Thursday, August 26, 2010

Frightened Boy, by Scott Kelly

When Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Orson Scott Card wrote about frighteningly realistic distopian societies (think Brave New World, 1984, and Ender’s Game, respectively), those worlds were somewhere in the distant future. When Scott Kelly does it with his debut novel, Frightened Boy, the danger he foretells is barely 40 years away.

Like other masters of satire, fantasy, and allegory, Kelly’s book at first appears to be an adventurous, suspenseful romp through a decaying society that comes uncomfortably close to mirroring our own. But, also like so many others who have dared to predict and warn us about the very real possibilities for our future through works of fiction, there is much more to be read between the lines for the more philosophic and more perceptive readers among us.

Main characters Clark and Erika live in a big city in a post 9/11 world, where paranoia runs rampant, the government has power only through fear, Strangers are the unknown enemy, and it’s every man for himself. It’s the year 2056, and chance (or fate?) has thrown Erika Bronton into the life of Clark Horton—a meek, frightened young man who is just trying to keep his head down and remain unnoticed in order to stay alive. Erika, a “performance artist,” clings immediately to Clark and decides to worship him as her personal god for six months—having faith that he will provide for her, obeying his every wish and command. Clark’s only real wish, however, is for Erika to forget about her crazy life-art project and disappear, letting him get back to his regular, invisible life; this, of course, is the one request Erika will not grant her new savior.

What ensues is an adventure story that has Clark, the anti-hero, fighting to save his own life and the life of his faithful new subject from the Strangers, all the while struggling with his ideas about faith, fear, control, family, truth, betrayal, trust, innocence, guilt, and eventually, love. The story itself is an adventure, a suspense, a fantasy, an allegory, and possibly even a coming-of-age tale that takes the reader for an emotional ride right along with the characters. What’s even more interesting than the story of Clark and Erika’s struggle for survival, however, is all the philosophical questions their tale raises, and how similar the ideals they struggle with are to our own.

Faith is a constant theme woven throughout the pages of Frightened Boy; the faith Erika has in Clark, the faith he has in himself, the faith we all have in our government and in the people who are supposed to protect us. Is that faith supposed to be blind? Or must it be proven to be justified? Do those that have our best interests in mind always know what’s really best for us? Is questioning our Creator, our loved ones, and our government a sacrilegious breach of faith, or a wise act of self preservation? Does conceding to faith and to fate mean giving up our free will? These are questions the characters in the novel face that the reader—if he is at all aware of the real story being told in Frightened Boy—cannot escape facing as well. One of the many times that Erika is trying to explain to Clark why she has chosen to worship him as her latest act of “performance art,” she tells him: “I’m trying to prove that the act of believing in something is more important than what you believe in.”

Along with faith, a very large facet of the lives of Kelly’s characters (and of our own lives as well) is fear. There is an ongoing question in the novel of whom to trust, whom to fear, whom to believe, and whom to turn to for protection. Does paranoia keep us, as a society, in check? Are good and evil really so far apart? If the “bad guys” really believe passionately in their cause, are they still bad? Is the “greater good” really good for each of us individually? If this is the best of all possible worlds, then isn’t even the evil part of the Creator’s plan? Is our fear of the unknown what drives us away from one another and prevents us from truly connecting with anyone? Can fear be a motivating factor in our lives, and does it ever motivate us to do the wrong thing? Once again, as Kelly’s characters struggle to deal with these issues and questions, the reader is forced to answer them in the context of the story and in the context of his own life.

I could point out for you dozens of quotes and situations in Frightened Boy that make this novel transcend from an engaging work of fiction into an exploration of sociology, psychology, and anthropology, or I could do as the author does—simply ask you to read it for yourself, with an open mind, without leading you by the hand to all the questions and answers that the book may hold for you.

It also might be easy for me to explain the nature of Frightened Boy by comparing it to other works of art. There’s a scene where Frightened Boy is on a cell phone and a Voice is telling him what to do in order to escape danger that is reminiscent of one of the first scenes in the first Matrix movie, when Neo (also your average-Joe, non-hero type) must also rely on an unseen savior to get him out of trouble. Kelly himself pays homage to Orwell’s 1984 when he names the voice of society’s collective fear “Little Brother.” The fine line between reality and imagination mirrors the concerns raised in Ender’s Game. But Kelly’s novel stands out from these stories in one very significant way:

While we might not know how, or when, or why society fell apart in some futuristic, distopian tales, in Frightened Boy, the cause is real. It’s a distinctly American, post-9/11 fear that we all face every day—on the news, in the papers, on the streets of busy cities. In the novel, Clark speaks wistfully of a society without fear, “before public computers were taken out of libraries and before traffic cameras were used to look for suspicious characters… before the police could stop and ask you questions used to determine whether or not you had a ‘terrorist mindset’… it all came down to 9/11, really.”

What sets Kelly’s novel apart from so many others is that the catalyst for the start of the decaying society he describes is a very real part of our history and of our collective memory bank, and in fact has already begun. The truth is, we are all Frightened Boy.

Kelly does a tremendous job with his debut novel on two levels: First, he tells a fun, vivid, suspenseful, emotionally engaging fiction story that a broad audience can easily enjoy for what it is. Second, he raises important questions about our society, our morals, our faith, our beliefs, our relationships, and our philosophy that get us thinking about these issues as they relate to us individually and as a whole—without trying to answer them for us or spoon-feed us his own political, spiritual, or philosophical views. As Frightened Boy becomes more aware of what makes himself and his society tick, the reader also embraces a new awareness.

Print copies of Frightened Boy will be available soon. For now, the book is available in various electronic formats, and is featured on websites such as,, and It can be downloaded free of charge from

(Please visit for more of my book reviews and other writing samples. Contact me at to send me a review copy of your book or to recommend other books you think I should review).

1 comment:

  1. I can say two things about Scott Kelly. 1. He's an amazing character all his own. 2. There is nothing he cannot do.