Em’s “birth” is painful and confusing. The only real sense of memory she has is that today is her birthday, and she is twelve years old. Subsequent clues immediately put this knowledge into doubt, however. For one thing, she’s wearing clothes that are clearly too small for her. The first solid information she finds comes from the identification panel of the pod (Crib? Coffin? Hybernation Capsule?) from which she escapes. “M. Savage” . . . her name? But, this too feels disconnected and somehow wrong.
Into this blank slate, Scott Sigler weaves a no-frills narrative that feels more like a short story or novelette. The plot is claustrophobically tense and keeps moving forward at a running pace from the very first pages. The narration is extremely efficient, very fitting for the internal dialogue of a main character who knows nearly nothing about herself, where she came from, or where she is. The blank slate quickly gets filled up with new characters, complicated relationships, and an increasingly pressing mystery to solve, but the focus of the story never strays far from this central mystery.
Em finds herself in a social structure that is evolving in a sort of reverse Lord of the Flies progression from chaos to a rudimentary tribal system. A leader is chosen, people assume tasks based on their obvious skills, and a sense of order, if tenuous, is established. We spend considerable time inside the leader’s head as she contemplates how to get the growing group of followers to trust her, agonizes over making the right decisions, and vacillates about whether or not she even wants to be a leader. Along the way, Sigler touches on all of the Lord of the Flies themes you discussed back in AP English: the nature of evil; latent savagery in humans; and the balance between nature and nurture. All of this is nicely bookended in overlapping images of birth and death. Is that sterile pod a crib or is it a coffin?
The world-building in Alive is necessarily restricted to only what our protagonists slowly become aware of as the story progresses. All that environmental sparsity keeps our attention zeroed in on the mental and emotional struggles of the protagonist. At the same time, Sigler does a nice job of maintaining a visual interest in an environment that is both redundant and sterile.
We encounter our fair share of plot twists along the way. None of these are terribly difficult for a sci-fi savvy reader to predict, but Sigler does a very nice job of letting the reader feel them for the momentous revelation they are to the characters in the story. And, I appreciated that Sigler answers pretty much all of the questions he raises, so we can move on from this first installment to new, uncharted ground in the sequels.
On that note, Alive achieves the somewhat rare feat of being the first installment in a promised trilogy that is a successful story in and of itself. The ending is satisfying both in terms of closure and in its promise of new plot possibilities. Sigler has given himself the opportunity to radically change up the environment of the story with the future books of the series, which I very much hope he exploits to its full advantage. It will be interesting to see if he can maintain the same sense of tone and tension as he likely broadens the scope of the story and character interaction.
I found it fascinating to be reading this book at the same time I’ve started a re-watch of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. I find both to be very thought-provoking discussions of what makes a person a unique personality. This same topic, throughout the science fiction genre, whether it be in the guise of robots, clones, memory modification, time travel, etc., allows us to strip back all the minutiae society overloads us with to get at some of the central questions of existence . . . what are we, why are we here, and what should we become? Always a worthwhile exploration.