Imagine a world in which you can hear every thought passing through the head of those around you, humans and animals alike. Imagine a town in which there are no humans of the female gender of any age. That’s the start of Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go.
As the Chaos Walking trilogy begins, Todd is the last boy in his village, about to become a man when he turns thirteen in a month. In this town, there are no women; Todd has been told that they all died in a plague approximately ten years earlier. In this world, everyone is telepathic in that they broadcast their thoughts constantly, and hear others’ thoughts, without any way to mute the noise. Not surprisingly, Todd tries to spend as much time as he can in the swamps surrounding Prentisstown in order to minimize the background chatter of his neighbors, despite the risk of attack from “Spackles”, natives of the planet. One day, he stumbles across a silence in the swamp, where he cannot hear any thoughts at all; investigating, he finds a peculiar sort of human he’s never seen before, a “girl”. She turns out to be the child of a couple who died when their scout ship crashed on the planet; this is not the only world inhabited by humans but rather a colony which has lost contact with the parent world, and there is another ship of colonists close on the heels of Viola’s parents’ scout. As the birthday marking his transition into adulthood approaches, the two men who raised him after his parents’ deaths become increasingly nervous, culminating with equipping him for a trip and smuggling him beyond the town limits one night. Todd flees, with the girl, for safety outside the only community he has ever known, only to find…
…that not only has the evil from home already touched the other communities, but that there are new twists to discover. There are women outside, but are relegated to a subjugated second class citizen in New Prentisstown. An army of women and sympathizers has assembled, and mounts attacks on the civilized male-dominated village below.
The disclaimer for this entry: I’ve read only the first two of a trilogy, so can’t comment on it as a whole continous story. As science fiction, it strikes me as no more than mediocre in that the science fiction elements could have largely been left out without affecting the story significantly, with the exception of the telepathy. However (and a very important however!) I’m not sure that science fiction is the point of the Chaos Walking trilogy any more than the horror was the point of A Monster Calls. I’d guess that these books are more about relationships, family, friendship, and the fact that none of us are entirely good or evil. It’s an interesting examination of how society is affected by psychological and changes, and how power affects people. Ness handles the children’s struggle with the alien cultures they encounter well, the Spackles, the world outside Prentisstown (for Todd), the colony world in its entirety (for Viola) and gender relationships for both.
Oddly, the ungrammatical nature of the books didn’t bother me; it makes perfect sense if Todd has never been to school that he’d not be able to “write” at a level we’d expect from a thirteen-year-old in our society. It also makes sense for Ness to use this semi-literate method of transcribing Todd’s story as a way to indicate that lack of education, and how far Todd is separated from what we accept as normal here on this planet. I like the animals speaking, especially Manchee: the thoughts that Todd could hear always seemed particularly doglike, and I, like many readers, was heartbroken when he (forgive the spoiler) died. I’ll confess that I was more than slightly disappointed in the lack of similar development for the horses, as I’ve always rather thought that horses had at least as much to think about and communicate to their people as dogs. It’s just that they’re not often as much a part of their owners’ lives, or as common a pet these days.
What to read next? My first thought was Riddley Walker, by Russel Hoban, based on the grammar usage as a tool to differentiate one group from another, or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the gender and dystopia images, though the books don’t have much else in common. As with A Monster Calls, I haven’t read enough in this area to be sure, although I suspect that read-alikes may be found outside science fiction as easily as in it; perhaps other books about maturation or transplants to an alien culture within humanity?