Futuretrack 5 by Robert Westall
Kestrel Books, 1983
Price I paid: none
Henry Kitson makes his first mistake when he scores a hundred per cent in his exams. Not for him therefore the glamorous cushy career pattern of most of his contemporaries. Promoted to Tech, he is equipped with a white coat and a clipboard and becomes one of that small body who keep the country’s computerized living systems going.
His second mistake is going on the razzle. In London, where survival depends on skill and daring and the population is controlled by fear and sensationalism, Kitson becomes pinball champion and meets blond, leather-clad Keri, London’s bike-racing champion of Futuretrack 5.
Together they go north in an uneasy partnership. And what they learn as they go, they don’t like, for this is Britain of the twenty-first century and if you question the system too much you come to regret it. But who does know the answers? And what is Kitson’s destined role? As a fortune teller predicts, “You’ll regret what you’ll do for the rest of your born days. And you’ll have plenty of time to regret it.”
In this major new novel, Robert Westall has brilliantly created a future world which is all too plausible.
So I came by this book because it was given to me by my friend Michelle, who, if I recall correctly, found it in a Little Free Library or equivalent neighborhood structure. Before it found its way there, it appears to have been culled from the collection of the library at Knoxville Catholic High School, from which, if the card in the back is any indication, it was never checked out.
It’s easy to see why! That cover art is not inspiring. Nothing about it says “Read me, teens!” If anything, it says “I found this stormtrooper helmet at a Dollar General” and then somebody else says “Actually it looks a little more like a scout trooper’s helmet, also why are you unbuckling your belt?”
Note: Michelle had a birthday recently, so let’s all do a shout out in the comments!
The book appears to be YA but I’m finding that hard to reconcile with the contents. Also, I’ve said it before but I think it bears repeating, I’m totally cool with YA lit and I’m never going to rag on something just for being targeted to that age group. I’ve read some YA novels that are far gutsier when it comes to facing certain issues than “adult” books. That said, Sturgeon’s Law still applies, and what we have here is part of the 90%.
We’ve got ourselves a futuristic dystopia set in the wild and far out year of 2012. And here’s where we’re going to get to the meat of my complaints about this book, the big doozy. See, I have no idea what this dystopia is actually all about.
It’s not even like in some books where the dystopic elements are just some vague sense of there not being enough freedom. The world this book is set in is so poorly described—perhaps intentionally?—that I don’t even know what the main character is mad about.
And boy is he mad! When we meet him, Henry Kitson is a snarky twenty-odd-year-old who is about to graduate from Future Dystopia School. I’m not actually sure what the real name of his school is, but it’s a boarding school of some sort, very British. This whole book is very British in all the worst ways.
I reckon the education system in Britain currently has things called A-levels and O-levels. In the book there are a lot more, and Henry, or Kit as he’s usually called, is awaiting the results of his E-levels. The E-levels are a big deal. If you pass, you become something called an Est, and you get to live a swanky life for the rest of your days and drink cocktails and stuff. If you fail, you DIE.
Okay, well, you don’t die immediately. Instead, you’re declared an Unnem and thrown behind something called The Wire and forced to live in an apocalyptic hellscape in the ruins of London, where people live fast and die young and also, uh, mutate for some reason?
Kit is quite confident that he’s passed, but then it turns out that there’s a twist.
I’ve complained before, although I’m not sure if I have in this blog specifically, about a fairly common YA sci-fi and fantasy trope. It’s not exclusive to YA, but that’s where I feel like I’ve seen it most often. It’s what I call the Exception Protagonist:
In a world where everyone lives and is defined by which side of the country they live on, East and West are at war with one another over the interior of what used to be the United States. But suddenly there is something new, someone arises who holds an affiliation to no ocean, who is neither Atlantean or Pacifican. Jade Cornhustle is…
If it’s not clear from my extremely tortured joke, the idea is that our author constructs a world where everybody is either this or that except for our protagonist, who is special.
I said I’ve complained about this before, and here’s what I’m going to do today. I’m gonna take it back. I’ve thought long and hard about this trope and I think it actually has value. I think it’s very important for people, especially kids and teens, to see a setup where the differences between some people are deliberate constructs, created to keep people away from each other, and that those constructs can be overcome. A situation where it turns out that None of the Above is the correct answer. People need to see that because in it they can see themselves and the power they hold to define themselves outside of societal constructs, and that’s rad.
I’m not saying any of that is what happens in this book, it’s just been on my chest for a bit.
Anyway, it turns out that Kit scored 100% on his exams, and therefore he’s neither an Est nor an Unnem. Instead, he’s a Tech, and it’s his job to be part of the actual force running the country.
Running it to do what? I still don’t know.
We do learn that there’s a computer that makes all the real decisions. It’s name is Laura and it was invented by a guy named Idris, who fashioned it to look like some lady who left him once. Kit is appointed to be Idris’s assistant, which is a very hard job because Idris hates everyone, but then it turns out that Kit is kinda okay. They work together for a while and then Idris takes a bunch of pills and dies, but not before he tells Kit to seek revenge on some guy named Scott-Astbury, who did some kind of a bad thing once.
Kit, now disillusioned, goes on a razzle, which is where Techs get to shirk their responsibilities and go live among the Unnems for a while. Usually it’s just for a few days, max, but Kit sticks around. He becomes a champion at something called pinball which is never described as being anything like pinball as I’ve ever seen it played. Whatever it is, it’s also a job, and it’s Futuretrack, uh, 3? I think?
If I recall correctly, Futuretrack 1 is music, 3 is “pinball,” 5 is motorcycle racing, and 6 is sex work.
This entire concept takes up about fifteen pages of the book, and yet it’s what the book is named after.
After a pointless extended interlude where Kit lives with a sex worker for a while and helps her meet a quota by wearing mustaches and hats, Kit meets Keri, our book’s representative of Futuretrack 5, who also has fantastic breasts.
That’s most of what we know about her! This book mentions breasts like a dozen times, fairly often in relation to Keri, but not always. And lest we think that it’s indicative of Kit and his own immaturity or preferences, it’s not always from his point of view. This is a book with a breast thing, and okay, whatever, except that they’re always called either “boobs” or “bosoms,” which is just impossible to take seriously.
I guess this book gets to order off the secret menu at Taco Bell.
Kit falls in love with Keri in a pathetic kind of way, and then he comes into possession of a magnificent motorcycle from his dad, and he tries to gift it to Keri because she’s a phenomenal motorcycle racer, and then she wins a big race and gets to go to Glasgow for a different race and Kit comes with her.
All the while, Kit is trying to find this Scott-Astbury guy, with no luck. He doesn’t even know what the guy did.
The book meanders around from London to Glasgow and then into the Fens, all the while nobody is learning anything about why any of this is happening, least of all me, the reader. I wish I could say that what we do learn about this world is tantalizing, but no, it’s mostly racist. And I don’t know why.
The only Black people we meet are behind The Wire running around in gangs. Every time a servant (usually in an Est estate) is mentioned, their race is mentioned as well, and it’s always Chinese. There are soldiers called Paramils who enforce whatever dystopic things there are, and on one or two occasions they’re called Gurkhas, so I reckon they’re Nepalese or from somewhere similar. Kit frequently berates them for being stupid and mindless.
But if casual racism isn’t enough for you, there’s also casual homophobia! And even one instance of a transphobic slur! Folks, it’s 1983, and it’s bad!
It’s in the Fens that Kit and Keri find some semblance of temporary happiness. They fall in with some plain simple folk who just grow food and have good times and take care of one another. It’s very nice. Things take a turn when Kit discovers that the whole setup is also a sort of a zoo so that Ests came come and look at the plain simple folk and spy on them and I guess laugh at them. This so enrages Kit that he begins formulating a plan to end the British Situation, whatever it is, for good.
There are occasional mentions of something called Scott-Astbury’s Mistake, but we never learn what that is. It’s important to Kit, though, that he get his revenge for it. What he does learn is that the existence of the FenFolk is all a part of some kind of a plan. A nasty, devious plan, I guess, maybe? It doesn’t make sense.
All we learn about the plan, overheard by Kit being discussed between two Ests, is that the people in the Fens are being given fertility drugs. Or, at the very least, they’re not being given the anti-fertility drugs that everyone else in the country are being given. The plan is to have these plain simple folk breed until they “repopulate” Britain. That’s all we learn! Is Britain depopulated for some reason? Is this some kind of a weird eugenics thing?
The absolute best guess I’ve got is that they’re such plain simple folk that they’ll be easy to control, or something. But I’m not even going to give the book that much credit.
Whatever the deal is, it enrages Kit, so doubles down on his efforts to overthrow the regime. His plan is to win a drama contest so that he (and his troupe) can go to Cambridge for a bigger drama contest, which happens to be where the Techs and specifically Laura are. He’s going to destroy the National Computer.
Also, Keri has finally fallen in love with him in return, and he gets her pregnant, and that’s kind of dramatic and tense.
Together they all to go to Cambridge, where they meet a fortune teller who tells Keri that the baby will make her proud of what it does, and then she tells Kit that what he’s going to regret doing what he’s planning on doing, and that he’ll have a long time to regret it. For something that merited mentioning on the jacket flap, this is a thing that came up with about twenty pages left in the book.
And so the end of the book consists of Kit breaking into the Tech…place…and carrying a bomb with him. But then he has to use the bomb early to get to the computer at all, and when he’s there he’s not sure what to do.
I neglected to mention that at the beginning of the book, Idris, the guy who created the computer, had a secret plan that he’d use if they ever tried to take the computer away from him. He even tried to use it once but it failed. Anyway, Kit remembers it and he’s able to make it work this time.
The secret plan was just a tape he could feed into the computer to teach it ethics.
Okay, I’m not going to lie, I do kind of like this bit. It’s got a nice sort of anarchist twang that I can dig.
The tape is full of lessons about ethics and biographies of people like Gandhi and Buddha and Jesus. Kit is able to load the tape into the computer just before the Paramils show up. The computer has questions, though, and will only accept answers from Kit. If she can’t get the answers, she’ll start blowing up Atomic power plants (without killing anyone, because I guess she’s got ethics now).
And so the ending of the book is the fulfillment of the prophecy we got like twenty pages ago, in which Kit is now trapped teaching this computer things about Buddha and Jesus (actually, the computer dismisses Buddha as too culturally distant to be any use, which is pretty shitty, considering that the one alternative it gives is a Middle Eastern fella who lived 2000 years ago). And I guess that’s a bad ending or whatever because Kit hates it, and that’s fine by me.
God this book was long. And it didn’t need to be so long! For a book that took as much time as it did to do anything, it also failed to give any context or background or anything that would make those things make sense. It was just padded out with irrelevant adventures with no emotional weight, and also the longest, most tortured analogies and similes and metaphors that you can imagine. About everything.
It is possible that I am a hypocrite for complaining about that, but I don’t care.
Some of the background that we do get is, like I said, less tantalizing than offensive. What’s not offensive is just irritating in its lack of explanation. For example, there are helicopters that can detect negative emotions. They fly around looking for people who are not having a good time. Why? Are negative emotions illegal? If so, why? To what end? Wherefore? Whence?
I found myself hoping beyond hope that there would be one chapter of talking head exposition just so I could get my bearings. I couldn’t bring myself to care about this society, positively or negatively, because there was nothing explained about it. We’re just told it’s bad, over and over again, by a guy we’re told is smart.
And that’s what it boils down to. This book is a master class of telling without showing. It’s almost magnificent, especially when it also completely fails to even tell us about several very important concepts!
My brain hurts.