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Fitting into a forlorn future

The Other Side of the Island; A Novel; Allegra Goodman; Razorbill: 280 pp., $16.99

September 14, 2008|Susan Carpenter | Susan Carpenter is a Times staff writer.

What if the most dire predictions about global warming and its ramifications came true? What if the ozone layer disappeared, the polar ice caps melted and the Earth flooded, killing 90% of the world's population and subjecting the remaining few to disease, warfare and famine? That's the intriguing scenario author Allegra Goodman has envisioned in "The Other Side of the Island," her first science-fiction novel and her first novel for young adults.

In this Brave New World of sorts, the survivors live on a smattering of former mountain peaks -- now islands -- in a "country" run by a corporation. Individuals' movements are monitored. Entire families must abide by curfews. Anyone who violates the rules is taken, never to be seen again.

Who is making the rules? Which actions are acceptable or unacceptable -- the corporation's or the individual's? Those are the questions facing the book's 'tween heroine, Honor, in this post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story.

Like Goodman's 2006 bestseller, "Intuition," this book wrestles with issues of science, faith and doubt, but here they are steeped in matters of the environment and wrapped in the conventions of young adult literature.

Ten years old when the book begins, Honor is the new kid at school, having been "retrieved" from a Northern island the corporation hadn't approved for residency. Her family is poor. She lives in an undesirable part of town -- near the water -- where her house could easily be ripped apart by unpredictable weather. Honor is the classic outsider who desperately wants to belong in this strange and new community.

But her parents are making that difficult. They sneak out after curfew. They violate the rules by keeping books in the house. They have a second child, who is also looked down upon. A rift begins to form between Honor, who is learning to be obedient so she can better blend in at school, and her parents, who are trying to teach her to think for herself. No surprise, her parents are taken away, which is where Honor's real journey toward self-discovery begins.

A dark vision rendered in wonderful and imaginative detail, "The Other Side of the Island" is a cautionary tale that will likely be embraced by left-leaning, politically aware and environmentally conscious teens and adults alike, regardless of whether or not they read sci-fi. With global warming, carbon footprints and the corporatization of government dominating headlines, Goodman's story is timely and disturbing. It's also a book that's likely to be read in one sitting. The story is that well-paced, helped along by Goodman's careful revealing of the shocking details of life on this odd version of planet Earth, where high-rise hotels can be seen just below the water's surface and residents must always be careful to wear sunscreen.

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