Word Play: Murky, paranoid worlds fit for the teen reader

How can paranoia be so appealing? I was struck by this conundrum while experiencing a frisson of equal parts dread and pleasure on reading “Incarceron” (Dial: $17.99, ages 12 and up), a new young-adult novel by Catherine Fisher.

A dark view of the world has been a constant thread in literature for teenagers. This is understandable for an audience moving out from under the wings of the family and confronting the real world. The dark themes that began a few decades ago with the so-called problem novels (concerning divorce, alcoholism, abuse and the like) have been squeezed out by a spate of dark fantasy novels. Supernatural horror has become standard fare in teen fiction; vampires, werewolves, witches, psychics, evil fairies and, above all, ghosts have invaded to an overwhelming degree.

Notions of the future also have gone very dark with a type of fantasy known as “steam punk,” a sort of science fiction dressed up in medieval garb. Clean lycra suits and smoothly humming machines are a passé future; the new future holds grubby, recycled high-tech parts, chain mail (eternally cool!) and medieval weaponry.

A few years ago I began noticing occasional young-adult books that stood out as a different kind of fantasy. I now think of them collectively as “novels of the paranoid.” They are stories in which characters live in a weird, oppressive world with arbitrary rules; a general sense of dread gradually resolves into a certainty that there is an evil force in charge, and that the evil force is out to get us, personally. (Doesn’t this sound like a surly teenager’s view of life?)

What makes these novels different from the literary children of George Orwell’s “1984" is that the oppression is entirely apolitical. Suzanne Collins’ current bestsellers, the first two books in “The Hunger Games” trilogy, take place in a dreadful, oppressive world, but the rules are clearly human-made, for human goals, and a human rebellion can topple the nasty president who holds it all in place.

In the “novels of the paranoid,” the evil force is deeper, more mysterious and certainly harder to confront. It makes cool noises, usually grinding metal, and it’s definitely not human. Compare these descriptions:

“I just woke up. That was all. It was black and silent and my mind was totally empty and I had no idea who or where I was. . . . And there was always the Eye. At first I didn’t know what it was, only noticed it in the night, a tiny red point glowing near the ceiling. Slowly I realized it was there all the time, came to imagine it was watching me, that there was no escape from it. I began to think there was an intelligence behind it, curious and cruel.” (From “Incarceron”)

“He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air. Metal ground against metal; a lurching shudder shook the floor beneath him. He fell down at the sudden movement. . . . With another jolt, the room jerked upward like an old lift in a mine shaft . . . My name is Thomas, he thought. . . . that was the only thing he could remember about his life.” (From “The Maze Runner”)

Incarceron is the name of a prison in a far-future society. It was established centuries before as an experiment in rehabilitation, a sealed world so enormous it contains forests, towns and seas. No one has entered since its establishment, and no one has ever escaped -- except, perhaps, one legendary member of a monk-like group called the Sapienti. Finn is a prisoner who is persuaded he came from Outside because he has memories. When he acquires a mysterious crystal key that allows him to communicate with a girl Outside -- Claudia, daughter of the warden of Incarceron, no less -- he attempts an escape, only to discover that the prison is sentient, that it devours and recycles all it contains, and will not willingly relinquish its inhabitants: “The Prison was alive. It was cruel and careless, and he was Inside it.”

In James Dashner’s “The Maze Runner” (Delacorte: $16.99, ages 12 and up), the boy who wakes up in an elevator finds himself on his way to the Glade, a kind of labor camp peopled entirely by teenage boys. The living compound is surrounded by an enormous maze. Life in the Glade has been meticulously organized to allow “mazerunners” to seek daily for a way out. They must return before dark, when the unthinkably high stone walls grind shut through an unseen mechanism and shut the boys in from the horrible creatures that patrol the maze at night. What have the prisoners done to be sent here? Who could have devised this environment? What could possibly be its purpose? Are the fragmentary memories that prompt the boys’ desire for escape true or implanted? There is no solid ground for any thought, only suspicion.

In the world of “Dreamhunter” by Elizabeth Knox (Square Fish Books: two volumes, $8.99 each, ages 14 and up), a cult of collective dreaming has formed, like a religion, around a set of charismatic leaders who “harvest” their dreams in a realm known as the Place. Although the plot revolves around a protest by a young dreamhunter against government exploitation of dreams and use of prisoners as slave labor, the politicians are small potatoes next to the compelling force of the Place, which, like Incarceron, seems to have its own will and power that dwarf any human machinations. Its intentions are entirely opaque but certainly not beneficent.

The nefarious force in David Whitley’s “The Midnight Charter” (Roaring Brook Press: $16.99, ages 12 and up) seems more recognizable at first. The walled city of Agora (Greek for “marketplace”) is strictly organized as a free-market state. Poverty is practically a crime, and a plan to help the poor is a suspected outbreak of anarchy. A secret society at the center of the government -- and a plot to topple it -- are either in control of or controlled by the Midnight Charter, a prophetic document that foretells the coming of two figures, the Protagonist and the Antagonist. The nebulous power of prophecy set against the ironclad laws of the marketplace make the world of the Midnight Charter a quicksand in which it’s impossible for our heroes to gain purchase.

What these books have in common is the scale of the malevolent power that has us, puny humans, in its grip. There isn’t a hope of comprehending it, much less defeating it. The only hope is escape, although the range of the power’s authority is unknowable, and only the bravest can undertake the task of flight.

I can’t help but see a dark metaphor for the escape from the protection of family. As preparation for that escape, what better exercise to strengthen one’s mind than compelling fiction?

A PICTURE BOOK NOT TO MISS: Caltech physics professor Kenneth Libbrecht has translated his passion for ice crystals into an extraordinary book for young people, “The Secret Life of a Snowflake: An Up-Close Look at the Art and Science of Snowflakes” (Voyageur Press: $17, all ages). How rare it is for a scientist to be able to describe his work this simply: “I look at snowflakes under a microscope and take pictures of what I see.”

Libbrecht’s photographs, revealing the stunning architecture of ice crystals set off by careful lighting, are so spectacular, a reader of any age will at first just leaf through the book staring at the illustrations. Libbrecht’s text unfolds the ideas that allow readers to enter the world of crystal formation, whether their tools will be the lab bench or preschool paper-and-scissors.

There are so many fascinating questions to ask about snowflakes: Why do they look white when they’re actually as colorless as water? How do they form? What gives them their intricate shapes? Are they always symmetrical? Can you grow a snowflake? And the traditional conundrum: Why are no two alike?

Sonja Bolle’s “Word Play” column appears monthly at