Sometimes I wonder if Suzanne Collins knew what she was doing when she kick-started the young adult authorial obsession with dystopias. Largely as a result of The Hunger Games, which now seems almost tame in its premise, we now have teen novels which posit some of the most bizarre organizational structures for sci-fi fascism. Societies divided based on personality traits, a giant maze, and, most lazily, the colour wheel. So you can imagine my skepticism when presented with Proxy by Alex London. The premise of Proxy is that there are individuals that seek to pay off their immense debt by taking on any and all punishments incurred by their wealthy Patrons. Patron steals, destroys, or murders? Proxy takes the beatings and does the time. When I heard this, I couldn’t help but contemplate the logical leap that was happening somewhere between our time and this proposed future. But once I started reading Proxy, once I saw how fleshed out London’s world is, it no longer seemed strange. Not only did Proxy turn out to have one of the coolest settings and some of the most progressive characters, it also might be one of the most accurate dystopias I’ve ever read in terms of how it speaks to a particular time.
This comes from Proxy’s consideration of two main concepts: targeted advertising, and debt. In “the mountain city” of the novel, divided between upper echelons for the wealthy and the grungy lower city for the poor, holograms are plentiful, popping up as one walks along the street or wherever they might find themselves. They try to sell you products tailored to your purchase history as well as online and offline activity. This works off of the novels concept of “biodata”: software that gets mapped to ones DNA. Not only does this make for some vividly grimy and luminescent cyberpunk imagery, it also speaks to something that facebook and other companies already engage in. This concept of biological software is a big part of the plot, and is one of the novels most refreshing ideas.
The other fresh, and for some reason relatively untapped, concept is the fact that the Mountain City operates on a debt-based economy to the extreme. In order to enter the city from the wasteland outside, citizens must take on a massive amount of debt which they can pay off in the form of years, sometimes decades, of hard labour. Patrons purchase portions of this debt in exchange for the entering citizens taking on the aforementioned position of Proxy. London does an amazing job of making you feel how much his protagonists are either held down or relieved of responsibility due to the system. He makes it believable that such a system could escalate to the point of not only extorting work or money, but also giving a beating meant for the rich to the poor, or literally taking the blood of proxies to help their injured patrons.
We experience all this through the eyes of Syd and his patron, Knox. Syd is a black, gay, and impoverished, and Knox is white, straight, and spoiled rotten rich. This means that not only is the setting of Proxy interesting, the character interaction is decidedly new. Knox gets wrapped up in Syd’s greater destiny involving the “Rebooters” (a rebel group committed to complete debt forgiveness) and knows he’s incapable of navigating the seedy underworld on his own. As a result, we have Knox using Syd’s attraction to him to his advantage, using his playboy charms to flirt with the other boy to stay in his good graces. It often adds up to some hilarious situations amidst the frantic action and fast paced plotting. London’s journalism chops are showing here, as events move quickly but not without capturing those eagle-eye details of a world in turmoil as if he were still on the frontlines reporting from refugee camps and conflict zones. He also doesn’t miss out on making Syd and Knox’s engaging alliance naturally grow into one of the most unlikely but genuine friendships.
This is one of those books: a true hidden sci-fi gem. A world that is somehow highly original despite exploring issues common to the everyday, London has truly picked the best tools to discuss issues of advertising and debt while also creating an entertaining action story. This is for anyone who likes a lush world with their high-stakes Science Fiction, or maybe just for anyone who wants an entertaining book which prominently features non-white and LGBT characters engaging in character interaction that is classically enjoyable despite its originality. No one is talking about this book, so I’ve tried to show what it has to offer here and implore you read it if it sounds to your liking. For being this fresh and forward thinking, I owe it that much.
London, Alex. Proxy. New York: Speak, 2014. Print.
Proxy cover. Digital image. Thefaultinourwords. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2016. <https://thefaultinourwords.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/img_0535.jpg>.