The future is a terrifying place. Three years after the end of the War, what’s left of the United States is almost unrecognizable. Major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. are abandoned and off-limits. The all-powerful Federal Bureau of Reformation controls the populace with an iron grip, enforcing the Moral Statues which have replaced the Bill of Rights. Those who violate the rules vanish in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. It’s a crime to follow any religion save the Church of America. The motto of the day is “One Whole Country, One Whole Family,” and families are defined as one man, one woman, and children. Welcome to our national nightmare. Ember Miller has just been declared an unperson under Article 5, which requires all children to be born in wedlock .
The FBR, also known as the Moral Militia, come for Ember and her mother, dragging them away from their Louisville home, all because Ember’s mother was never married. While her mother vanishes into the system for “rehabilitation,” Ember is sent to a juvenile detention facility, a horrifying place where she’ll be kept until she’s eighteen, trained to become a “proper” lady, groomed to join the Sisters of Salvation. For some girls, this would be the end of the road.
However, Ember’s anything but passive. She immediately starts planning her escape, intent on somehow tracking down her mother and making their way to freedom via the rumored underground resistance. And while she’s willing to fight, flee, blackmail, and otherwise risk her life, she soon discovers an unlikely ally in the last place she expected: Chase Jennings, her former neighbor and crush. Chase Jennings, who joined the Moral Militia. Chase Jennings, who helped arrest her not so long ago, and who’s now willing to go AWOL to save her.
Still unwilling and unable to fully trust Chase, Ember is nevertheless reliant upon his experience and resources, as they embark upon an epic journey across the East Coast in search of safety. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know who’s trustworthy and who’ll turn them in for a reward. With informants, bandits, madmen and worse stalking the ruined cities and struggling towns, Chase and Ember only have each other, and their fragile relationship. But that may not be enough when all the awful truths come spilling out.
Article 5 is a provocative, terrifying, frustrating book. Simmons’ not-so-future America is a dystopia extrapolated from the worst of the headlines. It’s a society that has no room for “dissenting” religions, alternative lifestyles, immoral literature, or defying gender roles. While it’s never explicitly said what the Church of America is, it’s obviously meant to be Christianity of some form or another. This is a society where family is defined as a man, a woman, and children, where children born out of wedlock aren’t even considered valid citizens. The Moral Statues outlaw gambling and divorce, and demand that women be subservient to their husbands while the men act as providers and spiritual leaders. There’s absolutely nothing subtle about this set-up, as it outlaws just about everything that doesn’t fit into a certain narrow worldview. I daresay most of those reading this book would agree that this is a Very Bad State Of Affairs. I’m terrified that some people might read this and think “hey, this is my kind of place.”
If I’ve gone on at length about the situation, it’s only because I’m terrified by the world Simmons portrays. And at the same time, I’m left somewhat baffled. We never get a clear picture of what happened, who we fought, how it all went to pieces. The book is set three years after the end of the War, which itself apparently lasted for five years and resulted in the destruction of many major cities, and the need for President Scarboro to do away entirely with the old system and create the FBR. Ember is old enough to remember when things were normal, but she never explains just how we got to the state we’re in now. For those of us who enjoy the world building stage of alternate or future histories, it’s frustrating to not get a clear picture. Especially since this doesn’t seem to be set all that far into the future, and yet the system has been almost completely perverted and upset. (Like it or not, the United States is built on certain principles of government, all of which have been subverted or tossed aside here. Oh, to have some insight into how and why it happened!)
If you can accept the premise as it stands, this book is actually quite interesting. A lot of its strength comes from Ember; she’s a strong, independent, stubborn, determined character who refuses to sit by and let someone else do the rescuing. She may not make the best decisions, but at least she’s fighting as hard as she can against an overwhelmingly awful authority to claim her freedom. She makes a lot of mistakes along the way, but they come from ignorance and inexperience, not naivety or stupidity. She even does the rescuing once in a while when Chase needs her. She’s a girl who will fight for what she wants, and it’s not her fault that pretty much the entire country is stacked against her.
The romance between Ember and Chase is a sweet, slow-burning one, rekindled after years of being apart, and they make a nice team, for all their arguing and misunderstanding and all the things they don’t say to one another. It’s a bright spot of hope in an otherwise dark setting.
And dark it is. There’s some pretty grim material here, from the beatings administered at the juvenile rehabilitation facility, to the chance encounter Ember has with a not-so-sane person on the road, to the soldiers who have their way with young women, and so on. It’s a world where almost every friendly face hides a dark secret, and the entire world is going to Hell in an ever-increasing manner. The sheer weight of horror and injustice present here frustrated me more than anything else. I kept hoping that something would go right for our heroes, and yet .
So I’m torn. On the one hand, Article 5 is thought-provoking and powerful. I picked it up, and couldn’t put it down until I was done. I was drawn in by the concept and the characters and the situation. But as you might imagine, the sketchy backstory, overwhelming bleakness, and general sense of despair made this a pretty depressing read. I think Simmons may have portrayed her dystopia a little too well. So while there’s plenty to recommend her, Article 5 could have been a lot stronger with a little more nuance and subtlety. I’ll be interested to see where Simmons takes things in future installments, and I hope she takes the opportunity to do into more details and really flesh out her world.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.