Some dystopia novels are trying to be literature, some are trying to be good trashy fun, some are trying to be profound and fail terribly, some are just way off the mark. Then there’s the category I’d put California in, which is the kind of book that doesn’t really seem sure of what it’s doing, and thus never really makes a mark on the genre or the reader.
Meet Cal and Frida! They’re a typical 20-something couple in the 2050s just trying to make it in a shack in the woods so they don’t have to face the brutal reality of climate destruction, population failure, and the take over of government. They want to be alone, but they also don’t want to be alone. They love each other but fight a lot. Theirs is a meager existence full of push and pulls they don’t really want to commit to. Frida, in particular, is so average and unremarkable I have no idea why she is a main protagonist. Cal at least seems to hold values and has an interesting backstory, but he’s so wishy-washy and easily swayed that he’s also equally dull. We’re told they have sex all the time but the narrative cuts away whenever they do, like some PG13 bullshit.
PG13 bullshit is probably where my issues mostly lie with this. It’s like Lepuki wants to go all in on a dystopic narrative but she just doesn’t really want to hurt anyone she’s written. They don’t suffer any consequences that aren’t telegraphed a mile away, they don’t care about anything other than themselves and their own interests, and they don’t seem interested in anything going on outside of their own existence. They are so plainly self centred I didn’t even notice how all encompassing that was until I started to write this. At least in YA dystopias most authors give their characters some heavy trauma to make it more dramatic. Some of the greatest dystopic works are about incredibly average joes, but they learn a lesson and change profoundly by the end, if they even make it to the end; I don’t think I can say the same about Cal and Frida.
Sometimes, a character will be talking to another one and a big secret will be about to be revealed and then the character will literally say, “I’ve said too much, another time” and we have to wait another chapter, usually two, to get to the point, while the characters wander around aimlessly wondering what the big secret was. There are about 100 pages that could be cut from this book if that didn’t happen at least three times. I feel like, once upon a time, this was a great short story or novella idea, but because Lepucki doesn’t have the nerve to put the characters through the ringer, it doesn’t justify the length with the current level of information.
So I really don’t know who this is for. I don’t really know what the point was- what the message is. The good dystopias stay with you because they warn you about your current behaviour and transgressions, they remind you to keep an eye on things so they don’t spiral out of control. They take our society and twist the corners so they fold in on us and they rightfully scare us. California just plods along, hitting the required plot beats and involving us in the mundane details of two people who don’t care about how the world got here. I guess if you’d never read a dystopic book, it might be a good way to dip your toes into the genre, but why do that when there’s so many better stories out there?