Scored: pulse-pounding/thought-provoking YA novel about surveillance

By Cory Doctorow

Scored is Lauren McLaughlin's latest YA science fiction novel, a remarkable book about surveillance, class, and culture. It's McLaughlin's third novel, and her best so far (though the previous two were very good).

In Scored, the American middle class is no more, wiped out by economic catastrophe. Social entrepreneurs bent on restoring class mobility have established "scoring," filling whole towns with spy-eyes that watch kids' every move, publicly assigning aggregate scores to their behavior according to secret, self-modifying algorithms. The top-scoring kids get full ride scholarships to top universities, and are on their way to social mobility. Bottom scorers are frozen out entirely, while those a little farther up are able to find work in the military.

Imani LeMonde is a high-school kid in small-town New England, a poor kid whose parents scrape by with a tiny, marginal marina that serves the ultra-rich who holiday there. When the story opens, Imani is a "90," scored in the highest band of children, and on her way to a better life. But Imani refuses to cut off ties with her childhood best friend, a girl who has taken up romantically with an "unscored" -- someone whose parents have not opted for the surveillance system -- and her association with an anti-social element causes her score to plummet.

From here, McLaughlin launches into a tale that is simultaneously adventurous and thought-provoking. McLaughlin's characters -- a tenured refusenik social studies teacher, a crusading lawyer, a driven principal, and a collection of kids from across the score-tribes and outside the scoring system -- all serve to illuminate the pros and cons of surveillance and "meritocracy." McLaughlin is nuanced and delicate in her touch, and manages to weave in questions about caste, class, race and fairness as she explores her subject. She does great justice to both sides of the debate, painting an all-too-plausible scenario for the remaking of society around an idea of "transparency" that is optional in name only, as anyone who opts out is instantly suspect.

Most of all, McLaughlin captures the way that being watched and judged changes our behavior for better and worse -- driving us to do our best while draining our lives of experimentation and authenticity.

Scored is a book that will spark dozens of conversations -- conversations we desperately need to be having. This book is the antidote to the pointless hand-wringing about Facebook, reality TV, and the PATRIOT Act, a chance to get out of the trite cul-de-sac where these conversations always end up, and to move into green pastures.

Scored

Published 5:59 am Mon, Oct 24, 2011

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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.

11 Responses to “Scored: pulse-pounding/thought-provoking YA novel about surveillance”

  1. flowergardenslayer says:

    Scored is a book that will spark dozens of conversations — conversations we desperately need to be having. This book is the antidote to the pointless hand-wringing about Facebook, reality TV, and the PATRIOT Act, a chance to get out of the trite cul-de-sac where these conversations always end up, and to move into green pastures.

    I’m not sure how this is any different from a lot of the other hand-wringing that I’ve been reading about.

    Book sounds interesting, in a sort of “Ripped From Today’s Headlines” sorta way, but hardly thought provoking.

    • Cory Doctorow says:

      I guess some of us are more accustomed to having our thoughts provoked than others.  I bet being so awesomely cool that you don’t need to think is really awesome, though.

      • flowergardenslayer says:

        I guess some of us are more accustomed to having our thoughts provoked than others.

        Honestly, since I’ve seen a number of similar posts about the new surveillance society, and loss of privacy I’ve already had a number of these thoughts a while back.  They’re a pretty common theme on both Boing Boing and Slashdot. 

        Most of this isn’t new, see 1984, published in 1949, which most people read in high school.  At the time of reading it we had a long, thought provoking discussion about the possible ramifications of this sort of society.

        So while it sounds like an entertaining read, I was hoping that you could further clarify what’s new and different with this book that hasn’t been examined many many times before.  Sorry if this came across as snarky or snide, but I couldn’t determine it from your original post.

  2. Guest says:

    That cover art bears an uncanny resemblance to Angelina Jolie in Hackers. Here’s hoping Imani’s school has a pool on the roof.

  3. No pool on the roof, but a great A/V department. ;)

  4. atimoshenko says:

    Most of all, McLaughlin captures the way that being watched and judged changes our behavior for better and worse — driving us to do our best while draining our lives of experimentation and authenticity.

    Is this necessarily the case, though? I’ve always felt that a radically less private society can also be one that is radically more permissive, radically more inclusive, and much less hypocritical. After all, most of our taboos formed at a time when we could comfortably publicly decry a certain activity while privately engaging in it. If push came to shove and everyone’s opportunity to do this disappeared, I have no doubt that it is not the activity we would give up, but the pretense that we do not engage in it. There would be less motivation to support the war on drugs, say, if you knew your dentist poked smot on the weekend.

    In my opinion, a society in which anyone can (likewise publicly) check what anyone else is doing or has done, will be a society in which only the hurting of unwilling others will be taboo. And everyone will also finally ‘get’ that were are all a little weird in our own small ways, so there is little point to conformity.

    • eviladrian says:

      It’d be good if it ran both ways, but just try going to an airport and photographing the security cameras ;-)

      • atimoshenko says:

        Absolutely.

        Symmetry is more than “good” for openness, it is essential. No separating people into “the watchers” and “the watched” – not only must everyone be equally able to watch anyone or anything else (especially power, security, and officialdom related), but there should also be zero scope for hidden voyeurism and secret surveillance.

  5. jere7my says:

    So, what, this is the exciting story of the young woman who lives in my shower head?

  6. sarahz says:

    I’d say that it definitely has an impact on people’s behavior – even today, with a much less pervasive system, knowing that any silly thing that you do could potentially end up online, via someone’s camera, *has* to impact behavior. 

    I particularly liked what E Lockhart had to say on the subject in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks (lots of discussions of the Panopticon thought experiment, and groups like the Yippies that did things to point out social contracts that people were sub-consciously subscribing to). 

  7. I’m almost certainly going to pick this up. Thanks for the recommendation Cory.

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