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Thursday
Mar062014

Review: Expiration Day by William Campbell Powell

Expiration Day
William Campbell Powell

Tor Teen
I received an advance copy of this book through the Around the World ARC tour.
Releases on April 22, 2014
336 pages
YA / SciFi / Robots

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What happens when you turn eighteen and there are no more tomorrows?

It is the year 2049, and humanity is on the brink of extinction….

Tania Deeley has always been told that she’s a rarity: a human child in a world where most children are sophisticated androids manufactured by Oxted Corporation. When a decline in global fertility ensued, it was the creation of these near-perfect human copies called teknoids that helped to prevent the utter collapse of society.

Though she has always been aware of the existence of teknoids, it is not until her first day at The Lady Maud High School for Girls that Tania realizes that her best friend, Siân, may be one. Returning home from the summer holiday, she is shocked by how much Siân has changed. Is it possible that these changes were engineered by Oxted? And if Siân could be a teknoid, how many others in Tania’s life are not real?

Driven by the need to understand what sets teknoids apart from their human counterparts, Tania begins to seek answers. But time is running out. For everyone knows that on their eighteenth “birthdays,” teknoids must be returned to Oxted—never to be heard from again.

It makes me very happy to find great science fiction, especially YA scifi, which can almost follow a pretty formulaic pattern. Toss in robots and I am a happy girl. William Campbell Powell’s Expiration Day is one of those happy surprises that surpasses its premise early on and becomes a genuinely surprising piece of robot science fiction. While the story is built around the scifi elements, the story itself focuses on questions of humanity – what qualities separate human from machines, what makes life worth continuing, where do prejudices begin, the importance of the parent/child bond to the society. These more serious themes are hidden behind the standard story about teenage self-discovery and gaining independence.

Tania lives in a world where human children are rare and a company named Oxted has stepped in to create lifelike humanoid robot children to maintain the illusion of family and the continued survival of the species. There are occasional mentions of riots and disasters after the population found that the specie-wide fertility rate had dropped next to nothing. It’s a bit of a jump to accept that human-like robots could put a stop to the complete denigration of societal norms, but the story was so compelling and Tania is a smart character that I was happy to go along with the conceit.

As part of the illusion, these robot children go to school alongside the few remaining humans. Everyone acts as though everyone is human except in the rare occasion that an accident makes it obvious that a friend or classmate is mechanical instead of flesh and blood. The majority of parents have a moment as their android children enter adolescence that the illusion of having real children is broken and the parents can no longer keep up the façade, so it’s rare for any teknoid to live openly as a machine. When a girl decides to embrace her existence as a robot and her parents accept her as she is, the people in her small town are forced to face the reality of the lies they’ve built society around.

The entire book is told in a series of diary entries written by Talia, so it’s completely told from her point of view. Some portions of the stories are told through entries on subsequent days while entire weeks or months can go past between entries. This provides an organic way to tell a story over the course of four or five years through the introspective nature of a diary without it becoming 800 pages long. Talia frames it as though she’s sharing her world and the human race with some alien creature that finds her entries hundreds of years in the future. The diary entries are split up occasionally by interjections from some unnamed life form who, conveniently, found Talia’s journal some hundreds of years in the future. It’s a fun concept that ties the story together in times when it could have felt like it was meandering.

For a debut author, Powell has a great sense of pacing and characterization, making clear distinctions between his characters early on and making even those characters that are only on the pages for a short time into fully formed people. His prose is packed with emotion while living inside Tania’s head is an exciting experience because she’s an intelligent, complex character that continues to develop until the final page. Even the quiet moments of introspection kept me sucked into the story.

While the technology shown in Expiration Day isn’t flashy, it feels realistic for things that would exist a few decades from now. Powell has a background in computer science and it shows. The science doesn’t verge into “magic” territory and everything feel based in realty, which gives an added weight to the story telling. Powell didn’t get in his own way by developing a slew of unnecessary gadgets, rather focusing on the plot instead of the set dressing.

The ending was genuinely surprising in a fantastic way that left me satisfied and pondering what happened in the lives of the characters after the pages were closed. Everything indicates that this is a standalone (YAY!), but Powell sparked something in my imagination that insisted on continuing the story without him. That so rarely happens these days and was a very welcome and pleasant surprise. I found Powell’s writing to be a great change to the paranormal and more fanciful science fiction running rampant in the YA genre.

 

I received a copy of this book through the Around the World ARC tours in return for an honest review. All thoughts are my own.

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