To the pantheon of Young Adult fiction that includes “dystopian future” and “paranormal teen romance,” we now add “sci-chic.” Lauren Miller’s Free to Fall is her second novel categorized as such: It’s the intersection of popular science, culture, and “cool.” And, in another sense, we can read it as “sci-chick,” which sort of follows logically from the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sphere of influence. Enter smart, feminine protagonist, and throw her deep into a bio-tech conspiracy that calls for basic coding, a hacker friend, and a working understanding of the Fibonacci sequence.
That’s essentially the formula for success in Free to Fall. It’s Miller’s sophomore effort, which follows 16 year-old Aurora “Rory” Vaughn in her first year at Theden Academy. She lives in a tech-obsessed near future, where Apple and Google have been replaced by Gnosis, a tech company that’s fully infiltrated everyone’s consciousness with a Siri-style app, Lux. Rory and her peers are glued to their handheld Gemini phones and cede all decision making to the app, designed to steer users towards the best options for a “happy, healthy life.”
Rory’s thrilled by her acceptance to the elite college prep school; It’s the golden ticket to a perfect life. But the whole thing’s thrown off when Rory discovers her late mother was a Theden alumna-cum-dropout, and that her death (at Rory’s birth) may have been less of an accident. Add to this a cloak-and-dagger secret society, an off-the-grid hacker hottie living just off campus, the fire-breathing Dr. Tarsus who seems to be out for Rory and her GPA, and an Ivy League-size course load, and there’s your sci-chic/YA/biotech thriller.
Free to Fall, like all good YA novels of late, has shades of Harry Potter, with its student classification system (Rory’s a hepta, good at all seven liberal arts, very rare) set against the backdrop of a stuffy (New) England boarding school. Rory’s our Harry stand-in, with the mysterious and auspicious circumstances of her birth, and a supremely Snape-like relationship with the formidable Dr. Tarsus.
There’s plenty of that teen coming-of-age gossip, angst, and anxiety; Between sussing out the details of a shadowy biotech conspiracy that bleeds off-campus and out into the world, Rory rolls her eyes through lunches in the dining hall with calorie-counting besties, awkwardly dresses up for formals, and falls for an older guy with a Mohawk and a studio apartment. The prose trips and falls into a rhythm, sketching out this teen-girl world just enough, but might leave you jonesing for a little something more. (To satisfy the urge for snarky and relatable inner monologue, see Curtis Sittenfeld’s genius Prep, or Megan McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings.)
Miller’s strength lies in extrapolating a version of reality that doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility and adding colorful sci-fi details that makes the otherwise drab world of Theden kind of pop. Miller’s penchant for pop-psychology yields “akratic paracusia disorder.” It’s “The Doubt,” the pejorative term applied to intuition, that if “diagnosed” results in heavy prescriptions and sometimes institutionalization. (Naturally, our hero hears it.) Theden’s secret society trades in word puzzles and Greek translations and a weird obsession with the Fibonacci sequence. Rory’s hacker boyfriend, North, spouts techno-jargon and woos with a dexterous flick of the fingers at the keyboard. Wikipedia is now “Panopticon,” Facebook is “Forum,” and everyone’s constantly tracking locations and status updates and selfies and hashtags, now to the nth degree.
But there are some points where it’s all just too too. Biotech conspiracy thriller is a fine line to walk, and with the natural heightening that comes with YA territory, dealing with “nanobots” is tricky business. And while the conspiracy itself is pretty well-plotted, for any readers of any thrillers ever, the big reveals all feel pretty predictable.
It is exciting to see a teen tech heroine; you’ll want to root for her to solve her mystery and escape the clutches of the bad guys. But Rory suffers a little bit from Bella Swan syndrome, if only because she falls so fast and hard for North, who’s easily construed as a creepy older townie scamming on high school girls who steps in to protect Rory from the dangers she might not be able to handle on her own. She puts up a little bit of a fight, but “nerdy girl melts for hot guy” trope trumps all.
Free to Fall provides a welcome change from all those kids fighting to the death in televised arenas with tracking chips in their arms for the chance to see the sun in an environmentally blighted apocalyptic future. “Sci-chic” could catch on.
Free to Fall by Lauren Miller is out in May.