Wither, by Lauren DeStefano


Science fiction fans, beware: this isn’t so much a dystopia as a romance with a dystopian backdrop. A bland romance, once one’s removed the titillating details of child brides and forced polygamy.

Seventy years prior to the start of the book, medical science developed techniques in genetic engineering which allowed them to create perfect healthy babies, free from all disease. Unfortunately, this resulted in an endemic virus which killed subsequent generations at the unconscionably young age(s) of 20 for girls and 25 for boys. Needless to say, this change in lifespan combined with the World War that destroyed all continents but North America, transformed society. Rhine Ellery and her twin brother, Rowan, are orphans, as are so many of the other inhabitants of what remains of New York City. They’re scratching a living with Rowan’s work as a freight driver and squatting in a dilapidated building, taking turns on watch at night to defend themselves against the rats and feral orphans when Rhine is captured by Gatherers and sold to Vaughn Ashby as one of three “sister wives” for his son, Linden. Vaughn is the true master of the household, conducting mysterious experiments, never fully explained, in the basement in order to discover the antidote to the virus which kills off the younger generations.

It is a velvet prison, with all the luxuries that money can buy and technology can provide: servants (including a ladies’ maid for each of the wives), silks and satins, breakfast in bed, a pool, landscaped grounds, limousines…and yet (surprise surprise) Rhine longs only to escape this unwanted captivity and flee back to Rowan and her beloved though slumlike Manhattan neighborhood. The bulk of the story revolves around Rhine alternating between planning to escape her prison and girlish delights, such as taking bubble baths, getting massages, putting on fingernail polish and dressing pretty. Oh, and falling in love with one of the servants, Gabriel. The youngest of the sister-wives, thirteen-year-old Cecily, gets pregnant immediately, and falls in love with her husband and the pampered lifestyle matrimony promises her. The oldest of the three, nineteen year old Jess, sees through Vaughn, but does not have enough gumption to herself flee; instead she encourages Rhine to do so. Unfortunately, Jess dies while still a year short of her twentieth birthday, and Rhine suspects that this is Vaughn’s doing, a punishment for her aid during Rhine’s first escape attempt1.

The fact that I’ve been reading science fiction for thirty years longer than the intended audience can’t really be held against DeStefano. The fact that I’ve been reading science fiction since before DeStefano was born can’t really be held against her either, although I would point out here that I think Veronica Roth managed to do better with Divergent, and at a younger age. Being able to spot plot devices reminiscent of Logan’s Run and The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t allow me to enjoy the book, though I’m guessing by its popularity that this doesn’t slow down fans of this type of book.

The science fiction component of Wither struck me as being marginally better than that of Beth Revis’ Across the Universe. I couldn’t find any glaring errors, such as “How is it possible to expand your population if women are only capable of bearing children once every twenty years?” though that’s as much because DeStefano didn’t explain as much…which leads me to my real complaint about these two books: lack of backstory.

There are a few plot holes resulting from the central device of perfect health through medical technology and genetic engineering, but only for the first generation subsequent to the change. I can forgive Rhine’s regarding the “first generations” as old; at sixteen, I thought seventy was ancient. It is, however, far too young an age to declare the “first generations” immortal, given that it’s not implausible for Americans today to reach that age while retaining some considerable vigor2. Were all these perfect babies in the first generation a product of in vitro fertilization? If so, that strikes me as awfully fast work on the part of the technicians, even if the majority of the population died in the war; it sounds like all children born subsequently to the scientific breakthroughs permitting such perfection were superbabies. Why do girls die at 20 and boys at 25? Doesn’t the shorter lifespan of girls mean there are fewer of them floating around? Why, therefore, is polyandry not the norm? How did American society change so drastically as to accept polygamy within the fifty year span since the “first generations” realized their children had only 20/25 years to live? From what I can tell, it gives rather a lot of current residents the heebie jeebies. I can’t imagine that it would become the norm so quickly, despite social pressures.

Now for some of the questions I have relating to the societal and geographic changes wrought by the war(s). Wouldn’t North America’s status as the most technologically advanced continent would make it MORE of a target, not less? How did the loss of the majority of the world’s population, cultures, industries, agriculture and oil reserves affect North America? Losing 90% of the world’s population alone would probably cause just a teensy bit of disruption, even if one only considers the social disruption. Losing the corresponding manufacturing capacity, and the corresponding import and export capacity, would cause more. Frankly, I’d find it more convincing if, say, places like Nepal and Somalia3 are the only remaining bits of real estate left.

Those who enjoyed Across the Universe and Matched might enjoy Wither and its sequels. For everyone else, may I recommend Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale?

1no, I don’t know why Vaughn didn’t kill Rhine, other than the precept laid down so long ago in The Princess Bride: you don’t make shark kibble out of your leading lady less than a third of the way through the story. Unless you’re Alfred Hitchcock.
2my father’s in his early 70s and does things like lay flagstones for his garden
3with my profoundest apologies to Nepal and Somalia; they’re lovely places with dignified peoples worthy of respect…I’m just using them as examples of unlikely military targets.

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