Dean Warren, |
The Last Underclass
I admit I was thrown by the title of Dean Warren's The Last Underclass. It suggested to me a society where only a small and strange portion of population was kept down, be they telepaths normal humans or people with green eyes. But the underclass of Warren's Earth is the same massive swell of people it's always been: the poor, unemployed or otherwise. What separates them from today's underclass is the total power of the ruling Achievers.
Earth in the year 2152 has become an almost feudal society, except with the burden of taxes reversed. The masses of "Welfies" -- those unemployed in the highly automated world -- are contained in their ghettos, fed on ration bars and given government-issued clothing by their wealthy entrepreneur Lords. Their rations are laced with a fertility suppressant, to keep the population from growing too quickly. Welfie numbers are also kept down by predation on the poor, as wealthy old people steal young bodies to hold their renewed brains. Earth is still taxed to its environmental limits, even with most people receiving the bare minimum for survival. Scientific advances by and for the Achiever class promise to make the situation even more untenable, with immortality being only a few months of research away.
This is the world of Quiet Griffin, a young Welfie who breaks out of his class constraints in an evening's heroism. By rescuing an Achiever family by the name of Starman from industrial pirates, Quiet earns their patronage, a chance out of the ghettos and an operation for his sick mother. His acquaintance with the Starman family also gives him a completely unexpected chance to change things for his Welfies. A new planet suitable for habitation is discovered, and a new world could ease all of Earth's population troubles. But only Quiet is willing to fight for the emigration rights of the Welfies, and his power to do so depends on the approval of the erratic Julie Starman.
As a vision of future Earth, Warren's two-caste system seems to run a little too smoothly. While it's not unusual for the powerful to use their position to hoard even more advantages to themselves and cut out those in less imposing positions, it is unusual for them to be in such smooth agreement. The council scenes imply that Quiet is the first real voice of dissent, prompting those who support him to voice opinions they would never have shown otherwise. At the same time, the opening scenes of the story and other mentions of industrial espionage show that the ruling class is hardly at peace with itself. That the Welfie underclass would be so well connected and educated is also hard to accept. When Quiet's ghetto friends need to organize a revolution, they manage to connect with other ghettos around the world. For a ruling class that dictates the contents of the food and water and even the choice of children's genes, this failure to control communication is implausible. The given reason -- that Welfie children are trained and tested in case one seems high enough to join Achiever rank -- simply doesn't fit in with historical tendencies. In such highly divided class systems, those in power cling to it desperately, and would have no reasons to try and share.
While the caste divisions of 2152 are stark, each side is given desperately needed variation through its representatives. The privileged Achievers are saved from being cutout villains by the presence of principled speakers like Marshal Tellen and Lady Rudd, and rank and file like Si Kremonas, who at times risks far more than Quiet in pursuit of a fair future. And the Welfies are betrayed by one of their own risen to power, Lord Mako, who loses a battle between personal gain and abstract principal rather sadly. While the true villains are all decidedly Achievers, they're at least given the chance to present themselves well. The sad exceptions to this are the Ladies Anne and Julie Starman. Both are portrayed as sexually aggressive, somewhat petulant children of privilege, well intentioned only to the extent that they lie and go along with Quiet. While that might have been fine for minor characters, it's an extremely shallow portrayal of such crucial figures, especially Lady Anne, who seems to win Quiet's affection by sheer dint of throwing herself at our protesting hero most consistently. Quiet loses some depth by submitting to such a hollow shell.
But this is hardly the first novel to fail its female characters. And the societal inaccuracies may be overlooked, since The Last Underclass seems more devoted to being a social lesson than creating a believable view of the future. Warren manages to get his message across without making the reader feel manipulated, and to tell a story heavy in dialogue and political maneuvering without losing a sense of speed. It's a message that will likely speak to the growing number of people concerned with the fast march of science as humanity finds ways to recreate itself. The Last Underclass is good enough to set people talking about the issues that scare them, and as Quiet Griffin shows, that may be what's needed most.
[ by Sarah Meador ]