Starters, by Lissa Price, is another entry in the wave of YA science fiction dystopias, falling somewhere in the middle tier — not bad, but not really a standout either. The premise is that in an America trying to recover from biological warfare that wiped out nearly everyone between the very young (teens and below) and the very old, the elderly can pay to temporarily “rent” youthful bodies which they control via consciousness implantation. The company with the technology is Prime Destinations, led by a shadowy “Old Man” that nobody has ever seen. Sixteen-year-old Callie, living on the streets like many suddenly-parentless kids, is desperate for money to take care of her sickly young brother. She signs up with Prime Destination and her first two rentals go fine; she wakes up in Prime Destinations remembering nothing and none the worse for wear. In the midst of the third one, however, Callie suddenly wakes in her body in a nightclub with a strange voice in her head. Eventually she learns the big secret, and I don’t think it’s spoiling any plot to say that the “temporary” nature of the rentals in Starters isn’t meant to last long. Soon she’s embroiled in conspiracy theories, assassination plots, and political and corporate corruption, and is running for her life.
I have to say that from the very beginning and the whole time reading I kept thinking that this was basically the storyline of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, almost straight down the line: evil corporation downloads personalities/traits into bodies of people who out of desperation “donate” themselves, eventually the corporation realizes they can download people into people and voila — eternal life. This lack of originality didn’t much endear Starters to me.
But hey, genre fiction is filled with repetitive concepts, images, and tropes, and often it is what you do with them that matters. The basic concept is a bit derivative (even Whedon’s version via Dollhouse borrows from well-trodden science fiction stories) and I can’t say Price does much to make it her own; it not only reads like Dollhouse but liked a simplified teen version of it with little of the richness, depth, or sophistication. The background is sufficient to get us into the story, but is thinly constructed. The evil corporation is pretty stock, as is the sickly younger brother, and the elderly are mostly stereotypical. Even before Prime Destination’s technology, life has been greatly extended, but there is little sense that this has brought about any noticeable change. There are several implausible plot points, including a large, major one that really knocked me out of the story. And I must admit, I’m a bit weary of the requisite YA romance triangle. Really weary.
The characterization, like the plot, is thin once we move beyond Callie herself. Her voice is confident and the character active, intriguing and likable enough if a bit simple. The others don’t really stand out in any way, however. They read mostly as means of moving plot along rather than as characters in their own right. This is especially true in some scenes of clunky exposition.
The prose is solid and simple if a bit one-note, and moves along quickly and smoothly. If it doesn’t make you stop and want to linger over any lines, it also doesn’t hinder the reading experience.
In the end, Starters is a pretty middling read, an unexceptional if not badly written addition to the dystopian pile. And one, I’d say, that falls solidly in the YA category as opposed to being one of those YA books that can be equally enjoyed by an older audience. It ends with some resolution and a bit of a cliffhanger. At this point, I recommend holding off to see how the sequel holds up.