Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Gardener

S. A. Bodeen
Square Fish, 2010, 233 pp., $8.99
ISBN: 978-0-312-65942-4

Even if they're consigned to a place in the background, references to global warming and climate change are becoming more common in literature for teenagers today.  In Suzanne Collins' popular Hunger Games series, readers learn that a series of environmental catastrophes-- including fires, natural disasters, and rising seas--contributed to the collapse of society and paved the way for a totalitarian state to rise to power in what was once North America.  In M. T. Andersen's novel Feed, the world's oceans are polluted to the point that people wear biohazard outfits before even approaching them.  Jamie Bastedo's On Thin Ice explores the impact that rising temperatures have on a small Inuit community struggling to preserve its cultural practices and traditions in the Arctic, while a companion novel, Sila's Revenge, asks how, as humans, we can ever begin to tackle a problem as immense as global warming without succumbing to despair.  

S. A. Bodeen's The Gardener, a work of young adult science fiction, is also concerned with issues of sustainability--specifically, the impending threat that global warming and overpopulation pose to the world's food supply.  A sophomore in high school, Mason lives with his single mother.  He never knew his father, and the only memento he has of the man is a video he made of himself reading a children's story, The Runaway Bunny, aloud.  Unfortunately, a problem with the positioning of the camera obstructed his father's face, leaving Mason to imagine what the man might have been like.

A talented science student, Mason dreams of attending Stanford, but he recognizes that his mother's limited income is unlikely to cover the cost of tuition.  His hopes are buoyed, however, when he learns about a college scholarship he would be eligible for were he to participate in a summer program sponsored by TroDyn, a local bioengineering corporation committed to resolving problems posed by global warming.  Yet for reasons she won't disclose, Mason's mother forbids him to have anything to do with TroDyn.  Concerned that he might disobey her, she tells Mason that she intends to cover the cost of his college education by dipping into a fund that has secretly been maintained for him over the years. 

Curious to know whether she is telling the truth, Mason breaks into his mother's file cabinet and discovers that, in her youth, she was a talented scientist who worked for TroDyn.  Furious that she withheld this information from him, he drives to the nursing home where his mother works to confront her.  When he breaches security and accesses her floor, however, he is surprised to find that, rather than caring for elderly patients, his mother is in fact responsible for tending to a small group of teenagers said to have suffered brain damage as a result of their involvement in accidents.  When he inadvertently causes one of the teenagers, a beautiful girl, to regain consciousness, she begs him to help her escape before an ominous figure known only as the Gardener can find her.  Mason agrees to do so, and while on the run he learns that the girl was part of a clandestine program run at TroDyn to alter the genetic makeup of children and create a race of humans that wouldn't require access to food or water and which, as a result, could withstand a total collapse of the world's food supply.  When Mason learns that the girl is unable to sustain herself apart from her peers, he is left with no alternative but to return her to TroDyn before she dies.  His decision to do so results in his coming face-to-face with the Gardener, and he is forced to confront a series of long-buried truths about both his and his mother's past. 

I wanted to like this novel.  The issues it addresses are timely and important, and its central conceit--namely, that an over zealous group of scientists, driven by a utilitarian philosophy, might resort to genetic engineering to increase the likelihood of the human race's surviving an unprecedented environmental catastrophe—is intriguing.  Unfortunately, the story is marred by a series of flaws, not least of which is a maddening tendency on the part of the author to abandon narrative threads shortly after introducing them.  A shadowy figure presumably tied to TroDyn pursues Mason after he absconds with the girl from the nursing home, for example, yet the character inexplicably vanishes approximately half-way through the novel never to be heard from again.  There are also contradictions in the internal logic of the narrative.  Though the girl Mason rescues is clearly terrified of the Gardener, the latter character is ultimately revealed to be a well intentioned--albeit misguided--individual with whom readers are expected to empathize.  Likewise, though every sign suggests that TroDyn--which imposes its will on children by altering their genetic makeup, a procedure that calls to mind experiments conducted by Nazi scientists during World War II--should be read as a poster child for arrogant, profit driven corporations run amuck, it somehow manages to emerge as a sympathetic character in the novel, and readers are invited to view its motives as--if not noble--at least understandable.  Most irksome, however, is Bodeen's decision to assign a happy ending to a story for which there can't logically be one.  Mason might have developed feelings for the girl he rescued, but the likelihood of their finding a way to be together pushes the limits of credulity, as do many other aspects of this story.  Collectively, these and other issues interfere with the narrative’s cohesiveness, which is unfortunate considering that the issues Bodeen set out to address warrant serious consideration in a culture seemingly bent on destroying itself through unchecked consumption.

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