By The Washington Post · Diana Abu-Jaber · ENTERTAINMENT, BOOKWORLD
There's a darkness to dystopia: it's embedded in the very word- the opposite of a utopia, a world gone wrong. The magic of Gish Jen's latest novel, "The Resisters," is that, amid a dark and cautionary tale, there's a story also filled with electricity and humor - and baseball. At its heart, the novel is about the act of resistance and its attendant forces of courage and hope.
Set in AutoAmerica - in a future world of surveillance and melted polar caps - people are divided into two categories. The Netted have angel-fair skin and live and work in protected areas on higher ground, while the marginalized, multiracial Surplus live on houseboats or swamplands; their only employment is to "consume." Our narrator, Grant, a former college professor, describes himself as "coppertoned," and his wife, Eleanor, a lawyer and activist, is "spy-eyed." These young parents are increasingly impressed when their young daughter Gwen begins to fling her stuffed animals with surprising force and accuracy across the house. "They shot out," Grant says, "never so much as grazing the doorframe."
As she grows older, Gwen becomes an extraordinary pitcher. Her best friend, Ondi, is also a talented player; together, they're important members of a scrappy team called the Lookouts, part of the Underground Baseball League that Eleanor and Grant helped organize. Surplus teams can play only on toxic, contaminated land. To play on safer, unsanctioned ground, the Lookouts must hack their tracking microchips to evade detection by government drones.
In many ways, this book is about feistiness and not buckling under cruel and unjust bureaucracies. Grant and Eleanor are thoughtful mavericks, working to subvert a soulless system while trying to raise a fierce and powerful daughter. These characters wrestle with conundrums that will feel urgent to many readers, such as how to teach children to be fearless yet not reckless, to be responsible yet independent, to stand up for what's right without becoming imprisoned or imperiled along the way.
These dilemmas impact Gwen directly, because the sport that has given her so much joy and freedom also brings her trouble. Ondi is a strong player but not as magically gifted as Gwen. Ondi's subordinate position sets in motion a series of events fueled by both loyalty and jealousy that will test the limits of their friendship and their faith in themselves.
Gwen is eventually recruited to play for Net University - to join, in effect, the privileged Netted world. This invitation, of course, poses serious ethical questions in that it requires turning her back on her Surplus community, yet it offers a life-changing transformation not only to Gwen but to her parents, as well. Eleanor, an attorney for the Surplus, was once arrested and tortured for her activism, and her family has remained under constant scrutiny. When a government agent - who appears in the guise of a kindly old lady - starts to pay visits to the family, a sense of foreboding closes in around them.
"The Resisters" is in many ways an extended study on the dangers of willed ignorance and inaction. The story feels only a few clicks removed from our current situation: Climate change has resulted in a partial water-world, and Alexa is now self-aware, offering advice not only on the weather but also on issues of propriety, relationships and moral quandaries. Many readers will recognize with a shudder their own lives in this potential world to come.
Written in Jen's clear, assured style and delivered from Grant's slyly ironic perspective, "The Resisters" will captivate readers. Rippling with action, suspense and lovingly detailed baseball play-by-plays, there's a sense throughout the book of both celebration and danger. There are a few plot point workarounds to maintain Grant's first-person perspective - including an overly convenient listening device. But the story retains its intimacy and human generosity, even as it's told against a backdrop of dreadful things to come. This novel's great gift to readers is its rich and multifaceted characters. Through them, we learn both the cost and the necessity of standing up and speaking out.
Abu-Jaber is the author of "Birds of Paradise" and "Origin." Her most recent book is the culinary memoir "Life Without a Recipe."