November 05, 2012

What Happened to Serenity?

by PJ Sarah Collins
Red Deer Press
222 pp.
Ages 12-15

Nominated for the 2012 Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy, the first year this book prize is being presented, What Happened to Serenity? by PJ Sarah Collins could have been nominated for the Mystery Award as its title suggests.  But that brilliant title alludes to more than the disappearance of Serenity, the younger sister of our protagonist's best friend.  Serenity also seems to be missing from the Community in which fifteen-year-old Katherine and her family live, under the administration of Father.  And one of the key reasons for the distress in Katherine's life is the strict rule, according to the Manifesto, that only Father is allowed to ask questions.  For all other Brothers and Sisters in the Community, it is considered rude to question - anything.  But Katherine, who has great difficulty rephrasing her questions into statements, wants to know, "What Happened to Serenity?"

After the Ecological Revolution of 1979, Father had brought one hundred abandoned babies and fifty Aunts and Uncles to the safety of Community.  Beyond the borders, the environment is poor and unstable, the water irradiated, the air poison. Now in 2021, the Community adheres to the strict dictates for attaining a perfect society.  Since colour is reflective of selfish individualism, Community is Brown, everywhere.  Life Roles are distributed based on compliance and performance.  And no questioning is allowed.  A sense of peacefulness and calm is only a click away on the Remote.

But Katherine cannot reconcile what she is told and what she observes, especially after discovering a note with "the words that changed my life." (pg. 70)
Everything is not as it seems. 
I've seen the outside come  
Through the sky.      (pg. 7)
When her snooping reveals documents with her family's "Retinal Scan Weekly Diagnostic Informational Scores", notes about a recent medical visit, and a shipments and inventory schedule, Katherine is determined to break the rules to ensure the safety of her family and to see beyond the Community.

The reader will not be prepared for the about-face that What Happened to Serenity? takesAnd though I thought that the ease with which Katherine gets support from Paul seemed somewhat contrived, PJ Sarah Collins ensures that Katherine's interactions with the outsiders are not all promising; in fact, too soon Katherine will be questioning her actions.
"I have let the bear into their home and it will destroy everything in its wide-angle view." (pg. 211)
What Happened to Serenity? is a title I will add promptly to my #CanLitChoices alternatives for The Giver.  It is a perfect youngCanLit example of a dystopian story in which the themes of courage, responsibility, oppression and intolerance, authority and power, and community are interwoven into a powerful plot embedded with real characters who all believe that what they are doing is right.  It's unfortunate that those with the power over others do not realize that they alone have doomed their utopia to become what it is - dysfunctional.  What Happened to Serenity? is a cautionary tale worthy of reading as well as heeding.

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