Tag Archives: best of 2008

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Vol. II, The Kingdom On the Waves, by M. T. Anderson

Octavian Nothing IIMost historical fiction books for young people take as their object to show a Typical Person with a Typical Problem in a particular era; and most historical fiction for young people reflects a sort of bland consensus view of history, something that is acceptable to teach in schools.Octavian Nothing is not most historical fiction.

Picking up where the first book left off, Octavian — a slave raised in luxury with a first-rate education as part of an experiment — enlists with the Royal Ethiopian Regiment, which has promised to free any Rebel-owned slaves that join up. There he encounters war, friendship, heartbreak, betrayal, the difficulty of fitting in when he fits in nowhere. He has spent his childhood learning Latin and violin fugues, where his comrades have spent theirs on plantations. Octavian’s cultural heritage is extremely complex. He has been given music and religion – but has been deprived of the music and religion of his own people. The novel refuses to make an easy calculation of what he has gained and lost.

We see Octavian’s growing maturity as he acquires wisdom — and also cynicism. Is selfishness at the core of human nature, human existence? Can success — or survival — only be achieved at the expense of others? And if so, how do we reconcile ourselves with that?

The issue of historical memory is one I’ve been deeply interested in for some years now. There is probably no nation on earth that has never, somewhere in its history, committed war crimes or genocide, that has no scars on its conscience. It’s easy to say, it’s history, it’s in the past. It’s too easy; the past is never past. Octavian Nothing is willing to confront that, to ask hard questions. To refuse to provide easy answers to them. It asks how we can reconcile ourselves with our past — with our present — and says, maybe we don’t. Maybe we can’t.

What a profoundly troubling and beautiful piece of work.

 

Octavian Nothing II will be published in October.

Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother17-year-old hacker, tinkerer, and gamer Marcus finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when he skips school and gets caught in the worst incident of terrorism in the U.S. He gets separated from his friends, detained by Homeland Security.

As the government starts encroaching more and more on civil liberties, Marcus is determined to get back at DHS, stop the questioning and detainment of innocent civilians, and generally take back the government from the law-and-order-at-all-costs brigade. Tall order for a junior in high school.

This is not a far-future dystopia. It is about the world now. (Based on Marcus having a Sega Dreamcast when he was seven, and discussions of the upcoming midterm elections, I’d put the date at 2010. I’m not sure if the technology is there yet, but certainly Doctorow would know more about that than I would!) It is, specifically, about the situation in the U.S. in the present day, not some handwavy analogy of a dystopia. It is also a manual to do exactly what Marcus does. Mind you, it’s not filled with lines of code and technical detail. (You can look up all that stuff on Wikipedia). It’s just enough to make you go, “Oh, cool!” – or else, “Oh, no!”… and to inspire you to take a few pages from Marcus’s playbook.

Which makes it a really important book.

But it’s something else again that makes it a whole lot of fun. Doctorow – well, he named his daughter Poesy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus. That just about says it all. It’s a fast-paced technothriller packed with offhand nifty ideas and references and in-jokes. If you’re at all familiar with Scrotumgate from last year, you’ll know why this was my favorite:

“Did she use the scrotum line on you? I hate it when she does that. She just loves the word ‘scrotum,’ you know. It’s nothing personal.”

I’m thrilled when I read a boy book that’s filled with information and technology and the things that guys will voluntarily read about if they won’t voluntarily read about things like feelings, and is also plenty good on its own literary merits. It’s icing on the cake when that book is also politically conscious, socially relevant, and smart as all get-out. (Of course, that’s not to say that girls shouldn’t read it too!)

In short: it’s made of awesome.