Free to Fall: Finally a Realistic Dystopian Novel
When you think of novels set in the future, what comes to mind? Sci-fi? Dystopian novels? Usually, it’s books set in a far distant future, and it’s really not clear how we got from where we are now to what’s in the book. Even if it’s explained in detail, the situation often so far off from our present that we can’t really conceive of our society one day looking like what’s depicted in the book. This is a generalization, of course, but one that likely isn’t super controversial.
This is why we enjoyed Lauren Miller’s Free to Fall so much. It takes place in the future, but in the near future. It’s a society where everyone is addicted to their handheld devices (sound familiar?); an app called "Lux" has taken it one step further, analyzing everything about you—from social media profiles (yours and those you are friends with), your calendar, even what you ate for lunch—in order to optimize your decision making. In other words, people have begun to rely on Lux to make their decisions for them; independent thought is slowly waning.
Enter Rory Vaughn, a 16-year-old who has applied to the prestigious Theden Academy. Rory uses Lux just as much as everyone else; the decision to apply, however, was hers alone. Theden is the place of greats: think the Harvard of high schools. Anyone who is anyone in the financial and business worlds has some ties to Theden; the creator of Lux was a student there. And it’s Rory’s dream to attend.
Upon her acceptance, Rory’s father reveals something shocking: Rory’s mother, who died when Rory was young, was a student at Theden as well. As Rory comes to terms with this revelation and settles into life on campus, she starts feeling as though things aren’t quite right. She begins to explore her mother’s legacy and discovers some shocking and dangerous things about Theden and Lux that will tear the very fabric of the society she lives in.
Sound ominous and overly dramatic? Perhaps, but the remarkable thing about Free to Fall is that it’s neither of these things. Somehow, Miller manages to achieve that balance that is usually so elusive in YA dystopian/future-set novels: a gripping storyline and a strong (female) main character who is just a teenager.
That is, “just a teenager” in the sense that she does normal teenager things. She’s not some well-trained military woman intent on uncovering injustices and righting wrongs. Rory goes to class, hangs out with her friends, and falls for a boy, but it never takes away from the overall storyline or feels incongruous with the stakes. It’s so frustrating when a main character can't stop thinking about a guy she's crushing on when the world around her is about to end. Miller manages to work the normalities of being a teenager in with the bigger, wider story. And it only ever serves to make Rory more realistic, rather than seeming like a contrived annoyance.
The plot of Free to Fall is so gripping partially because it seems to realistic. With the ubiquity of smartphones and how attached we’ve become to them, it’s not so hard to see someone managing to develop an app like Lux, and it may seem innocuous. There were aspects of Lux that we absolutely wished we had: for example, the ability to know, to the second, how long a walk from one building to another might take. No more being late or being early.
But the potential consequences of Lux are devastating, and Miller explores this. What happens when we begin to rely fully on a program to make decisions for us? Will we lose the capacity to think independently and take risks?
It’s a fascinating question, and one that Miller handles well in Free to Fall. Between her strong and resourceful main character and intriguing plotline, Miller has crafted a brainy novel with serious implications—that also manages to be absolute, sheer fun. A hard thing to do, indeed.
FTC disclosure: A review copy of Free to Fall was provided by the publisher for review consideration.