In her new novel, When We Wake, Karen Healey puts a modern science fiction spin on the classic story of Rip Van Winkle and comes up with something exciting and powerful. When Teegan Oglietti wakes up from cryosleep in the year 2127, she is initially delighted to see the progress that Australian society has made. Anti-Muslim prejudice is gone, gay marriage is unremarkable, and everyone talks about sustainable living as a matter of course. Unfortunately for Teegan, the future is not as bright as her handlers want her to believe.
When We Wake is a book about the frightening realities of climate change, but it does not fall back on grim science fictional cliches. There are no meathooks here, no sunken cities or decaying megamalls. Australia still possesses a veneer of civilization in its cities. If Teegan had closed her eyes and convinced herself that justice was someone else's problem, she could have lived a happy life. But, as the title implies, the heroine of When We Wake must wake up to the injustices around her. Teegan's story is one of perseverance and hope. Whether she is going on a hunger strike or escaping from cultists, she never gives up on herself and she never gives up on us, her readers.
Yes, When We Wake directly addresses the reader—or the listener, since the conceit of the book is that Teegan is telling the story of her death and resurrection to an audience. She wants her viewers, as well as the book's readers, to join her fight against the injustices that she has seen firsthand. Some readers may find this unsubtle approach off-putting. I didn't mind, and while I'm sure part of that was due to my own politics, I also think that Teegan is a compelling and engagingly introspective young woman. I enjoyed the chance to take a break from the action, and I liked reading Teegan's editorializing about her past self. She says things like "When they find us, I imagine they'll make me pay" (p. 44) before the reader finds out where she has gone or who "us" might be, deepening the tension and making me even more eager to read on.
Teegan is easy to love despite her flaws, which is a good thing in a book told entirely from her point of view. With a little bit of parkour and a lot of guts, she's a perfect action hero. She will run barefoot across rooftops to escape her military minders, or jump down a stairwell to protect her beloved guitar. She is both deeply moral and deeply religious in a manner untempered by adult cynicism—the kind of person who prays aloud to the Virgin Mary and seriously considers what Mary would think of her if she turned her back on the poor and helpless. As she tells her story, she describes the mistakes she made and how she tried to learn from them so that she could do better. In Teegan, Healey has managed to create a character who is both a believable teenager and an admirable person.
When We Wake will be too preachy for some readers. However, I would point out that warnings about the consequences of human actions have always been part of science fiction. There is no better place for a novel like When We Wake than science fiction, and no better audience than today's young adults who will be living in whatever future we choose to create.
When We Wake takes the standard tropes of young adult literature and does things with them that I found delightfully original. I cannot count the writers I've seen tackle yet another version of the weird kid's first day in a new school. Healey's twenty-second-century classroom felt genuine and alien at the same time. Teegan's peers are even more immersed in their electronics than modern teenagers, wearing them, listening to them, and learning from them, to the point where they don't even think about it. When Teegan's friend announces loudly in the middle of class that Teegan's computer is still in "kinder-mode," I cringed in sympathy. Things only get worse for Teegan when she thinks she sees her long-dead boyfriend sitting at the front of the class.
At the beginning of When We Wake, Teegan has just gotten a date with the love of her life. Her death brings their budding relationship to a premature end. Any romance that Teegan might find in 2127 will be haunted by the chances she lost when her first life ended, and the ghost of a boy who lived and died without her. Of course she falls for a twenty-second-century boy, and of course it gets complicated, but I was relieved to see that Healey hadn't made the love interest into a generic bad boy. He is a serious young man who has plenty of problems without adding Teegan's to the mix. As love triangles go, this is an interesting one.
Healey tackles racism, too. On a large scale, she confronts Australia's treatment of refugees, and on a personal level, she refuses to surround her white protagonist with white friends. Having a boyfriend from Africa doesn't make Teegan a saint, though. She's still capable of doing racist things when she's not thinking. Healey also challenges her readers' assumptions; I, for one, was surprised by her description of Djibouti-of-the-future, which reminded me that I hardly know enough about the Djibouti of our time to make a comparison.
If I had to pick out one element of When We Wake that made it a pleasure to read, I'd point to Healey's sense of humor. Teegan is a sarcastic teenager, but she is also self-aware enough to know when she is being ridiculous. "To my relief, Marie didn't keep a garden. Instead she put the collection container on the curb every week with the food scraps, and it was taken away, mixed with everyone else's manure and food scraps, and turned into compost for the big farms on the city outskirts. Marie got a tax deduction, and we all got to eat food grown in human poo. Culture shock. It's the little things" (p. 49). Teegan's good humor is part of what keeps When We Wake from being just another dystopian SF novel.
Healey doesn't have any easy answers to the questions she raises about culture and the environment. She recognizes that we cannot simply undo many of the mistakes we have made. In When We Wake, Healey has offered Teegan's story as an example of what we all can do: own up to our mistakes, try to do better, and above all, never give up hope.
As a child, Sarah Frost wanted to write a post-apocalyptic science fiction epic poem. The great-grandchild of that ill-fated attempt became her first published work of short fiction in Analog in 2011. She is a hopeless podcast addict, a lover of birds, and a science fangirl. She lives in Kansas with a cop, and blogs at http://www.sarah-frost.com.