Coming of Age in Midlevel

Review of Judith Huang’s Sofia and the Utopia Machine (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2018)
by Diane Josefowicz

Fifteen-year-old Sofia, the heroine of Judith Huang’s novel Sofia and the Utopia Machine, is miserable. A dutiful student at a competitive high school, Sofia feels unsure of herself in all the ordinary ways—she suffers from bad skin, uncertain friendships, and academic pressure. But these familiar feelings are shaped by her unusual context—22nd century Singapore as post-apocalyptically imagined by Huang—and magnified by Sofia’s difficult family situation. Her father has not only disappeared but done so in a way that defies explanation. For these misfortunes Sofia blames her mother, a scientist whose habit of forthrightness alienates everyone around her, including otherwise supportive members of Sofia’s extended family. As Sofia’s vulnerable social network frays, her world grows ever smaller, and Sofia becomes correspondingly more closed in, spending more time in a comforting virtual world than in her stultifying real one.

Sofia strains on the short leash of her own existence, but at least she shares her plight with everyone in Huang’s near-future Singapore. The entire city is a version of Sofia’s mother’s apartment—cramped, uncomfortable, and oppressively full of secrets. After a natural disaster filled the city with poisonous sludge and fungus, the population trifurcated, and the city split right along with it. The rich have escaped to expensive homes floating high above the city in a realm known as the Canopies while relentless economic pressure has pushed the poor into a dismal underworld called the Void. Everyone else lives in an eerily recognizable place called, with appropriate dullness, Midlevel. Here shopping is a major preoccupation, and technological gains are accompanied by the usual losses in privacy, personal autonomy, and social life. Smart phone technology, in particular, has advanced in ways that both give and take. On the plus side, cell phones are no longer lost—but only because a corresponding chip is lodged somewhere in the body of its owner. The government, too, is ubiquitous and intrusive, and freedom is pretty much just as Sofia understands it: the freedom to go to school, “free not to care, free from the responsibility of anything more serious than whether you got an A on your next assignment.” Sofia’s sole distraction—I won’t say escape—from her stultifying existence at Midlevel is her immersion in a multiplayer virtual world where she recreates Midlevel with better fittings by building pleasant spaces in which nothing consequential ever happens.

Once upon a time, however, an alternative was available. Before her father disappeared, he and Sofia’s mother worked on the Utopia Machine, a secret government project that has fallen through a crack in the national research portfolio. Although the Machine itself now exists only as folklore, Sofia learns tantalizing hints when her mother allows herself to chat a little too loosely with colleagues in Sofia’s presence. A few documentary scraps also survive to attest to the project’s existence, scope, and ambitions. Among them is an essay written by Sofia’s father in which he laid out his brief for the Utopia Machine as the key to solving the social divisions that troubled him. He believed the Utopia Machine would create a “world for our people, for all our people, a world where we can all be together.” As the author of the mythology intended to shape the realms produced by the Utopia Machine, Sofia’s father found a way to translate his idealism into this alternative reality. The mythology provides something like a source code for the project.

Unfortunately these techno-utopian dreams are no match for those who would exploit them for different, less utopian ends. Perhaps we could not recognize paradise without a snake in it. Here the snake comes in the form of Sofia’s new friend, the rich, leisured, and very bored Julian. His offer of companionship (and perhaps romance) promises to relieve Sofia’s isolation. He also knows how to access the Utopia Machine. Unfortunately he’s too dull, or perhaps just work-averse, to make anything with it. He befriends Sofia after noticing the gorgeous virtual worlds she builds. He wants her to help him use the Utopia Machine to make beautiful extensions to the Canopies. He also wants to make sure the only people allowed to inhabit these new spaces are people of whom he approves. He introduces Sofia to an organization, the Prism Club, which exists to propagate a repugnant ideology. As Julian explains: “The philosophy of the Prism Club is that, in order for there to be beauty and harmony, you must split the beam of light into its constituent colors. That’s how you get a rainbow of diversity, the colors each separated from one another.” Unlike Sofia’s father, Julian is an elitist. Julian doesn’t want to heal the city’s painful divisions; rather, he wants to create more comfortable and pleasant spaces for those who already profit most by them.

The Utopia Machine strikes Julian as an excellent tool for this job. Infatuated, Sofia at first fails to question Julian’s motives and interests and embarks on a quest to find the lost Utopia Machine instead. Soon enough she reaches her goal, but then she manages to disappear into the Machine. By the time she returns, her mother has been arrested. To rescue her, Sofia must descend to the Voids. Here she meets different people with whom she would otherwise share little—a homeless woman, a priest who tends to her, a doctor who is willing to separate Sofia from her microchip in order to render her invisible to the enemies of her father’s original vision for the Utopia Machine. With their help she embarks on a harrowing adventure to free her mother and liberate the Utopia Machine from the clutches of those who intend to abuse its power.

Readers who enjoy YA with plenty of narrative ambition and a brisk plot will find much to like in Sofia and the Utopia Machine. The narrative stakes are clearly articulated with good guys and villains engaged in a fierce conflict over the shape of a whole society. But the rapid pace leaves relatively little room for thematic exploration or character development. Julian, for instance, plays a major role in the first part of the book only to disappear for nearly a hundred pages while the adventure story gets underway. Sofia also remains somewhat one-dimensional. Although she is challenged to test her prejudices, the challenges are rather simple: Can she walk into a dark tunnel full of desperately poor people while wearing her fancy school uniform? (Why, yes, she can.) She doesn’t solve her problems so much as witness them dissolving as she jettisons one prejudice after another. Altogether the novel reminded me strongly of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which also involves a fatherless teenage girl who comes of age by suffering an ordeal outside the confines of ordinary reality. Like Meg Murry, Sofia grows by becoming courageous. She is willing to take personal risks, albeit not very large ones, to save something she believes in.

Diane Josefowicz's writing has appeared in ConjunctionsFenceDame Magazine, and Necessary Fiction. She presently serves as Director of Research for Swing Left, a progressive political organization.

Check out the book for yourself. Special 15% discount for SP Blog readers. Use discount code SOFIA15 on the publisher’s website. Offer valid until 30 November, 2018.