Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Unidentified - Rae Mariz

Title: The Unidentified
Author: Rae Mariz
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2010 (Hardcover)
Length: 296 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Science Fiction, Dystopian Fiction
Started: February 8, 2011
Finished: February 10, 2011

Kid knows her school’s corporate sponsors not-so-secretly monitor her friendships and activities for market research. It’s all a part of the Game; the alternative education system designed to use the addictive kick from video games to encourage academic learning. Everyday, a captive audience of students ages 13-17 enter the nationwide chain store-like Game locations to play.

When a group calling themselves The Unidentified simulates a suicide to protest the power structure of their school, Kid’s investigation into their pranks attracts unwanted attention from the sponsors. As Kid finds out she doesn't have rights to her ideas, her privacy, or identity, she and her friends look for a way to revolt in a place where all acts of rebellion are just spun into the next new ad campaign.

The Unidentified is similar to Cory Doctorow's Little Brother in terms of the theme presented: massive allegory about consumerism and lack of privacy and rights in such a world. I think Little Brother pulled off the complete package better than The Unidentified, but the latter still wowed me nonetheless.

Fifteen-year-old Katey Dade (called Kid) lives in an age where education has no funding and corporate sponsors are responsible for our children's education. All students participate in the Game, and are allotted to levels based on age, Level 13-17 (aka high school as we know it) being that last section before completion. Students are equipped with "intouch" and "notebook" devices (thinly veiled references to iPhones and iPads/Macbooks) that allow them to be constantly plugged in to social networking. The corporate Sponsors look for trendsetters within the Game and "brand" them, making them the poster child for their products. Students accumulate a score based on how well they do in the educational parts of the video and virtual reality games that substitute for teachers and classrooms, which in turn can earn them prizes or scholarships that cover real-life expenses after completing the Game. Ironically, students that are branded can accumulate an impressive score by actions that result in more buzz or sales for their sponsors without even doing anything educational. I loved this premise for the novel, a look at what futuristic education might become. It's wonderfully subversive and a blatant allegory to our own modern day consumerism, especially relating to young people. In high school we always used to joke that our school was "sponsored" by Coke due to the contract they had with the school (we were just mainly mad because we couldn't buy a Pepsi on school grounds to save our life), but a scenario like in The Unidentified shows us just how close we could come to our schools turning into the Game.

The message is a necessary one, and the set-up is brilliant, but it sometimes feels a little preachy and forced, especially around the mid-point where things start to drag. Things quickly come around closer to the end where you uncover the twist and what the characters decide to do with the information they've uncovered. I think the pacing would've worked a little better if there'd been less time spent on getting to the twist and more time allotted to the aftermath, because the aftermath is more interesting than the build-up in my opinion, and that scenario really would've allowed for more character development. But the world-building and the details are definitely worth the read even if the pacing leaves a little to be desired.

If you like subversive and blatant allegory with great world-building, read this! Also give this a go if you read and loved Doctorow's Little Brother.

Thoughts on the cover:
The close-up of the face is a bit too close-up for my liking, but I love the bar code at the side, I didn't even notice it right away.

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