Man-Made Escape by H. M. Stanton

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

It’s not all parkour and revolution, being special. Sometimes it can be quite stressful. Man-Made Escape by H. M. Stanton is a YA sci-fi novel about a girl who really needs a vacation from living in a dystopian, engineered society.

Dahlia22020302 lives on a planetoid thing in the near future exactly three hundred years after Covid hit the eastern seaboard (that’s not a plot device or anything, it’s just how I measure time), along with her friends Friend220375974 and Friend2247504416. She is about to turn eighteen (just like you, reader!), which means she will soon have to take the aptitude test that will determine the job she does for the good of the planet, forever. Her hope is to be assigned to the Chronicle building, where her thirst for knowledge about the past can be satiated. She feels more comfortable around old books than around most people (again, sound familiar?)

“Ginormous awkward objects float down the street.”

As someone dumb enough to have multiple history degrees, I can relate to the romantic allure and mystery of the past. You put on your cute little pith helmet and machete your way through moldering tomes of ancient knowledge, expecting to find the ivy-clad pillars of distant societies: wood paneling, mustache competitions, maritime discipline. Instead it’s mostly an exercise in organization and data entry, with exciting episodes of frantic searching for notes on racist memoirs or arguing over the phone about collections too delicate to be pressed between the calloused, non-virginal fingers of a real human. Give it a month and our intrepid chornonaut will be begging to return to her dystopian Saved By the Bell remake.

Of course there is more at stake than simply failing a placement test and being doomed to wring out the sweat towels inside mascot costumes for the rest of her life. Dee is also afraid that the Founders, who run the world with brutal efficiency, will discover her transgressions against social order. These include her two secret friends. You’re not supposed to have friends on this planet. There is a girl who has sat next to her in class for years whom Dee does not know in the slightest. How you’re supposed to keep a friendship a secret when the kids apparently all go to school together and eat lunch together is beyond me, but I guess they use hand signals under the table or something. And what kind of YA protagonist would she be without inexplicable visions? D has a recurring dream about a soldier who seems to have some connection to the past.

This is where the story misses the Divergent mark. Divergent, for all its faults, was based on a brilliant premise. You need your YA protagonist to be special in some way, and have plenty of opportunities to do amazing things. But they also need to be relatable. What if you make it so that your protagonist is a super special person by being exactly as ordinary as the reader? It’s frankly a genius move, and those books probably would have redefined the genre if they hadn’t killed it instead. That’s the significance of the placing ceremony; but here the fact of the ceremony is divorced of its literary purpose, like Tolkienian elves in a David Eddings novel. Dee is a space alien living on a space alien world, and has to find other ways to serve as a reader insert.

“I take another drink. It is fruity and sweet. I have never heard of wine before, and I think I like it.”

But really, this is a throw back to way before Divergent. Utopian settings are almost inherently distasteful to teenagers. At least since the early 00s YA dystopia has been less about seemingly perfect societies gone subtly wrong, and more about societies that are obviously broken. Imagine the difference between The Giver and The Hunger Games. Actually, that would be a really fun cross-over. Katniss grows up in happy, pleasant District 12, only to discover that Peeta is so good at hiding because everyone’s color blind, and colicky babies are secretly forced to fight to the death. I’m calling dibs on this one right now. Don’t nobody NaNoWriMo my idea out from under me, I will cut you.

The one thing I do find very relatable is the fact that she is constantly terrified of everything. Anxiety is her horcrux. She spends a good portion of the book agitating her acid reflux over one imagined danger or the other, from state punishment and separation from her friends, to power outages and VR headsets. Can’t trust Teacher85857742631. Can’t trust your own sleep. She’s basically a human mouse.

“I am very plain and boring. Luckily, I only have to see my reflection once a year, during our annual physical.”

I don’t have to tell you that Dee gets her wish of working at the Chronicle building. The Founders take an interest in her early on, though it is unclear if they are curious about her high test scores or something else, and she is whisked away to begin her training. When she is introduced to videos of old Earth, we get a gonzo description of what I assume is a recording of a mall Santa, just to give us a taste of what marvels await her as the curator of her people’s past. Alternatively, this might be how they weed out the people who aren’t serious about spending the rest of their lives hunched over an IKEA desk trying to read the handwriting of dead racists until their eyes bleed. Hypothetically speaking.

For the first third or so of Man-Made Escape I was bored to tears. Stanton has a way of describing things in the most basic way possible, like Hemingway editing Simple English Wikipedia. We get general information about size and color, our protagonist’s emotion (unease), and occasionally something about what the latest metal hallways looks like. But it gets better later on, as the problems weighing on Dee compound. Once the “presence” plot line kicks in, things get interesting. I still wish Stanton had more interest in the nuts and bolts of ordinary prose, but I’m not gonna pretend I had a bad time. This is the very definition of consumable, disposable genre pulp, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. If you’re mad that traditional publishers have declared YA sci-fi dystopia a dead genre, this will provide you with two or three enjoyable afternoons. It’s a perfect three dollars on Kindle.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.

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