Saturday, March 5, 2016

MARTians, by Blythe Woolston

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Set in the near-future, Blythe Woolston’s young adult novel MARTians is a darkly comic, dystopian tale of ubiquitous corporate control and shopping gone mad. It’s so close to the bone it often makes you shiver.

Sixteen-year-old Zoe Zindleman finds herself suddenly graduated from school. An e-tificate of graduation is zipped to her smartphone, along with a job referral. The reason for the instant graduation? Her school has been privatised. The Governor, being fiscally responsible, is determined to balance the books, so he’s simply sold the school. Zoe is lucky to be one of the top kids in her class. She’s been virtually promised a job at either ALLMart or Q-Mart (she decides on ALLMart). A lot of the other kids are not so lucky. A large cohort of poor performers are simply handcuffed and sent off to the penitentiary.

Corporate life, as you’d expect, is a nightmare. Zoe is renamed Zero by ALLMart, her corporate name printed on her identity badge. When her first paycheck is zinged to her smartphone, she gets the shock of her life. Once all the company’s costs are deducted (the uniform is hellishly expensive), Zoe finds she’s actually in debt to ALLMart. (Later in the novel, when Zoe runs away, she gets a message from the company’s HR manager announcing that she herself is corporate property, and that she is now at risk of being prosecuted for stealing from ALLMart!)

Adding to Zoe’s woes, her house has been sold and her mother has fled in search of work. When Zoe meets Timmer on the job at ALLMart, he tells her she can save money on accommodation by moving in with him and some other employees at a place called the Warren, an old, dingy, disused strip mall. Dickensian urchin like characters such as 5er, a mute boy, Pineapple and Luck live or hangout there. Zoe finds daily life both absurd and a struggle. One of her jobs at ALLMart is to clean out the change rooms, which customers simply use as a toilet. After many bizarre corporate experiences, things really go pear shaped when a baby is left at Baby Escape, ALLMart’s child minding service. (The babies are given sippy cups laced with a sleeping drug.) Zoe’s attempt to rectify the problem doesn’t work out as planned and the baby is simply dumped outside a hospital. When the news hits the outraged Channel 42, the hunt is on to find out who is responsible.

This is a ripper of a book. It’s blackly comic, inventive, intelligent and sharply observed. Woolston’s imagined world of ALLMart is not too far from how we live now. Satire runs along at a clip, just keeping ahead of reality. MARTians shows what a logical extension of current corporate ideology into our lives would look like. Woolston’s style and wit are quite accomplished and I’d happily liken MARTians to works of a similar theme by Margaret Atwood, such as The Edible Woman and her most recent, The Heart Goes Last. High praise indeed.

MARTians, by Blythe Woolston. Published by Walker Books. ISBN: 9781406341393 RRP: $16.99

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