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Blackout by Robison Wells and How I Learned to Question What Teens Are Learning About the Government

Two interesting things happened last month: I read Blackout by Robison Wells and we learned that the NSA is getting access to a large amount of data about ordinary American citizens.  And this past week, Salon has been running a series of articles about militant police forces.  These combination of events really made me wonder:  Will teens today even know to question these type of revelations and wonder why they should be concerned?

Laura and Alec are trained terrorists.

Jack and Aubrey are high school students.

There was no reason for them to ever meet.

But now, a mysterious virus is spreading throughout America, infecting teenagers with impossible powers. And these four are about to find their lives intertwined in a complex web of deception, loyalty, and catastrophic danger—where one wrong choice could trigger an explosion that ends it all. (Goodreads)

Teens today are living in a post 9/11 world.  The youngest of teens will now never remember that you could go wait with your friends at the airline terminal, that you could keep your shoes on and not be x-rayed by strangers just to get past security.  They will never know what it was like not to have an easily tracked cell phone (actually, our poorer teens will, but that is an entirely different issue).  They will never know what it is like not to have a camera on every store front where their progress simply walking down a street can simply and quickly be retraced.  Which is why we need books not only like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, but books like Blackout by Robison Wells.

In Blackout, a virus causes genetic mutations that cause teens to develop “powers”.  Some of the teens are used by a terrorist group to attack the United States so the military swoops in and takes all of the teens to what are basically internment camps. In these camps the teens are tested to see if they have powers and basically logged into a military database.  The government then tries to recruit those teens that test positive to help them fight the war against the terrorists.  The only way to fight terrorist teens with super powers is to recruit other terrorist teens with super powers.  So teens that do have powers are not truly as free as those teens that do no have powers.  And all teens must wear a bracelet to show that they have been tested.  And yes, there is a lot of symbolism that will bring to mind things like World War II and the Jewish Holocaust, though there are definitely some unique twists here.

Blackout is a really interesting book.  And it is thrilling.  But as I read it I thought, would teens today even question it if the government came in and rounded them all up as they do in this book?  Which is one of the reasons why teens need to be reading books like this.  One of the best things about Science Fiction is how it can make us think about the things happening in our world by creating an abstract version of the world that challenges our current beliefs.  We can read The Hunger Games so voraciously in part because there is a part of us that can see our world headed in that direction.  It is the same for Blackout.  Sure, there is probably never going to be a virus that gives teenagers X-Men like superpowers, but this scenario can still help us to think about things like personal freedom, the limits of government, and how we respond to and treat those that are different from us.

Blackout is also interesting in that it specifically creates a world where terrorism is rampant.  This is book one in a series so we don’t know a lot about the motivations of the terrorists, but we definitely see the effects of both living in this daily terror and in how much they have decimated this future United States.  It is interesting to note that even though we have been living under a color coded terrorist alert system since 2002, not much of the young adult literature being written today speaks specifically about terrorism.  And, as a bonus, Wells creates a way to talk about terrorism without vilifying any particular people group by creating this implausible scenario.  Like I said, we don’t know who the terrorists are at this point and what their motivation is, but I sincerely hope it doesn’t turn out to be a scenario that reinforces current stereotypes.

My only issue with Blackout is that it is coming out at the end of a year when there have already been a lot – and I do mean A LOT – of books that involve teen characters that have some type of X-Men like abilities.  The abilities in this one are varied and cool, and it is interesting to see how they can be used and the tension they create.  Wells puts his main characters in some unique scenarios that really amp up the tension and there are times when even you, the reader, have no idea who is who and on what side.  Blackout definitely excels as a thriller.  I highly recommend this book.

Blackout by Robison Wells will be released by HarperTeen in October of 2013.  ISBN: 9780062026125

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