REVIEW: Pure by Julianna Baggott
Dear Ms. Baggott,
With the buzz over The Hunger Games trilogy, YA dystopian novels are hotter than ever right now – even an infrequent YA reader like myself knows that. I’ll admit to being party to the general enthusiasm. I like dystopian novels in general (at least in theory; in practice I’m careful about which ones I read, because some of them are just too grim for me). But YA seems particularly suited to dystopian themes, perhaps because depressing subjects can be a little less so when seen through the eyes of the young, who may have more resiliency and less to lose than older protagonists. I also think that even at my age I retain a certain visceral thrill at the idea of being young and suddenly unconstrained by the rules that govern society (of course, the characters in these novels often face other, more difficult challenges). In addition to really liking The Hunger Games trilogy, several years ago I read and loved How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, which was a rather low-tech and straight-forward story with dystopian themes. So I’m always on the lookout for similar books.
Pure definitely had some similarity to The Hunger Games; less so to How I Live Now, in that the post-apocalyptic world of Pure is definitely more science-fictiony than those two books. Some of the creatures created by the apocalyptic event (called “the Detonations” in Pure) almost seem supernatural to me, though there’s no suggestion that they are not the natural result of what happened. It’s just that they seemed so fantastical to me and the science behind them is never explained, which leaves me wondering how they came to be. (The author’s note at the end suggests that she did do some research with nanotechnology experts, but since I didn’t read that until I was done with the book, it didn’t really help me.)
Anyway…Pure begins by introducing the reader to Pressia Belze, a 15-going-on-16-year-old (more on this in a moment). She lives with her grandfather in the burned-out husk of former barbershop. Some time (perhaps a decade) before, the Detonations occurred; the Detonations appear to have been some sort of bomb or bombs, as the name would suggest. Apparently similar in scale to an atomic bomb, the Detonations cause a specific and horrifying sort of damage. Many are killed, and the survivors exist in poverty and misery. Well, some of the survivors. An unspecified number had escaped before the Detonations to a planned artificial community called the Dome. Those within the Dome are safe from the Detonations and continue their lives in a rigidly controlled and sterile environment, waiting for the day that the Earth will be renewed and they can rejoin their brethren outside in the real world.
Pressia’s age is an issue because 16 year olds are compelled to report to the OSR, a sort of militia that controls what’s left of society. Children taken by the OSR are forced to either become OSR killers or used as target practice for other OSR recruits. Pressia and her grandfather must make a decision about whether to try to evade the OSR (which would mean certain death if she were caught) or not.
Meanwhile, within the Dome, a teenage boy named Partridge is beginning to awaken to some truths about his past. His father, Willux, is a high muckity-muck in Dome society, a scientist who was one of the chief architects of the Dome. Partridge’s mother supposedly died in the Detonations, and his older brother, the golden boy Sedge, committed suicide. Partridge is a disappointment to his father in part because he is resistant to “coding”, the genetic manipulation that the scientists within the Dome use to create super-soldiers.
The world of Pure feels artificial, or at least incomplete. It’s unclear what happened to the rest of the world, and it’s hard to get a sense of exactly how big the world the characters inhabit is. How big is the Dome – the size of a small city? A large city? Bigger? Smaller? I had no idea, and that bothered me. The scale of the world outside the Dome is similarly vague, and there is no mention of what happened to the rest of the world. (Come to think of it, was that ever addressed in The Hunger Games? Now that’s bothering me….)
The inauthenticity problem kept cropping up for me. One of the central conceits of Pure is that those left outside the Dome during the Detonations were altered by them in strange ways, usually involving having inanimate or animate objects fused to their bodies. In Pressia’s case, it’s a doll’s head in place of (or over? I was never clear on this) one of her hands. Her grandfather has a fan lodged in his throat. Another teen, Bradwell, has birds fused into his back, birds that somehow remain alive enough to occasionally flutter their wings, though they don’t seem to eat or poop or caw or do anything else that birds do. A third character has his younger brother fused to his back; in that case, the brother does eat, and talk, though he appears to be mentally retarded or brain-damaged.
The concept was intriguing, but it didn’t hold up to scrutiny much. I don’t know if my problem was that I’m too scientifically minded or not scientifically minded enough. I kept wondering, in the case of fusing with non-sentient objects, how the objects didn’t end up causing infections. In the case of, say, the birds on Bradwell’s back, I was even more confused. Were they somehow parasitically living off Bradwell? How would that work? Wouldn’t their life span be different from his, and if so, would their deaths effect his health? There is a suggestion at one point that the detonations were of some sort of weapon that changed the people and objects outside on a molecular level – at least that was how I understood it. But it was so beyond my understanding of the way things work that it almost seemed to be more magic than science involved. I couldn’t help but feel that the author was more moved by a cool-sounding concept – a doll head for a hand! birds that flutter their wings imbedded in one’s back! – than that she was really working from a well-thought out theory about the world she was creating. Again, maybe this is all explained by nanotechnology; I really wouldn’t know (that’s putting it mildly; my knowledge of nanotechnology begins and ends with my ability to spell the word). But I wished there was more detail – I even would’ve accepted an info dump – that put the strange mutations caused by the Detonations in some sort of context I could begin to understand.
As I mentioned, the Detonations happened about a decade before the book begins, but in some ways the time feels shorter than that. I would have expected that more of a civilization would have emerged; things on the outside are pretty chaotic, and everyone just seems to accept that. Now, it may be that there is manipulation from inside the Dome to keep things that way (I hope I’m not giving too much away by suggesting that the architects of the Dome aren’t exactly benevolent), but that’s just a guess; it’s not something that’s suggested in the text. There is a market of sorts that Pressia barters at, proving I guess that commerce is the hardest thing to kill, but no schools or organized workforce (beyond the OSR) seemed to exist. I can’t say I know how people would react after an apocalyptic event that destroyed society, but I feel like there would be some effort to approximate normalcy, even if it was a harrowing and miserable facsimile of it.
Pure definitely contains some not-so-subtle political messages – not ones I disagreed with, but they may bug some readers. Society was obviously somewhat troubled before the Detonations – there are mentions of the asylums and prisons being full, for one thing. The prevailing thought within in the Dome seems to be that a lack of “civility” and “purity” were the main problems that plagued society, but their definitions of such concepts are a little twisted. There’s a heavy dose of eugenics in the notion of being “pure”, though the term is also used by those on the outside to denote those within the Dome, who avoided being physically marred by the Detonations as apparently everyone outside was. Also, Dome society is depicted as pretty rigidly old-fashioned in regards to gender roles: the boys train to be soldiers and the girls are expected to see their highest calling as mothers.
In addition to being somewhat flummoxed by the scale of the society depicted in Pure, I was confused by the idea that those within the Dome would anxiously anticipate the day that they could rejoin the outside world – a world that supposedly would be reborn and renewed at some future point. Again, only going by my own hazy scientific understanding of the weapons used in the Detonations, and using the still-present manifestations of the damage they wrought – omnipresent ash and mutations – as a reference point, I wouldn’t think that rebirth and renewal would be happening in anyone’s lifetime, or their children’s, or their children’s children’s children’s, if you get my drift. What I’m saying is, I don’t really understand anyone within the Dome being emotionally invested in the day that Dome folk would once again walk in the sunshine, since it seemed like it could be hundreds and hundreds of years off.
That’s before you even get to the “meltlands” of destroyed neighborhoods, the periodic “death sprees”, and the dust monsters – terrifying (though again somewhat biologically improbable) creatures that rise up and devour unwary humans. Granted, those within the Dome don’t necessarily know the reality of life on the outside, though they know it’s not good (presumably, they are told just enough horror stories to discourage them from thinking of trying to get out and see for themselves). But still, it feels like this idea – that the Detonations were done to scrub the Earth of all its unsavory elements, allowing for a fresh start at some point in the future – is an interesting one that is just not that well thought out.
There’s a lot going on in Pure – a lot of the stuff that happens later in the book is probably too spoilery to even allude to. There are several significant characters besides Pressia and Partridge: Bradwell, a young man who has escaped the OSR’s notice and lives outside even the marginal society that exists outside; Lyda, a Dome girl whose involvement with Partridge ends up costing her a lot, but which also opens her eyes to the reality of life both in and outside; and El Capitan, an OSR commander who comes to have divided loyalties as the story progresses.
Pressia and Partridge, for all that they are the leads, aren’t really the characters who interested me the most in the story. For all the strangeness of the world, they feel like fairly conventional characters. So too was Bradwell. I actually found Lyda and El Capitan the most interesting. Lyda really has her world turned upside in Pure – actually, all the main characters do, with the possible exception of Bradwell. I’m not sure why I found her more interesting that Pressia – maybe because, having more, she gave up much more when she accepted that everything she knew was a lie. El Capitan is in some way’s Lyda’s opposite, though he also has been led to believe things about life in and outside the Dome that aren’t true. But rather than being kept in innocence, he’s been fashioned into something hard and cold – which makes the strong spark of humanity beneath the tough surface all the more appealing.
Something I should probably note: the story is told in first person present tense. I found this distracting at first but quickly got used to it. I do know that some readers are picky about such things, though.
Ultimately, Pure was a bit of a mish-mash for me: a lot of good ideas that felt like they were better in concept than execution, some characters that didn’t interest me very much and some that interested me a lot, and a plot that was crammed full. The last half or third (with all the spoilery developments) was fast-paced and kept me absorbed, and I’m interested enough to want to check out the next book in the series. My grade: B-.
Great review! somehow, I think that dystopian stories are the new ‘vampire’ stories in YA.
“The scale of the world outside the Dome is similarly vague, and there is no mention of what happened to the rest of the world.”
I don’t this is addressed in ‘Divergent’ either.
Re: things fused to people
That sounds like a more severe effect of an atomic bomb. The author may have been thinking of a cross between an atomic bomb and something that had some kind of nanotechnology. When I was a kid in Hiroshima, we had an old neighbor who had survived the bomb and managed to walk to his in-laws house in Nagasaki, where he got bombed again. The printed pattern of his shirt (yukata) had been permanently burned into his skin. He spent a lot of time trying to get the Japanese government to acknowledge that some people had survived both bombs and would show us what had happened. That’s another story.
Nanotechnology is technology but on a much smaller scale than what we’re capable of doing now. “Nano” comes from nanometer == 1 billionth of a meter. So nanotechnology is the technology of working with matter (ie building stuff) between 1 and 100 nanometers, which is about the molecular or atomic level. In sci fi, nanotechnology seems to show up a lot in medical applications (stuff being grafted onto people’s bones, etc.). Think Tony Stark’s heart in Iron Man but on a much smaller level.
So, I have this bird phobia. I know, I know, it’s totally irrational. It doesn’t keep me from doing anything I want to do, though. I can deal–hell, I’ve walked through the Piazza San Marco in Venice. It’s Pigeon City, and though I did duck a few times and made my friends laugh hysterically at me, I still did it. BUT. Birds fused to the guy’s back? Oh Lordy. And they still flutter? Eek! I couldn’t even read farther in the review. Ew, ew, ew!
Hmm, the hubby (a nanotechnology professor) isn’t here for me to check with him, but from my understanding, nanotech is primarily used for fabrication purposes and building new layers onto other surfaces that could not be done through traditional chem, engineering and bio techniques. A lot of fear exists around nanotech (and I don’t discount the precautionary principle at all), but a lot of the fear is based on misconceptions since the molecular manipulations and technologies are themselves not easily replicable on their own as some horror stories would assume. The real concerns are around what the impact of these technologies will be on human health and the wider environment.
A nanotech bomb, if that were theoretically possible, probably wouldn’t result in nanotech-like fusions afterward since a nanotech bomb would simply mean the device itself was made through those fabrication techniques. While it’s feasible that some of the after effects could mimic an atomic bomb if the bomb itself was an atomic bomb made through nanotechnology techniques, I don’t think it’s possible that a bomb could ‘unleash the crazy nanotechnology’ onto the word. Nanotech is an excessively precise and finicky science according to by husband, and manipulates at the molecular level. A bird or doll is not ‘the molecular level’. A layer of a specialized kind of plastic, maybe (if the intervention was there to do the grafting) but not a doll head. That just needs a needle and thread. Or a good flame hot enough to melt a hand and plastic. Sometimes I think simple explanations are better than taking extreme liberties with new technologies.
Okay, with that rant over, I’m glad you point out the nanotech issues in this book because I was looking forward to reading this, but I don’t think I could handle it without asking my husband a million questions, which would just ruin the experience anyway!
I once got a pigeon stuck in my hair in the middle of a busy downtown centre. It was the most horrifying experience ever!
Oh dear heavens. That’s gonna haunt me. I’ve never in my life seen so many pigeons in one place as just about every city I visited when I went to Europe. I never did get used to it, though I managed not to lose my shit in public.
The objects-fused-to-people idea makes me think of China Mieville’s Remade, who I’ve always found both horrifying and fascinating (as I suspect is intended). But it sounds like Remaking, which is an intentional process typically used as punishment, is better integrated into the world of this books than the random-stuff-stuck-on-people that you’re describing here.
I just wanted to say that when my husband and I taught English in Yamaguchi, Japan, one of my husband’s students was a survivor of the first atomic bomb in Hiroshima, only to move to Nagasaki where his family was and survived the second bomb. He was also one of my husband’s older students. I don’t know if it’s the same guy or not, but the similarities are really interesting anyway.
@MarieC: Argh, now I’m thinking of all of the novels I’ve read with dystopian themes and trying to remember if they address the outside world. “A Handmaid’s Tale” had references to people escaping to Canada, right? But I don’t remember what other information there was about international relations. That one’s a little easier though, since there’s not an apocalyptic event – it’s more like the U.S. has just become a closed society where people can’t travel freely (like North Korea), and so reasonably the characters wouldn’t necessarily know about the outside world.
What about “The Road”? I have no recollection at all. I’m not sure why it’s bugging me so much. I think it’s reasonable to expect, though, when there has been an apocalyptic event and a total breakdown of society, that there would be aid from other countries…unless they were destroyed, too.
@Gianisa @JL thanks for trying to explain nanotechnology to me – that helps. I’m not sure why this element bothered me as much as it did; other than the lack of understanding about how it worked, I was just irked that everyone seemed to have an interesting, artful “fusion.” Pressia had the doll’s head over her hand, not sticking off of her elbow. The birds were imbedded in Bradwell’s back, not his ass. The fan is lodged in the grandfather’s throat, so it whirs when he breathes. These details probably would make a movie version of Pure visually interesting, but on paper they felt too self-conscious to me.
@Laura: I don’t exactly have a bird phobia, but I’m not crazy about the fluttering of the wings (plus, I generally think they are kind of dirty; I’m used to city birds such as pigeons). I will definitely avoid a large flock of birds. (Weirdly, I’m more afraid of moths and even butterflies because of the way they flutter around. Yuck.)
@Jennie: I think your North Korea/insular society analogy is good. Or, depending on the market demographic for the novel (like YA) perhaps the author figures that the age group wouldn’t care about world politics…?
Take a look at the book, “The Water Wars”, by Cameron Stracher. If I remember correctly, it touches on what is happening globally, since there is a water shortage.
@Jennie: I’m pretty sure the Rest of The World continues on as normal in the Handmaid’s Tale. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I remember a scene where Japanese tourists are taking photos of the handmaids, and the MC remembers when she too could wear high heels and short skirts like the tourist women.
@ Jennie and MarieC – that’s interesting about addressing the rest of the world in dystopian novels. I think that part of it must be that with global communication destroyed, people would go back to a very provincial, closed existence.
I think cyberpunk (now that’s a term I don’t get to type very often) books from the 80s and 90s dealt with the larger world. Probably because even though the world was ravaged / destroyed, cyberspace allowed people to “travel” world wide. I’m thinking William Gibson, starting with Neuromancer, and also He, She, It by Marge Piercy, and Svaha by Charles de Lint. I seem to be the only Charles deLint fan who liked Svaha, but imo it’s fun – cyberpunk with mythology / fantasy elements.
@ Jennie – that’s interesting about not dealing with the rest of the world. In some books it makes sense to me – if the disaster is world wide and everything, including the global communication system, has been destroyed, isolated societies would go back to being more provincial / closed.
I’m trying to remember if there’s mention of the outside world in The Stand by Stephen King. The US is hit with a plague that kills most of the population – can’t remember if it spread to the rest of the world or not.
I think cyberpunk (now that’s a term I don’t type often) from the 80s and 90s often deals with the larger world – because even though it’s dystopian and the world is ravaged / destroyed, cyberspace allows people to communicate with the larger world. I’m thinking William Gibson, starting with Neuromancer, also He, She, It by Marge Piercy and Svaha by Charles deLint. (I seem to be the only deLint fan who liked Svaha, but imo it’s fun – cyberpunk crossed with fantasy / mythology.)
It’s weird how people have different reactions to different things. I’m sure the author of this novel never supposed that someone like me might read a review and start thinking that it sounded interesting . . . and then get totally creeped out by a guy having birds in his back. Seriously, I’ll probably never read this book because the more I think about having birds in your back, the more creeped out I get. It sounds like a completely minor point with a minor character, but I stopped reading the review and I’ll probably never read the book. If it had been kittens in the guy’s back, I’d think it was gross, but it wouldn’t stop me from reading the book.
How about that, authors? Have you ever heard from a reader who didn’t like your book for a similarly silly or unexpected reason?
Thank you for sharing, fellow Bird Phobics. Now I’m going to have nightmares about lice ridden feathered things imbedded in my flesh. With the sensation of their tiny little hearts throbbing away at a million miles an hour INSIDE OF ME AND I CAN’T GET THEM OUT! Thanks for that.
Also: if you have hard inflexible objects (like fans) imbedded in the middle of soft, constantly flexing tissue, how does the whole thing hold together? Wouldn’t the flesh be continually tearing and separating away from the hard plastic when it moves?
What happens if you lose weight and your flesh starts retracting away from the object? And what about when the plastic starts to atrophy and crack and splinter into shards as it gets older? Do the people end up with holes in them like empty eye sockets? Or does the flesh grow over to fill the holes? Why doesn’t Pressia just get a pen knife and par back the doll’s head so she can use her fingers again?
There is no way I could ever read this book.
@MarieC: I will check that book out – it sounds interesting.
@cleo: I hadn’t thought about The Stand! It’s been so long since I’ve read it, but it would make sense that a pandemic would probably go international.
Another book I really liked, but don’t remember that well, is Paul Auster’s “In the Country of Last Things.” I think the turmoil is that one is more of a social breakdown, not precipitated by any environmental catastrophe or war. I should probably reread that one some day.
@eggs: Pressia does mention trying to remove the doll’s head at one point, but it really is…attached to her in some weird way because attempting to remove it actually injures her.
The details didn’t disturb me (even the fluttering birds) so much as they just confused me, because I couldn’t quite understand how the fusions could occur so seamlessly that there wouldn’t be infections and injuries caused by them. But that may be a lack of imagination on my part.
I’m living overseas and all my literature is contained on my e-reader. Thank goodness for that! Anyway, the last great adult dystopian novel that I read (1984 notwithstanding) was Justin Cronin’s book. I didn’t even know it was the new thing in YA literature. A good friend recommended this title. She’s a librarian and specializes in YA. So I gave it a try. I am liking it so far. I too was bothered by the “meldings” but have decided to suspend disbelief as the idea is so intriguing. One can only imagine the agony of the only true victims of an atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima. There is a level of plausibility. I’m also guessing that the detonations occurred in our own near future and were planned out to “save” humanity. I’m sure there are holes in the plot line, but to repeat, I’m enjoying, if that’s the right word for dystopian literature, the book.
Oh and here’s a shout out to another truly great, often overlooked adult book in the genre: “The Gate to Women’s Country” by Sherri Tepper. I wish she would have written a sequel as it seemed unfinished.
@Kristine Tolman: I will check out “The Gate to Women’s Country” – thanks for the rec.
I can see finding the book entertaining and absorbing. A B- grade is probably on the edge for me in terms of calling it “worth reading”, but I’m not sorry I read this one. I probably spent more time on logistical issues in the review than I should have, but there were just so many of them.
I really liked this book though I struggle with it. The author did talk about skin growing over items that had fused to people, jewelry and the like. I found the brutality of the world hard to take it was do intense.
I loved the creativity of the “mothers” sect of survivors. That description/idea just blew me away and really won me over.
I am currently reading this book now and I have to say so far I give an A. This book has me on the edge of my seat. That being said…I am only half way through. I say read this book if you like dystopian society. Also, who would hate a book written in First person? Really???
I agree with several things in your review, most prominently that there was no size reference. That was particularly irritating in the Dome. It was large enough to have a rail system and a boarding school, but easy enough for Partridge to use the air ducts to escape. I also synpathize with annoyance at the lack of any explanation about what happened around the rest of the world, something I think many Dystopian novels forget or choose not to elaborate on. However, I believe your review was too picky in the sense of the deformations caused by the Detonations. There was a brief explanation of how the nanotechnology encourages the rearrangement of molecules to perform self-assembly which was speeded by the DNA in living organisms (explained by Bradwell in the secret meeting). Our technology is improving every day and there is no reference as to how far in the future the Detonations themselves actually took place, forcing the reader to accept that superior technology had been created by that point. On a final side note, there was mention of how you didn’t understand how the people didn’t suffer from infection. In the same secret meeting scene, it’s explained with the example of Halpern’s rusting chrome cheek, that many of those facing deformities suffer from serious infections that lead to death if not treated with the rare antibiotics sometimes sold in the market. Overall, I understood where the opinions in the review were coming from.
However, in Divergent, it is highly suggestive that the society’s prime point is in Chicago. How far past the city it goes for farms like Amity areas are unknown.
I think you may want to read Starters by Lissa Price. It’s also set in a dystopian place. It was wonderful. The ending would want you to keep waiting out for the second and final book :D.