Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The 100

To help us enter into and better understand the entertainment shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story.

This review will look at Kass Morgan's The 100. Ms. Morgan studied English and History at Brown University before pursuing a Master's Degree in 19th Century Literature at Oxford. She currently works in the publishing industry. In other words, even though this is her first YA novel, her training and credentials have prepared her well.  

In spite if the popularity of The 100, not all the reviewers are overly enamored. Amazon.com's reader reviews are decidedly middle-of-the-road; plenty of Goodreads' readers have expressed surprise that a show is being made from a book that didn't rate that highly on their site. Nonetheless, the TV version premiers on the CW on March 19, 2014.

It’s been one hundred years since mankind decimated the planet through nuclear war. A remnant living on the Ark - twelve space stations linked as one -  have been waiting for the planet to become habitable again, but nobody really wants to find out first-hand. Meanwhile, life on the space station is falling apart. The original 400 has turned to 4,000, and oxygen and supplies are running down. The need to control the population has brought about severe social stratification, excessive capital punishment and draconian birth laws.

The solution is to send underage criminals awaiting execution on their 18th birthday. These kids are going to die anyway –why not let them die for the greater good? That’s the 100 – doomed juvenile delinquents  sent to earth as a scouting party. What could possibly go wrong? If you thought, “Pretty much everything,” you were correct.

I’ve heard it said that our culture’s stories confirm either what we fear is true or what we hope is true. If so, The 100 offers some interesting - and frustrating - insights into this generation’s hopes and fears.


The odds are never in our favor. Class division separates friends and lovers. Government is corrupt (the trials of the 100 are shams; they are going to be executed to keep the population down). Rations are distributed unfairly. Once they land on Earth, nothing works out like they plan. There is always a lurking sense of impending disaster.

God is either uncaring or absent. There is no organized religion, though the religious urge lurks in the background. Several characters pray to an unnamed source, but at least one “wasn’t sure who she was praying to. Humans had abandoned earth during its darkest hour. It wouldn’t care how many died trying to return.”

Humanity is the problem. If God and religion can’t be blamed, what is the cause of corruption and evil? Scientists, politicians, and pretty much anyone in authority. If nothing else, teen fiction has a pretty keen eye for the source of dystopias.  People in power tend to abuse power. People who answer to no one tend to do whatever they please. It’s a Darwinian world in which the law is tooth and claw, and it ain’t pretty. It’s not the first YA story to show what happens when the government and the scientific establishment spiral out of control (think of the Hunger Games, Unwholly, TheDrowned Cities, Matched).

Nobody can be trusted. Almost everyone in the story has a skeleton lurking in their closet. Even those acting with the best of intentions seem to find a way to hurt or betray the ones they love. Close to the end of the book, a boy named Wells stops the girl he loves, Clarke, from running into a burning inferno to save a sick girl.  When he defends himself from her grieving anger after the girl dies, Clarke turns on him: “So you let Thalia die instead. Because you get to decide who lives and who dies…You destroy everything you touch.” Institutions and individuals are either corrupt, unreliable or disappointing. If there is an upside, it is the fact that forgiveness and second chances are crucial if we are to make a life together in any meaningful sense of the word.


Someone will love me enough to sacrifice everything.  A brother and a boyfriend both seal their fate just to be with the one person they care most about in the world.  What’s not compelling about that? It reminded me of the line R kept saying over and over in Warm Bodies: “I’ll keep you safe.”

We are greater than our mistakes. “Good people make mistakes. It doesn’t mean you stop caring for them,” Clarke says after finding that Octavia stole medical supplies to support an addiction. It was a shining moment in the book. We don't need to be perfect to be worthy of love.

We can always justify ourselves. One of the characters says, “I don’t think anything’s unforgivable. Not if it’s done for the right reasons.” Those who actually did criminal acts have a reason: they were just doing what needed to be done in a world stacked against them. Even better, they often did it because they cared so deeply about one person. Unfortunately, the examples in the story show how "the right reasons" are often not right at all.
  • At one point we read, "Wells knew there was no other way. To save the girl he loved, he’d have to endanger the entire human race." And so he did. Really? That was the only option? And his love was going to justify endangering the entire human race? 
  • Luke moves in with a new girl after Glass is arrested. When Glass shows up again, he dumps the new girl. But don't worry about how she feels: “She’s a great friend, always will be, but that’s all she is to me now, and I’ve told her that.” Well, then. I'm sure she'll be fine. And that was from a guy for whom I was supposed to cheer.
  • Speaking of Glass, she told the authorities that Luke's best friend was the father of her child - thus assuring his arrest and execution - so Luke wouldn't get arrested for getting her pregnant.
It doesn't make sense to talk about forgiveness if nothing we do is actually wrong. Forgiveness only makes sense if some things are not justifiable. I wish the story would have let more actions simply stand raw, exposed and wrong in the light of goodness and truth. That's when the beauty of forgiveness shines brightest.

Thea James posted a 5/10 star review at Kirkus that summarizes The 100 well:
 "The novel has an excellent premise—I love the idea of teenage criminals, most of them wrongfully imprisoned and facing a death sentence as soon as they turn 18, being sent to Earth by a corrupt, desperate government. The alternating viewpoints and the tension onboard the Colony among the different ships… is a gold mine of potential. Unfortunately, instead of developing these promising threads, The 100 is far more interested in focusing on the melodramatic relationships between its characters: including a love triangle, contrived romantic misunderstandings and copious amounts of impassioned kissing. Which would be absolutely fine, if the writing wasn’t so cringeworthy…"
The initial book is meant to be the beginning of a series, so there’s a lot of time yet to see how the characters and plot unfold. Apparently the show is looking better than the book; the early reviews are more consistently positive.

 In the right hands, this story could turn into a morality tale about integrity, trustworthiness and the proper use of power. In the wrong hands, it could settle for being just another YA story about how teens will inexplicably save the world amidst copious amounts of impassioned kissing.

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