Imagine a lethal virus decimating most of the world’s population. Then imagine that all that has survived for future generations are the words of a teenager. Not just any teenager, but one with a penchant for combining words just because she thinks they sound cool (e.g. freaking + idiot = fridiot, freaking + creepy = freepy). Now imagine a world where Facebook is the guide to living right, “crupid” is part of the vocabulary, and “whatever” is a form of prayer.
On one hand, Sara Grant’s Half Lives could be seen as a sobering commentary on the devastating effects of nuclear waste. The story touches on terrorism and biowarfare, and makes a convincing argument about the horrors we humans inflict upon each other. On the other hand, the novel can also be seen as social satire — words and symbols that mean nothing to us can easily take on sacred meaning when taken out of context. Could the worship of the Great I AM, founded upon the group leader’s infinity symbol birthmark and based upon the teachings of Facebook, be a rather pointed dig at blind obedience to religious institutions? The problem is, as a reader well-familiar with the original context for these cultural icons and rather grouchily unimpressed by words like “freepy,” I was just annoyed.
The story switches between time periods and points of view. In the present day, seventeen year old Icie escapes the virus along with three other teenagers by hiding in an abandoned nuclear facility hidden inside a mountain near Las Vegas. The teens with her — spoiled rich boy, head cheerleader, and mysterious hot boy — aren’t particularly memorable, though I found Grant’s portrayal of one of the teens’ descent into madness interesting and I wish Grant had explored that character more. Random pieces of literature — To Kill a Mockingbird and Waiting for Godot — are conveniently brought into the story when the author wants to make a point, but neither is used enough to create a potent metaphor.
Generations in the future, Becket is a leader of a group of young people who live in the mountain. They have their own rules, based upon aphorisms paired with smiley faces. Again, on one hand, it’s somewhat believable and realistic; on the other hand, it’s simply annoying. Makes me wonder if some of the writers of religious texts may have included their own language’s version of “whatever” and we just have no idea. Becket’s group refuses to leave the mountain, because they believe crossing a border means instant death, as well because they fear running into Terrorists, whom they imagine as hulking beasts. This storyline had potential, and I really liked the character of Harper, Becket’s best friend and on the losing end of a love triangle. I also liked the storyline about the power struggle Becket has to face.
There are a few scenes in the book that pack an emotional punch, and the themes it raises certainly need contemplating. Unfortunately, much like the Facebook aphorisms of the Great I AM, the story remains comfortably on the surface and never quite brings the edge it promises. I wonder what an author like Margaret Atwood or Suzanne Collins would have brought to this concept.
Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.