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Book Review: Free to Fall by Lauren Miller

In the future, Apple and Google are no more. Gnosis is the technology corporation that rules the day, in part with a device called Lux. Lux knows everything about you and helps you make optimal decisions. It keeps you on task and on time, it minimizes your need to be involved in very basic decision-making, and it helps you be the best you. At least that’s what they want you to believe.

Rory has just been accepted to the elite Theden Academy. She soon learns that not everything is as it seems and finds herself involved in unraveling the pieces of not only her own past, but of the world’s future as she learns just what lengths some people will go to in order to make money and take control. Along the way she doesn’t know who to trust, though she does find herself needing the help of a hacker named North (a thrilling romance ensues).

Free to Fall is a very interesting look at a future in which people become overly reliant on their handheld technology and major corporations use that reliance to try and take over the world in what I can only describe as some pretty awesome conspiracy theories. There are secret societies with clandestine initiations, secret codes to break, and really a lot of very cool philosophical discussions thrown in. A little Da Vinci Code for teens mixed with some Michael Crichton techno thriller. It gets a little absurd, as these things tend to do, but it is a fun, high octane ride. In the end you feel like there is no way 3 teenagers can stand up against a conspiracy theory Goliath of this proportion and live, but Miller manages to handle the scenarios in ways that are plausible enough to make the book work. I would highly recommend the book for the fun factor alone, if I were not completely torn about one very problematic scene.

The Problematic Scene

So now that I’ve told you that I really liked the book, let’s discuss a scene that was very problematic for me.

Here’s a brief overview of what happens: Rory goes to a coffee shop and orders her regular, a Lux app approved vanilla cappuccino. Hunky barista boy, who will of course be North, teases her for her bland order and reliance on the Lux app, suggests something else, and then seems to acquiesce and produce the drink she orders. She takes a sip of her drink and realizes he has added some extra spices to it, including things like Cayenne Pepper, to give it a little kick. She wants to be mad, but it tastes so good and he was right so darn it she just can’t be really. I had a very strong reaction to this scene.

I understand what Miller was trying to do with this scene in terms of showing the reader how the reliance on the decision making device Lux was limiting people’s experiences while introducing us to a major character, but this needed to be done in a different way that didn’t reinforce dangerous and demeaning cultural norms that imply we can just do what we want to someone else because we know what they really want, or need, or what is better for them. The way this scene plays out really takes away Rory’s agency. This scene sent alarm bells up for me and it should for any reader who understands what respecting a person should look like, and this is not it.

Here’s the deal, it stinks of misogynistic overtones, it is disrespectful and it is downright dangerous. 1 in 12 people has some type of a food allergy/intolerance. In fact, it has already been established that Rory has a deadly peanut allergy. It is never okay to put things into people’s drinks (or food or person) without their knowledge or consent. Besides being incredibly creepy, disrespectful and rude, it can be deadly because the person may have unknown food reactions. In fact, one of the things Lux does is help Rory manage her food allergies by analyzing ingredients and telling her what to order, an app that many food allergy sufferers would greatly appreciate. He wasn’t slipping her a roofie, but it was very reminiscent of this idea that it is okay to put something unknown into someone else’s drink without their knowledge or consent. And I can’t emphasize this enough but this is a very dangerous practice.

In addition, I loathed the misogynistic overtones of this scene that reinforced the cultural norms that basically read like this: this silly/boring girl doesn’t know what’s good for her, but the all knowing man will show her what she really wants/needs. And to make matters worse, the author makes him right and justified in his behavior because she loved it and feels that she can’t speak up for herself because she did like it. We live in a too slowly evolving patriarchal society that often suggests that men know better than women what is right for women, and the way that this scene plays out reinforces that narrative and takes away Rory’s agency. Again, this idea is very demeaning and dangerous.

I think it was even more problematic because later the two develop a relationship and never once does she mention that this was an issue for her. When she takes her first sip it is something she notes as upsetting her, but she never states it out loud because she feels like she doesn’t have any ground to stand on because it does in fact taste delicious. In fact, she keeps going back for more. It would have been nice if the author had allowed Rory to take a moment to tell North that this was not okay behavior. But better yet, it would have been more effective if Miller achieved the narrative goals of this scene in a less alarming way. For example, North could have presented the drink to her with a note that he had spiced it up a little bit and asked her to try it with the caveat that if she didn’t like it, he would give her what she ordered free of charge. This would have fully informed her, allowing her the opportunity to consent to what she was ingesting into her body while also challenging her to think outside of the Lux decision making app.

So I am completely torn about this book. I found the plot to be very interesting and entertaining, but that scene was so problematic for me that I am hesitant to recommend it because it reinforces what I feel are dangerous cultural norms.

I really liked the discussion and found the book fun and entertaining. I don’t know what rating to give it because, for me, that scene is obviously an issue. And in the interest of full disclosure, I have a child with multiple dangerous food allergies. Without the scene or with a different version of the scene I would give it 4 stars. With it, maybe 2 and a half.

Publisher’s Description: What if there was an app that told you what song to listen to, what coffee to order, who to date, even what to do with your life—an app that could ensure your complete and utter happiness? What if you never had to fail or make a wrong choice?

What if you never had to fall?

Fast-forward to a time when Apple and Google have been replaced by Gnosis, a monolith corporation that has developed the most life-changing technology to ever hit the market: Lux, an app that flawlessly optimizes decision making for the best personal results. Just like everyone else, sixteen-year-old Rory Vaughn knows the key to a happy, healthy life is following what Lux recommends. When she’s accepted to the elite boarding school Theden Academy, her future happiness seems all the more assured. But once on campus, something feels wrong beneath the polished surface of her prestigious dream school. Then she meets North, a handsome townie who doesn’t use Lux, and begins to fall for him and his outsider way of life. Soon, Rory is going against Lux’s recommendations, listening instead to the inner voice that everyone has been taught to ignore — a choice that leads her to uncover a truth neither she nor the world ever saw coming. (from Goodreads)

Free to Fall by Lauren Miller will be published in May 2014 by Harper Teen. ISBN: 978-0-06-219982-9.