THE UNIDENTIFIED: dystopian YA about education tranformed into a giant, heavily sponsored game

By Cory Doctorow

Rae Mariz's debut YA The Unidentified is a thrilling, engaging polemic about the corporatization of kids' lives in the guise of a mystery story.

In the future, the US education system has gone bankrupt, and has been rescued by the private sector, who convert giant malls into heavily surveilled school buildings in which all education takes place as a series of sponsored games that, on the one hand, deliver tailored, creative curriculum, but, on the other, commodify all learning, social intercourse and creativity, turning it all into trends and products that are sold back to the students and the wider world.

Our plucky heroine is a girl named Kid. Kid likes mixing her own music, is a moderately successful student, but isn't anywhere near the top of the social ladder. Far from it; she's hardly got any friends at all on her profile, and is skeptical of the whole enterprise.

This makes her an ideal candidate for the school's corporate sponsors, who are anxious to reach the disaffected outsiders who are the last remaining target market. So when Kid discovers a gruesome, anti-corporatist prank and begins to investigate it, it's only natural that the sponsors would swoop in to underwrite her mystery and use it to sell a whole new package of anti-sponsor sponsored goods.

Subversive, cleverly written, challenging, and surprising, The Unidentified is a great book for young adults and the grownups who care about them, in the tradition of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies. Highly recommended.

The Unidentified

Published 5:47 am Fri, Oct 8, 2010

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About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

15 Responses to “THE UNIDENTIFIED: dystopian YA about education tranformed into a giant, heavily sponsored game”

  1. Brian Moore says:

    “heavily surveilled school buildings in which all education takes place as a series of sponsored games that, on the one hand, deliver tailored, creative curriculum”

    As opposed to what we have today, which are heavily surveilled buildings that don’t provide tailored, creative curriculum.

    I get that people dislike “commodified learning”, but a future US where our educational system is really successful seems to lack the punch of the “dys” in “dystopia.”

  2. Chentzilla says:

    That post title gave me an impression that you would talk about a book transformed into a game.

  3. jetfx says:

    The way our school systems have been infiltrated by business culture, I’d say it’s already been commodified. Schools, particularly universities, have been increasingly tailored to outputting useful employees at the expense of a broader education.

    I do like how he explains to kids why culture jamming will never be an effective tool of resistance, because it is so easy to commodify “anti-sponsor sponsored goods.”

  4. ericmartinex1 says:

    When will a post-apocalyptic US setting for a sci-fi novel be declared as a played out trope?

  5. Cari Pat says:

    This sounds similar to Feed by M.T Anderson. Any basis there or is it just the school/consumerism that sounds similar?

    Will add it to my “to purchase list.” Thanks, Cory!

  6. Sapa says:

    As a parent I’d buy this and hope my teenagers would read it but tearing them away from their computers and so on is almost impossible, kids just don’t read – they might sit down with “Underground” because its graphical. I might buy this and tell them they Can’t read it (and then turn off the electricity and say we had a power cut)

  7. tyger11 says:

    Sapa @6 – maybe if you could turn reading into a game! Oh, wait…

  8. Oliver says:

    What does YA mean?

  9. Anonymous says:

    Sounds like a reaction to particular trends in our current world instead of a project of a feasible future. Sci-fi becomes only interesting alt-worlds when it removes key part of what makes us people. And by “people” I’m also including the many who work in corporations and have minds and morals that preclude this level of social fracture.

    • Cowicide says:

      Sounds like a reaction to particular trends in our current world instead of a project of a feasible future. Sci-fi becomes only interesting alt-worlds when it removes key part of what makes us people. And by “people” I’m also including the many who work in corporations and have minds and morals that preclude this level of social fracture.

      Did you mean hive minds and morals?

  10. Coherent says:

    I’m not sure that this book can make the case that it’s actually a “dystopian” future. Let’s look at the premises of the novel:

    #1, Education as a game. Actually sounds pretty cool and fun, and absolutely more engaging than any school curriculum I’ve ever experienced.

    #2, Rebel girl is outside of system and skeptical of it. System capitalizes on this, embracing her and anti-corporatism in order to bring disaffected outsiders into the fold.

    It sounds to me like this is a powerful, flexible system that seeks its own weaknesses in order to grow and thrive. Not a dystopian system! This system sounds… successful.

    So maybe the secret twist at the end is that it’s not dystopian at all, but an example of a better future? If so, not much of a twist since the premise gives it away.

    • HeyFranco says:

      The premises of a dystopian novel ALWAYS seem positive at the beginning – that’s the whole point. The ‘dys’ is usually revealed through the interactions of the main character (who is ALWAYS an outsider that the powers at be are trying to welcome into the fold) with the rest of society. Read Nineteen Eighty-four or Brave New World.

  11. foxtails says:

    Oliver: YA = Young Adult. Cory meant dropped the word “book”.

  12. minamisan says:

    Good god, the Kindle edition price is more expensive than the hardcover.