Community 17: A Dystopian Novella
by James Cardona
James Cardona’s Community 17 is the dystopian story of a young boy, Isaias, living in the slum segment of a society governed by watchers who enforce their rule on inhabitants by way of constant surveillance and interference. Government mandates include video diaries they are required to keep, recording daily activities and thoughts on such; school attendance referred to as “programming” and other children “program-mates”; and received social mores that frown upon emotion and open communication. Therefore, negative attention might be attracted not only when someone says or does something out of line, but also when failing to exhibit the appropriate amount of enthusiasm for the dictated status quo.
Within this society exist plebs— Isaias’s marginalized group— free thinkers and citizens, this last status of which it is said might be obtained if someone can pass all their tests. Isaias and Jessia secretly plan to make their way to the citizens’ side even though no one who has ever crossed over has been heard from again. Free thinkers position themselves as those who secretly work to loosen the stranglehold the Agency holds on the plebs. However, within this remains the possibility that Isaias and Jessia will be separated.
The novel opens with a suicide bombing, the technique later dismissed, unsurprisingly, by a supporting character: “Paradise. Another one of the free thinkers’ empty promises. If you do their work for them, your family will go to paradise.” These are the bitter words describing the free thinkers, known but not necessarily admired by the entire pleb segment of the population, even if they mutually loathe the Agency, who dictate their lives. Reflecting elements of some insidious governing groups operating in our own real world, readers easily recognize the plebs’ double oppression for what it is, with freebies thrown in to soften or erase the hand of tyranny and hierarchical division manipulated upon the masses.
Cardona cleverly, selectively separates or mingles details of and Isaias’s experiences with free thinkers and the Agency—the group in charge of the bomb investigation—to mirror what the experience must be like for those in his position: thought control that works not only with the ongoing surveillance, but also in creating a sense of self doubt that stalls the taking of action, and who operates behind this subversive atmosphere remains a question until the very end.
The author also holds the reader in thrall with this deliberate introduction of atrocious policies and acts, exposing what is behind the curtain only when he is sure we have digested and moved on from the previous astonishing revelation. This, too, is reflective: It has been said that people will participate in their own oppression if the methods to bind them are introduced slowly and over time. Cardona’s understanding of and presentation in this cautionary tale has a two-pronged fear factor: it is all too frighteningly extreme to be real, yet it is so realistic it should terrify anyone consenting to sign their own agency over to anyone with the means to control it.
Having said that, it should also be noted that Cardona doesn’t come out and say any of this and, in fact, neither do his characters most of the time. Their speech is so stifled that even their own thoughts frighten them.
I guess what bothers me the most is being in the dark and hearing the rats around me. Everyone was used to the rats in Community 17. The garbage attracts them. Who hadn’t woken in the morning to find new rat bites somewhere on their skin? But here, in the dark, in this hole where there is no escape? There’s something terrible about listening to their little feet scurrying toward us … I feel like I’m becoming one of them.
He flinched at the last line, wondering where it had come from. That wasn’t in my head, was it?
Without needing to engage in any manner of preaching, Cardona gives us a disturbingly clear and close-up view to the life of someone whose community is referred to by a number. That Isaias’s character might have been a bit more developed could be related to this, as his community’s overlords prefer to perceive him as a being labeled by a bio-identifier.
As a young adult novel, Community 17 lives up to its storytelling task: engrossing and thrilling, with conflict many teens would have some familiarity with in today’s world, it carries the reader through its scenes and events with language appropriate for teen readers, yet also satisfying for the adult literary palate. The dialogue shows young adults in moments of confusion as well as making some astute observations, all of them very realistic, leading me to marvel at Cardona’s people watching-skills. He has his finger on the pulse of today’s teens, shrewdly observing their interactions with society and how society responds to them.
While Cardona’s writing is concise, well-paced and complex in its plot, he takes the tale one step further by introducing every chapter with several lines of verse, each grouping strong enough to stand on its own. Alternately, they could be read as one storyline that loosely follows Isaias’s journeys, while also running, thread-like, through the novel and providing thoughts, images and phrases reminiscent of biblical accounts of questions and revelations. By virtue of the repetition of such imagery as rocks, water and pools, we call up such writings as Isaiah, who speaks of “a sure foundation” (28:16) and “water [that] shall burst forth in the wilderness” (35:6), water called forth from rocks for Israel, who doubted the veracity of God’s word.
As Isaias, too, hears “truth” from those who position themselves as all-knowing, creating uncertainty as to who he can really believe and what their motives are, he progresses through literal and figurative tunnels, growing more ill as each day goes by, certain he will be captured at any moment.
Only there is shadow under this red rock.
Come in under the shadow of this red rock,
And I will show you something
Different from either
Your shadow at morning standing behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Here is poetry that stirs the soul, drawing one’s mind into it as we search, as Isaias searches, seeking a cure for this afflicted community, Isaias’s sickness, to find Bethesda, “a pool among the rock,” the waters of which would wash away all that ails such a society and its inhabitants, who currently survive on the navigational skills that lead them through a labyrinth of duplicity.
As the novel leads readers to its dramatic conclusion, questions still remain, and Cardona gives the sense Isaias knows more than he lets on to those around him as well as readers, and the author pulls off this withholding impeccably. As elusive as the truth its characters seek, Community 17 is the book one tries to read in one sitting, that they take with them when leaving the house: its layers are probing, addicting, spiced with mystery, deceit, loyalty, romance and backstabbing. It is compelling, with a silence that will follow the end as readers quietly close the book and contemplate its effect.
About the author …
James Cardona is an award winning author who has written multiple science fiction and fantasy books along with a spate of nonfiction works to boot. He has won the gold medal in the Teenager Category of the Wishing Shelf Book awards, taken Honorable Mention in the Teenager Category at Reader Views Literary Awards and was an Indie BRAG winner, all for Community 17. His children’s book, Santa Claus vs. the Aliens, was a finalist of the Wishing Shelf Book awards in addition to being an Indie BRAG winner. His fantasy book, Under The Shadow Of Darkness, was also a finalist of the Wishing Shelf Book awards.
James was born in Lorain, Ohio, and received his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Delaware with a minor in Religious Studies. He also studied briefly at Penn State University. He spent six years in the U.S. Navy and served during the first Gulf War. He has worked in factories and food service, as an electrician, a teacher, supervisor and engineer. But like many creatives, his heart beats most strongly when it is full of the magic of building something new. Besides writing, he can be found drawing, painting, writing computer code, tinkering with electronics and building robots. Prior to his knees turning creaky he was an avid runner, completing about fifty or so races at the half marathon distance or greater.
His debut novel was Gabriella and Dr. Duggan’s Dimensional Transport Machine, the first book in the NuGen series. In 2013, he wrote the children’s science fiction-holiday book Santa Claus vs. The Aliens, followed by first in The Apprentice fantasy series, Under the Shadow of Darkness. In 2015, he penned three new books. Gabriella and the Curse of the Black Spot, second in the NuGen series and The Dragon’s Castle, second in The Apprentice series. Finally, in 2015 he wrote something completely different, Community 17, a whirlwind, dystopian science-fiction adventure. In 2016, James released Dragon Hunters, a science fiction-fantasy mashup of a story, and The Night Wolf, a prelude tale set in the world of the apprentice series.
He is currently working on The Worthy Apprentice and Into Darkness, which are parts three and four of The Apprentice series respectively. He is also writing something fresh and new, a science fiction book tentatively titled Rebirth.
To see much more about the multi-award winning author James Cardona, including more biographical information and history, see his fun, informative and intriguing website. You can also follow him at Goodreads and find his books at Amazon and Amazon UK.
Photos courtesy James Cardona
A free copy of Community 17: A Dystopian Novella was provided in order to facilitate an honest review.