Sofia and The Runaways
Ambitious young-adult dystopian novel is ultimately an escape fantasy
By Letitia Lew
Sofia and the Utopia Machine
I have a confession: I am one of those adults who is no longer the target audience for young-adult fiction. I am now much more likely to be the grown-up who remains buried in her book or iPhone than the child who tugs on the adult's shirt to get her to notice the superhero or monster flying past. So, when a "bold and fantastical work" like Judith Huang's Sofia and the Utopia Machine comes along, I have mixed feelings. Part of me wants to point out how it could be improved for the adult reader, and yet I also dearly wish I could have read it through the eyes of a teenager who used to delight in works such as Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. At first glance, Sofia and the Utopia Machine appears to share elements in common with L'Engle's science-fiction classic: a self-conscious adolescent protagonist, whose parents are both scientists and whose father has gone missing, travels to another world and faces down an abstract personification of evil.
However, Huang's novel distinguishes itself by being even more ambitious. Sofia is a 15-year-old girl who grows up in a futuristic Singapore and faces typical teenage problems, such as dealing with her emotionally unstable mother and worrying about fitting in at school. Sofia's hobby is creating 'holosheets' of elaborate imaginary cities, on whose denizens she occasionally vents her frustration. One day, a mysterious boy from the upper class called the Canopies incites Sofia to discover a top-secret project known as the Utopia Machine, which she alone is able to activate. Hence, not only does Huang create her own dystopian version of Singapore, but Sofia herself eventually creates an entire new universe through the Machine, complete with its own creation and catastrophe myths. That is quite a tremendous premise to live up to.
If you find it very meta that the author has built a world in which her character also builds worlds, you are on to something––this world-building is where Huang excites the reader, and this same talent is also the reason that Julian Li, "the son of the most important man in the country", falls for Sofia.
In this dystopian Singapore, people whiz about on 'escapods' and are perpetually plugged into their 'netboxes', with the accompanying array of floating holos that immerse them in the digital world. Singapore has been segmented into the opulent hovering Canopies, where elites literally live the high life; the Midlevels (or HDB heartlands) where Sofia lives; and the Voids, which are full of undesirables who speak poor English and live in squalid conditions, disconnected from the Internet.
This dystopia allows Huang to discuss several fascinating issues concerning Singapore and scientific ethics, from family friend Uncle Kirk's perturbing experiments in genetic warfare to the idea of being constantly monitored by the electronics you carry with you. But while elements of life in Singapore have been given shiny new names, this reviewer cannot help but feel that Huang has merely made a direct extrapolation from the discussion surrounding existing trends of socioeconomic inequality and technological progress.
Where Huang shines is at mythmaking. After Sofia creates her new universe, Huang plunges the reader into meandering myths that are satisfyingly complex, drawing inspiration from sources as varied as Shakespeare's The Tempest, the Arabian Nights, and Calvino's Invisible Cities, while adding an unmistakably Southeast Asian flavour. One myth describes crab fishermen competing for the hand of the village chief's daughter, which a reader might imagine taking place in any number of fishing villages from the Malay Peninsula down to Temasek; another myth, 'The Fisherman', describes a self-fulfilling dream prophecy, a technique used in multiple tales in the Arabian Nights. The gorgeous fairytale language will appeal to fantasy lovers:
Another myth called 'The Beginning' extols the virtues of curiosity and rationality that eventually lead humanity down the path of scientific discovery.
What makes the world-building so important is that the characters live in a reality so tightly regulated and so dismal that they prefer to live in the digital world. The main antagonist in the story is, unsurprisingly for a Singaporean novel, the Singapore government.
It begins with Julian Li hailing the elite Prism Club, which preaches the necessity of keeping social strata distinct to preserve "a rainbow of diversity". Then, to hammer the point home, Sofia discovers an essay written by her scientist father Peter Tan, in which he condemns the Party's creation of myths to maintain its authoritarian hold on the country.
"So the myth that we are perpetually sinking, perpetually just about to go under, that our success is the sort that keeps our head just above water, and at any time, if we stop paddling, we will drown––this has become a precious and utterly necessary myth in the foundation of Singapore."
For adult readers, the essay rambles on a bit too much and serves as a microcosm of the book: while written poetically and with heartfelt emotion, it skims over too many topics: inequality, the cut-throat education system, immigration, detention, and torture, even including a paragraph-long quote from Lee Kuan Yew on openness in society. This reviewer wishes Huang had instead picked a couple of elements to focus on. Peter's essay also seems unconvincing because it appears to originate from the reader's Singapore, and makes no mention of the futuristic Singapore of Peter and Sofia, nothing of the netboxes or Canopies or Voids. On the other hand, the essay may be an eye-opening read for young adults. It may even be their first encounter with many arguments and perspectives not covered in the state-approved Social Studies syllabus, and thus a salutary element in a YA novel.
Sofia's father ends his essay with the epigraph: "The Utopia Machine is the answer––to build a world for our people, for all our people, a world where we can all be together."
This explosive discovery opens up many interesting questions about the mysterious machine, but the plot subsequently begins to flounder a little. In the middle of the novel it rarely feels as though characters are driven to action out of necessity, and some of their decisions are questionable. When Sofia receives a message from Uncle Kirk telling her to meet him at the Changi docks, she thinks: "Everyone knew that you would get yourself killed if you went to the Voids." But she still goes anyway, while I wanted a stronger reason to push her towards such a perilous place. Then when she goes into the Voids, there is no sign that she is actually being pursued by the government, and she ends up meeting someone who takes care of everything for her henceforth.
This reviewer felt that the plot could have thrown more obstacles in Sofia's way. I wanted to see Sofia argue and clash with the other characters, or for her to encounter some hiccups in the process of creating her own universe; for Sofia to undergo the trials that the characters in her myths (Hyzid, the Fisherman, and Ha'shan) so brilliantly faced. Perhaps if Huang had created a tangible antagonist instead of the abstract Party or the unseen Inquisitor who interrogates Sofia's mother, that could have helped to increase the tension in the story.
The most ambitious part of this book is arguably turning this teenage girl into a goddess. Becoming a goddess means power, responsibility, and a chance for Sofia to grow up. Huang portrays the ethereal scene with swirling poetics befitting its grandeur:
Despite all the optics, however, the transition is far from complete. Sofia still has too much of the Singaporean teenager left in her, and soon itches to return home. "Of course it was nice to be a goddess, but surely she needed to get back to school and her mother and her previous life."
But Huang develops her character so that Sofia later confronts the Lotan, another antagonist that threatens her universe:
This is the moment when Sofia can empathise with the main antagonist in the story––the Singapore government. As architects and custodians of their respective territories, Sofia can finally understand the intense motivation behind wanting to protect their lands, even if she will choose different measures to do so. This reviewer once had the privilege of hearing Brown professor Arnold Weinstein lecture about this moment of 'becoming the Other', when a character's circumstances in the story change to enable them to see through another character's perspective. Just as myths were created to aid the Singapore government, so, too, were myths established to deify Sofia. One in particular advocated the sacrifice of a man named Ha'Shan in order to help the goddess save her universe. This confluence of perspectives is one of the qualities I look for in great literature (from Western masterpieces such as Coetzee's Disgrace to Malay folktales like Raja Bersiong, the Fanged King) and I am impressed that Huang delivers in this respect.
What Huang does not deliver, however, is a satisfying ending for adult readers. This is perhaps unsurprising given the ambitious scope of the novel and, specifically the ambition of Peter Tan's Utopia Machine.
In several action-packed final chapters that will likely thrill young readers, Sofia and her compatriots go on the run from the government, and a villageful of them escape into Sofia's new universe. Their biblical-level gratitude and triumph at the new beginning almost makes the reader forget that they did not manage to change the existing dystopia of Singapore or to help the disenfranchised people of the Voids who suffered the most––and they did not even try. They ran away from their problems, so the story ends up becoming little more than an exile's fantasy. The pretty mythology that Huang weaves through half the book, just like the myths Peter Tan claims the Party wields to maintain its grip on power, disguises the fact that Sofia could not deliver on her father's vision of the Utopia Machine: a world "for all our people".
Huang is clearly a capable writer; at her best her writing is breathtaking. If she works on improving her plots then I look forward to watching her build even greater new worlds in the future. And if I ever have a teenage daughter, I want her to read Sofia and the Utopia Machine and will hope that she is delighted by it.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 4 Oct 2018