“May Day! May Day! May Day!”
That desperate radio call for help—once the best way for airplanes to signal disaster—is such an appropriate beginning for this May 1 blog post. Today’s inspiration is neither the traditional spring holiday nor the nineteenth century workers holiday also celebrated on this date. Instead, my focus is a gripping new science fiction novel—a vibrant, heart-pounding view of one possible, calamitous future already facing ordinary people in developed nations. Tween and teen readers will “get” the problems spotlighted so effectively in Decelerate Blue (2017). These dangers were around before Donald Trump took political office, and—after we survive his presidency—we will still have to confront these emerging threats.
What will today’s tomorrow look like? Author Adam Rapp and illustrator Mike Cavallaro see speed and consumerism dominating our world, with government forces regulating all aspects of daily life and social institutions. In this dystopia, only “Brief Lit” is taught in schools, and people must speak with contractions but without adjectives. The most popular movies are fifteen minutes long, upright beds encourage faster waking-up, and older folks whose heart rates are too slow are sent to isolated “reduction colonies.” Shopping at megamalls is considered a civic duty! Big business is so important that corporate logos, touting the speed of their products and services, are everywhere—even branded onto the bodies of animals.
People’s activities are monitored by computer chips welded into their arms and by hidden cameras, while armed guards with “speed pits” (pit bulls augmented with cheetah genes) round up and imprison any dissenters. Decelerate Blue shows us this possible future through the experiences of fifteen year old rebel Angela, her loving but conforming parents, and the underground resistance movement Angela discovers. Angela’s grandfather, her high school literature teacher, and her first sweetheart, a girl named Gladys, are also important characters.
More than fear causes people to follow this future’s rules. Conforming ensures that one will continue to receive all the social benefits provided by the “Guarantee,” an unspecified social contract enforced by law officers and upheld by institutions such as schools, hospitals, and those ever-present cameras and computer chips. This contract’s benefits are constantly referred to in the combined greeting/benediction uttered in casual as well as formal conversations: “Go. Guarantee. Go.” Are these supposed benefits worth the stressful, inflexible limits of the Guarantee? This question—dramatized so effectively in the novel by Rapp, an award-winning playwright and novelist—gains more significance in light of this novel’s origins.
In interviews, Rapp has said he completed its first draft in 2006, inspired by watching people walk New York City streets, eyes glued to their smart phones, not seeing others or traffic. Even back then, he doubted whether being “linked in” was worth the dangers and social disconnect. Nowadays, with enhanced “constant surveillance and crowd sourcing,” in a U.S.A. where George Orwell’s dystopic 1984 is so relevant, the dangers of how government guarantees are implemented have only grown. Rapp thinks that “this is a critical time for our culture.” He also explains his choice of audience, readers tween and up, noting that this age group is at “a critical time for the survival of empathy. Teenagers and college students are at a stage in their lives where they’re forming their own thoughts.” The situation becomes truly dire when no time or space is given for teens—or anyone—to get in touch with their own thoughts. Playwright Rapp reveals that his dystopia’s rule that utterances begin and end with the word “Go” is adapted from theater practices. This cue by stage managers to technical staff, though “incredibly controlling,” is really needed for plays to succeed.
Award-winning illustrator Cavallaro (whose work was also reviewed here in April, 2013) wholeheartedly committed himself to Rupp’s completed story. In a radio interview, Cavallaro explains that he was inspired by this dystopic vision of a world where “people talk the way they text right now . . . preventing deeper human connection.” He effectively uses angular lines and irregularly shaped panels to communicate the conflicts between and within people here, and several sequences of wordless pages effectively dramatize both breathless, danger-packed action and the imaginative reveries only possible in the resistance movement’s literal underground hideout. Some of these sequences, such as a nightmare Angela experiences, employ whole page and double-page spreads filled with swirling maelstroms as well as jagged action. Shifts in time and space are conveyed clearly even without words. Other sophisticated graphic techniques Cavallaro employs include varying close-ups with mid and long-distance views and shifting perspectives from high to low angles.
It was Cavallaro’s decision to use black-and-white drawings throughout the work, without any shading, to indicate the stark demands and limited choices of this near-future. Author Rapp also agreed with the illustrator’s choice to use full-color at just two points—when Angela and Gladys first kiss and at the startling, ambiguous conclusion of the book. Rapp admits that his original conclusion spelled out the result of Angela’s final choice more clearly, but he was persuaded by Cavallaro to make the book’s conclusion more open-ended. What really is the result of Angela’s desperately taking an overdose of “decelerate blue,” the pill designed to help resistance fighters cope with limited oxygen in their underground society? How are we to interpret this final version of the repeated image of clasped hands forming a heart? Readers will have much to think about and discuss here.
Similarly, as one reviewer has noted, the alternative society this resistance movement devises has its own problems, in some ways placing demands on members not unlike the strictures of the corporate, speed-obsessed sunlit world above. I myself was disconcerted by the rebels’ proposed plan to take their doses of “decelerate blue” all at once, in a transforming community celebration. I did not immediately think of the Jonestown mass suicide, as that dismayed reviewer did, but the cult-like aspects of this ceremony did strike me. This too will provide food for thought.
Nonetheless, I strongly recommend this engrossing, fast-paced graphic novel, which makes us care not only about its ideas but its characters. We can empathize not only with Angela and her associates but with her well-meaning but wrong-headed parents, whose loving impulses have some clearly destructive as well as ambiguous consequences. And some of Rapp and Cavallaro’s extrapolation of future norms is ironically funny when it is not frightening! That humorous touch is evident in Cavallaro’s current work-in-progress, a graphic novel he has authored as well illustrated, titled Vulcan Celestial Supply Shop: The Hound of Hades. I look forward to the publication of this mythological mash-up in September, 2018. It will be one of the tonics I take to counteract the current political scene as, in small ways, I work to make today’s tomorrows more hopeful.