Friday, October 5, 2012

SCORED


Review of SCORED by LAUREN MCLAUGHLIN
(review based on an advance reading copy)

This is one of those rare books that ranks highly in terms of both entertainment and intellectual value. I had already heard of McLaughlin. She wrote a book called CYCLER that made it onto my to-read list, but, sadly, went out-of-print before I made time for it. However, I enjoyed SCORED so much that I'm going to track down all McLaughlin's other novels, out-of-print or not!

The voice hooked me from the start. McLaughlin's characters pop with unique, complex, realistic personalities, and she's notably skilled at working in important information exactly when the reader needs it, without detracting from the story, of course. The reader in me jumped into this novel headfirst and loved every moment while the writer in me analyzed and learned from an impressive talent. Also - since some books might have great openings but then can't live up to that implicit promise - let me specify that SCORED only becomes more engrossing, more intriguing, more impacting as the story unfolds.

Let's put a pause on the gushing so I can describe SCORED. McLaughlin's world is a near future to our own. Frustrated with the inability of GPA and SAT scores to realistically measure a student's future potential, tech geniuses created highly intelligent software that can analyze everything about an individual - including tone, word choice, expression, body language, etc. - and then estimate their potential on a 0 to 100 scale. In scored towns, cameras are everywhere, monitoring the teenagers for their monthly score posting. Score high and life will be smooth: any college will take you on a full-ride scholarship and you can handpick your career path. Score low and doors start closing. Thus, scored teenager's lives become devoted to improving, or at least maintaining, their score. 90s only interact with other 90s. 80s with 80s, etc, out of fear that acknowledging someone with a lower score than your own could cause yours to slip by negative association. So that's the world. Enter Imani, our protagonist, and her best friend, Cady. As kids, Imani and Cady made a pact: a pact to stay friends no matter how their scores changed. Unfortunately, loyalty doesn't score high and, as Cady's score starts plummeting, Imani must decide whether loyalty's worth sacrificing her entire future or if she should wipe her hands of Cady before her own score becomes irredeemable. I hope that alone intrigues anyone who hasn't read the book, but I'll add that I'm only covering the first few chapters. The dynamics of the score and Imani's worldview will make more than one remarkable shift before this book reaches its end. 

While one can turn their brain off and simply enjoy SCORED as an entertaining story, I'm not sure why you'd want to with this bounty of timely, urgent issues. Two in particular leaped out at me (though there are plenty of other obvious and more subtle themes, such as wealth and economics). First, scored teenagers learn to value themselves only in terms of their score, a trend mirrored in reality with GPAs and other academic measurements. They sacrifice any other sense of self-worth for a high academic standing. As someone who loves learning, but has many problems with structured education, this underexplored (at least in YA lit) theme is near and dear to my heart and I was thrilled when I realized it's the core of McLaughlin's story. Second, peer pressure, which might be explored to death in YA lit but never grows old. McLaughlin approaches peer pressure from the less common long-term ambition angle (rather than immediate gratification about being liked right now). For those who take their score seriously, all relationships are expendable. Cut 'em before you go down with 'em.

I hope this book makes its way into the education system. High school and college English classes alike could significantly benefit from discussing these themes.

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