Book Review: When We Wake, by Karen Healey

When We Wake is a finalist in the Young Adult category of the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. It is available in bookstores nationwide. Karen Healey is touring Nelson during Festival week 17 − 25 May. 

When We Wake, by Karen Healey, WhenWeWake_CVR_128x198x21.5_FA.inddbegins in Australia in the year 2027. It’s all told from the point of view of 16-year-old Tegan, who is cryogenically frozen and wakes up in the year 2128. She is still in Australia, but climate change has taken hold: temperatures are rising and, while the world’s population increases, available land is shrinking. Apparently ignoring the plight of its distressed neighbours, Australia has completely closed its borders.

The well-drawn setting of When We Wake and the exploration of big ideas are undoubtedly the strengths of this interesting and well-written YA novel. The Australias of both the near future and more than a century from now feel very real; recognisable, yet with intriguing technological and cultural differences − houses are mostly underground (to escape the sun), human manure is used for compost, eating meat has gone almost completely out of fashion, phones are the size of an earring and personal computers can be scrunched up and shoved in your pocket.

The big idea behind the book, and the driving force of the plot, is geopolitical responses to climate change. When We Wake is mostly concerned with Australia’s closed doors policy, which has resulted in the creation of camps of would-be migrants who are stuck in limbo between the ocean and a barbed wire fence. (Sound familiar?) With a twist on the theme of racism, Australia’s citizens refer disparagingly to inhabitants of less environmentally fortunate countries as “thirdies”. And, while the scientific side of cryogenics is largely glossed over (it’s all based on tardigrades*− pictured below), there is an interesting exploration of the nature of personhood in the face of this new technological advance.

tardigradeWhile you’re frozen, are you alive or dead? What happens to your immortal soul? When you are revived, are you still fully a person? How do you know you’re you?

Another strength of Healey’s writing is her expression of the voice and mindset of a teenage girl, which she captures perfectly. Tegan’s very black-and-white judgments are redolent of that extreme moral certainty and outrage with the state of the world that teenagers possess: being ‘totally ok’ with lesbians is good, closing the borders of a country in the face of a global crisis is bad; radical freethinkers are good, The Establishment is bad; free healthcare for those in need is good, pharmaceutical companies determined to earn profit from their IP are bad. While spending time in Tegan’s head made for a largely enjoyable read, I couldn’t help sympathising a bit when one of the other characters bursts out with: “You’re an ignorant little girl, and your politics have always been a pose.”

Diversity in speculative fiction
One of the things that When We Wake really got me thinking about was the continuing hot topic that is diversity in speculative fiction (an umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy and horror) – or lack thereof.

An overwhelming majority of spec fic books feature straight white male protagonists, which, from a reader’s point of view, tends towards the tiresomely predictable. Healey’s approach to this issue is to populate her book with non-straight, non-white, non-male characters. While this undoubtedly does make the world she creates more interesting, it unfortunately does feel like a box-ticking exercise: here is the black character, here is the gay character, here is the Muslim character, here is the transgender character.

But maybe we need this sledgehammer, explicitly issues-based phase of speculative fiction, before we can move into a generally better and more interesting world of reading where we will no longer assume characters to be straight and white until proven otherwise. (It is also worth noting that, although Tegan is surrounded by queer, culturally diverse characters, she herself is a straight, white Christian girl who is slender, pretty and large-breasted. The cover of When We Wake, showing a close-up of her face, emphasises her whiteness. You can read an interesting analysis of the racism of YA book covers here).

Overall, I found When We Wake to be an entertaining and thought-provoking piece of speculative fiction. Happily, Healey has managed the trick of making her novel narratively satisfying enough to be a stand-alone read, while retaining enough unanswered questions to keep the series going − the sequel While We Run has just been published. Healey’s voice is a welcome addition to the New Zealand spec fic community and I shall follow her career with great interest. Long live the tardigrades.

*Tardigrades – which are real – are absolutely extraordinary animals and worth learning more about. 

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

When We Wake
by Karen Healey
Published by Allen & Unwin (AU)
ISBN 9781742378084

3 thoughts on “Book Review: When We Wake, by Karen Healey

  1. Pingback: Finalist Interviews: The origins of When We Wake, by Karen Healey |

  2. Pingback: When We Wake, Karen Healey

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