/ Cory Doctorow / 7 am Sun, May 27 2018
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  • All Rights Reserved: a YA dystopia where every word is copyrighted

    All Rights Reserved: a YA dystopia where every word is copyrighted

    In Gregory Scott Katsoulis's All Rights Reserved, we get all the traditional trappings of a first-rate YA dystopia: grotesque wealth disparity leading to a modern caste system, draconian surveillance to effect social control in an inherently unstable state, ad-driven ubiquitous entertainment as the only distraction from environmental collapse -- but with an important difference.

    In Katsoulis's world, the super-rich have legitimized their wealth and power -- and the indentured slavery of nearly everyone else -- by claiming ownership over every expressive word that can be spoken and gesture that can be made. From the age of 15, every citizen must wear an arm-cuff (which can't be removed) that monitors all speech and gestures, from your own name to a kiss or a hug -- and bills you according to a floating market for all forms of expression, complete with surge pricing.

    It's the ultimate form of rentier capitalism, where the "economy" is treated as a good unto itself, and where helping the wealthy get wealthier is a civic duty. "Entrepreneurs" grab trademarks on any new combination of words they speculate might become valuable, while punishing poor people who try to save pennies on their speech by mining the words market for homonyms and slang terms they can substitute for premium speech.

    Speth is about to turn 15 and get her cuff; all she needs to do is be Branded at her Last Day ceremony (a kind of Bat Mitzvah for entry into the world of exterminist rentier capitalism), where she will read a speech endorsing the products of the sponsors who have agreed to underwrite her existence in exchange for frequent buzz-marketing. She's being escorted to the park where her Last Day party will be held by her stern guardian, a court-appointed overseer who took over from Speth's parents when they were indentured to pay for a newly discovered illegal music download committed by a distant ancestor. Now her parents labor in the fields of Carolina, hand-pollinating food crops in place of the bees, who have all died out.

    She's almost at the party when her ex-boyfriend appears. He's already 15, and his billed speech means that he's dug himself so deep in debt he's about to be indentured. After an anguished encounter with Speth on a bridge, he flings himself to his death in the ring-road below where the wealthy race their performance automobiles around the domed city's interior.

    Shaken, Speth moves to give her Last Day speech, but she can't. Instead, she uses one of the only free, public domain gestures -- zipping her lips shut and locking them closed, used by poor people to indicate to the aristocracy that they are too broke to speak, lest the aristos think them rude or disrespectful -- and utters not a word.

    This, it turns out, is a clever, never-seen loophole. Speth is under contract in which she has promised that her first communications after her fifteenth birthday will be an endorsement of her sponsors' products. But so long as she never says anything, she does not violate the contract and can't be sued into indenture.

    Speth has become the first Silent.

    Speth's refusal to speak or communicate in any way becomes a cause celebre and a source of immense frustration to the evil firm of all-powerful corporate lawyers who run her city, and they visit innumerable punishments upon her and her family to break her silence -- for example, her sister, who resembles a popular movie star, is sued for infringing on the star's likeness and ordered never to leave their home (or to have her face mutilated) on pain of a lawsuit that will place her in indentured slavery.

    This sets the scene for a really first-rate adventure story of plucky kids against evil grownups, poor versus rich, weak versus strong -- the stuff of the most exciting YA novels.

    The book has a great pace and plot, and Katsoulis has a sequel coming out in August called Access Restricted, which I'm reading and enjoying immensely.

    All Rights Reserved [Gregory Scott Katsoulis/Harlequin Teen]

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