Welcome to the Ark (Retro SF Review #3)

5 May

In 1996, a novel composed almost of chat logs and journal entries was pretty innovative–especially for me, who read it in 1998 and marveled at the epic future time span (1999 to 2008!) and the novelty of a YA book with kids who grew up by the end.  I’m talking about Stephanie S. Tolan’s Welcome to the Ark.  Does anyone else remember that book?  It was my favorite speculative fiction novel before I knew there was such a thing, and may have been the first place I learned about the Internet.

I realize dredging up fiction of the late-90s and calling it “retro” is kind of pushing things, but let’s just substitute that word for “nostalgic” and everything should work out just fine.

Welcome to the Ark isn’t available on the Kindle (gasp!), but I have a first edition paperback.  It’s worth upwards of $0.01 on Amazon, so…  Anyway, here’s the book description:

Grade 6-9: This story is set in the near future at a facility for troubled youngsters in upstate New York. Two boys and two girls, ranging in age from 8-17, have been selected to take part in an experimental program. Living together as a family with two doctors as parental figures, the four highly intelligent young people are encouraged to learn from one another and reach out globally to other potential geniuses via the Internet. They soon recognize a shared concern about the increasing violence in the world and a compelling desire to halt it.

Shared paranormal powers amplify the bond among the four and give new meaning to the “world wide web.” When the director of the institution discovers the exciting new “paradigm shift” of the experiment, he plans to manipulate it to his own advantage, until he sees it as a liability and rapidly disbands the program.

Years later, three of the four subjects have become functioning adults, still dreaming that psychic networking will save humankind. Tolan’s skill with language, plus the dramatic tension between six sympathetic, if incomplete, characters and their nemesis make the novel readable. Its weaknesses, however, are greater than its strengths. The functional but unaesthetic format is a patchwork of journal entries, memos, e-mail, medical records, etc. A more serious problem is the shape-shifting focus. The ideas and issues raised are interesting and thought-provoking, but quickly dissolve into sentimentality.

The “unaesthetic patchwork” format was what most impressed me back in ninety-eight; it seemed so avante-garde at the time.  I suppose I thought it would catch like a computer virus and all the books of the future would be written this way.  I probably wrote some terrible fiction in that style.  And while mine was, I’m sure, neither functional nor aesthetically pleasing, Tolan did well enough to get a third grader (yeah, I was super ahead of the average reading level) interested in psychic bloggers, or something.

I remember the book 13 years later, don’t I?

I haven’t re-read it since then, and I doubt I will, but Welcome to the Ark is what I’ve been thinking the whole time I’ve been reading Chris Wimpress’s Joe is Online.

Like Tolan’s book, Joe is Online is neither first-person nor third-person limited omniscient, nor that creepy second-person present that people seem to think is so cool and post-postmodern these days.  It is a patchwork of chat logs, IMs, emails, .docs and other Internet ephemera.  It begins with a troubled and computer-savvy kid and spans a period of decades.

Of course, in this case the troubled kid turns into a cyber-terrorist on an epic scale and the result isn’t psychic shape-shifting but lots of bombs and the terrifying Botnet Apocalypse.  So… kind of different.  Still, Joe is Online brought back a wave of nostalgia for what I imagined would be the wave of the future in narrative, way back in the 90s.

Except this time, I don’t think anyone’s going to be questioning Wimpress’s aesthetics.  Joe is Online is fantastic.  Click the red angry face to check out the ebook on Amazon.


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