Bluescreen by Dan Wells

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I don’t usually read Young Adult, but I really liked this one. (As an aside, I’ve often wondered what makes a particular book YA and I’ve come across many different answers over the years. Some people would say that what distinguishes YA from other genres is that there’s less swearing, sex, and violence, however I don’t think this is it since many YA stories actually contain above-average swearing, sex, and violence. Some say the only thing that makes a story YA is if the main character is a young adult, but many sections of the Game of Thrones series are told from a young adult perspective and it’s not considered YA. Also, the Hobbit and other stories are considered YA even though they’re not told from a young adult’s perspective.

I think Cory Doctorow gave the best definition of YA when he said it’s fiction written for young adults, and what separates young adults from old adults is that they lack context. So if you’re specifically writing for young adults, you need to provide more context than you would for older readers. Other than that, YA is no different from anything else. I’ve also heard there’s a new genre called New Adult which focuses on college-age people rather than high-schoolers. This makes one wonder why there isn’t a genre specifically for 30-somethings, 40-somethings, etc. But I digress.)

In real life, Marisa is a high school student, but in the virtual realm, she and her friends are semi-pro gamers trying to break into the big leagues. She often skips school since she’s able to do most of her classes online and she’s able to use her hacking skills to give herself good grades in the classes she can’t take online. Marisa’s close-knit Mexican family runs a restaurant, although they do have to pay protection money to the local gang. Marisa herself has a prosthetic arm due to a childhood car accident, which also means she has a phobia of human-driven cars. Fortunately, she lives in a future world in which human-driven cars are pretty much a thing of the past.

She lives in Los Angeles in the year 2050. Robots do nearly everything from being waiters to picking up laundry from the floor, resulting in massive unemployment. Most people have computers in their heads, which is convenient, but it also means they get constantly hounded by personalized ads, so good anti-virus software is a must. Video games are able to utilize all five senses and people in clubs can give themselves synesthesia to see the music and so forth. There’s also a new digital drug called Bluescreen which gives people a moment of euphoria, although it also allows someone to hack in and take direct control of them. When one of her friends is taken over by Bluescreen, Marisa must use all of her skills to track down who’s behind it.

The characters in this book are diverse not just in terms of gender, sexual orientation, race, and nationality, but also socioeconomic class. Since they presumably met playing online video games, it makes sense such a diverse group of kids would befriend each other.

Marisa’s friend Sahara has a couple drones which follow her around doing a live webcast of her life. Her friend Bao still uses an old-fashioned cell phone since his job as a pickpocket would be hampered by having a computer in his head that tracks him. Marisa’s rich friend Anja is dating Omar, the son of the crime boss who is shaking down Marisa’s parents, which adds some interesting tension. Marisa also has a couple online friends who live in completely different parts of the world.

I can’t help but compare this book to Snow Crash, which I read at least half a dozen times back when I was a young adult (It’s also a major inspiration for my own novel, Close Your Eyes and Run). Snow Crash is another cyberpunk novel that takes place partly in virtual reality and that’s also named after a dangerous digital drug. I’ve got to say, Bluescreen delivers a more realistic near future than the satirical Snow Crash did. The world feels more lived in.

This book features really strong world building. We don’t just get virtual reality, self-driving cars, and a sky full of drones doing everything from delivery, window washing, security, picking up litter, and acting as personal bodyguards. We also get new pop culture trends, racial integration, new name brands, ubiquitous advertising, new styles of music, gang members using rail guns, and tough guys branding their skin instead of getting tattoos since tattoos are too easy to remove.

It’s nice to see “frack” is still a swear in 2050. Monty Python and My Little Pony references are also still a thing. I could totally relate to Marisa’s frustration at being locked out of an account after not remembering a password, since the password usually gets entered automatically. This book is really funny in places, and also has a really high cool factor.

It’s not a perfect book, though. I felt like it fell apart a bit at the end. There’s a plot hole regarding Sahara’s online audience paying attention to her live feed one moment, but then not paying attention to it the next. There’s also a scene in which a one-armed Marisa ties someone up without difficulty and another scene in which her dad sleeps through shots being fired in the same room. I felt like the villain wasn’t three dimensional enough. I also would have thought a world filled with security cameras wouldn’t have quite so much crime.

Nevertheless, this is likely the most plausible near future world I’ve ever read about in fiction and Marisa is a really cool character. Highly recommended.

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