels tired and implausible. Some readers may find it satisfying, since it treads a familiar path. For myself, I would have been more interested in less hype and more depth. Howard has another book already in the pipeline, so maybe next time?
* I am definitely both of these things.