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February 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
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The World According to Karp
In making plans to meet up with Booklist reviewer Jesse Karp at last year’s ALA Midwinter Meeting, I asked for his cell phone number. “I haven’t got one,” he replied, like it was the most natural thing in the world. That struck me as positively archaic, which, in turn, made me realize just how quickly I’d come to assume that it’s “normal” for everyone to walk around packing cell phones, and what that might say about our culture. Read Karp’s first novel, the dystopian thriller Those That Wake, and it’s clear that he has been thinking a great deal about our society’s relationship with technology, too.
The story is set in a not-too-far-off future, in which New York City reels from a crippling event—not an attack of violence but rather a massive power blackout. “What’s our most fundamental technology?” Karp asks. “The ability to create light. Robbing the city of that deprived the people of that most basic necessity and thrust their lack of power and control right into their souls. The book as a whole is very much about abdicating our control to the technologies we take for granted.”
Two teenagers confront such a personal blackout in their own lives, as rough-edged Mal’s brother disappears without a trace, and Laura suddenly becomes a stranger to her own family. Though they’re not quite certain what it is they’re looking for, they band together in search of it, and as Mal and Laura worm their way deeper into the mystery, the world around them seems to crack at the seams.
“My favorite subgenre of film is the paranoia thriller,” Karp says. “Those movies are filled with moments when someone is looking for a friend who has gotten caught up in some shadowy trouble, and when the searcher reaches the friend’s apartment, there’s a complete stranger there. ‘No,’ they say, ‘I’ve lived here for years, what are you talking about?’ The feeling of the world you know to be true suddenly getting pulled out from under you was very powerful to me, but I wanted to take it even farther down the rabbit hole, to really play with people’s ideas of how the world works.”
Any self-respecting dystopia ought to reflect upon the time in which it is written. In Karp’s novel, people walk around scarcely bothering to look up from their mobile devices, often oblivious to the perils hiding in plain sight. “Technology,” Karp says, “excels at helping us not pay attention to what is happening around us. Once upon a time, we viewed the future as a great expansion, moving out into space and exploring and discovering things we could barely imagine. We have, as it turns out, gone pretty much exactly in the opposite direction, toward the inner space of computers and the Internet. It’s very easy to get lulled into the idea that, through cell phones, e-mail, and social networks, we are connecting with people when what we are really doing is merely contacting them.”
Don’t expect Karp to run off into the woods in a neo-Luddite frenzy anytime soon, though. “In no way am I suggesting that technological progress is a completely bad thing. I believe that it affords us a potential for expanding our knowledge and our ability to understand each other in a greater way than any human achievement since writing. What I am suggesting is that we easily get swept up in what it can do for us and that, rather than being fearful per se, we just need to be aware of what’s happening to us.”
Indeed, the thriller elements lead readers into a thoughtful examination of the perils of a consumerist, technocentric society that dulls not only our interactions with each other but also our ability to look clearly at where we’re headed. It is this cry to hold out hope—against alienation, against commoditization, against losing touch with ourselves—that lies at the center of Those That Wake. “Hopelessness and apathy seem to be on the rise in many ways, and they are pretty harsh enemies in their own right. The truth is—beneath what I’m trying to say about technology and such—I wrote this book when I was about to become a parent, and I asked myself, What is the single most important message I could distill to pass along to my children? It seemed to me that that message—and a relevant message for anyone to hear these days—is ‘Don’t give up.’”
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