SPOILER ALERT: But not too much!
Ceri A Lowe’s ‘Paradigm’ is the first installment in a young adult dystopian trilogy that takes on the biggest question of our time: how do we build a world that works for everyone?
It’s not often you get to watch a book created from the ground up, but as author Ceri A Lowe happens to be my best friend, I did. I was not disappointed.
In Paradigm, you witness the world through two narrative voices – both teenagers, inhabiting different generations almost a century apart,
Alice Davenport watches London get torn to pieces from the questionable safety of her council flat; a lost child in our world, she finds her place as the leader of the new world.
Carter Warren, a born leader in the new world, loses his majesty and finds his humanity by returning to the old world.
The symmetrical stories, that wrap around each other like a double helix, create a robust and compelling arc to this tale of two worlds inhabiting the same space in separate times.
The story starts with The Storms of September 2015, the seeds sown by man-made climate change finally reap the whirlwind, literally. In a sort of Sci-Fi upgrade of Noah’s Ark, mass floods, storms and resultant radioactive contamination from destroyed nuclear plants all but wipe out life. Paradigm Industries – a massive, vertically integrated corporation in the style of GE, implements its long planned disaster recovery operation.
In the absence of government, Paradigm Industries rescues a number of the population to wait out the Storms in a massive underground complex referred to by inhabitants as ‘the Ship’. They then reinvent the world – minus all the elements they believe brought the former to ruin, with Alice Davenport leading the operation to destroy all remnants of the old world, and build up a new community.
Carter Warren lives in this new community, an area of land barricaded from the Deadlands of Alice’s destroyed London, many generations down the line. The Community is governed by The Industry (Paradigm) under the direct rule of the Controller-General. The needs of the Community in terms of population, food production energy requirements and so on are administered through The Model – think of a giant, real life version of The Sims.
People are cryogenically frozen and thawed out to meet population requirements – and the concept of the family as we know it no longer exists. Citizens live their lives in phases, between freezes, and consequently show up in different time periods, sometimes younger than their own children.
In the new community there is no homelessness, no crime, no hunger, no obesity, no pollution – everyone’s needs are met and everyone contributes to making the society and has that contribution rewarded equally.
While there are vast improvements on the former world, the Industry has destroyed so many elements of what makes us human that, as one character points out – people are existing, not living. No music, no art, no concept of leisure time, no parties, no birthdays.
Through the voices of Alice, Carter, the Industry and the new community Lowe captures perfectly the lunacy of our age; the relentless gossip, the waste, a reckless disregard for each other and our environment, the economic inequality, the corruption, the selfishness.
She also wrestles with great dexterity over the question of which of our flaws are intrinsic, and which simply circumstantial. The Industry, while creating a secular world, seems to come to many of the same conclusions that religious authorities of the past seem to arrive at: namely that our humanity is intrinsically dangerous and must be suppressed in order for us to be efficient and safe.
Meanwhile, Carter and the rebels of the new world are asking if this is truly the case. Is it really our humanity that drives war, famine, inequality? Can we build a world that works for everyone?
There are many things to love about this book. The two most prominent are the character of Alice Davenport, and the arc of the story itself.
Alice as a lost pre-teen child, battling to survive in a cold, hard world where she is consistently let down by the grown ups charged with protecting her.
Alice as a teenager in a new world, redefining herself and seizing her opportunity to learn, to grow and to make the very best of her circumstances.
Alice as a young adult, leading her teams through a wrecked London, making life and death decisions with a quiet compassion and clarity which at times brought me to the edge of tears.
Lowe clearly identifies a great deal with this character and it screams through – not only in how utterly real she is, but in the vividness of her world and the characters who inhabit it. Whatever time Alice exists in, and in whatever circumstances she finds herself, you buy it and you are rooting for her.
The story is so intricate that it made me want to grab Lowe and kiss her on the face. It is that good. The character’s narratives walk about each other’s plot lines like ghosts. An object that saves a character in one time, kills another in the next. A place that serves as a prison to a character in one time, occurs as a place of liberation to another in the next.
There are weaknesses, most of which I would lay at the feet of publishers Bookouture.
Having read early manuscripts of the book, I was sad that having decided to target Paradigm at the burgeoning Young Adult market, the language has lost much of its poetry. Lowe’s natural and vastly more eloquent voice sneaks through in parts and I couldn’t helping thinking ‘Why can’t it all be written like this?’ Many British school children study dystopian novel 1984 as young adults, and Orwell didn’t have to take out all the long words. Does the book work for Young Adults? Yes. Was it the right marketing choice? Yes. Did the writing need such simplification for that purpose? Not in my mind, no.
One person in need of a freezing by The Industry would be the copy-editor. Bookouture need a wrist-slapping for allowing as many errors into final copy as they did, but more than that some unfortunate similes and sentences that just should not exist. Lowe has a remarkable gift for simile, which underscores the failures. When the sound of a wolf heard by Carter ‘chilled his bones raw’ (Chapter 18, Page 317) for example – no, just no. There are also an infuriating number of sentences which contain the same or similar words twice – gloomy, followed by gloominess; and at one point tight and tightly share a sentence. In such a powerful, complex story so artistically told – oversights such as this are unforgivable. Yes Bookouture, I am mad at you.
The book feels a little light in the second third, but suddenly kicks up a gear – the final 6-8 chapters are utterly riveting, to the point that I had to read in one go and couldn’t put the book down. An absolute cliffhanger ending left me devastated that I now have to wait for the second book to be written before I can read it.
Bottom line – this is an absolutely incredible story that leaves you touched, moved and inspired. This is a novel full of danger and adventure that takes on the most basic and complex human questions. It is timed perfectly both in terms of the success of the Hunger Games trilogy, and also the dilemmas of our age. This book screams screenplay, and lends itself readily to the big screen – and I look forward to the inevitable day this happens.
P.S. Yes, the character Professor Mendoza was named after me.