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

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.