Arts book review

Imagine a world where mechanical pencils are advanced technology

MIT alum Chris Babu debuts his dystopian thriller YA novel ‘The Initiation’

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Chris Babu debuts his YA dystopian thriller novel 'The Initiation.'
Courtesy of Permuted Press

The Initiation
By Chris Babu
Simon and Schuster / Permuted Press
Released Feb. 27, 2018

Chris Babu ’97 graduated from MIT with a mathematics degree and worked on Wall Street as a bond trader for 19 years. But since then, despite being told he was crazy to not stay in finance, he’s changed his career to a novelist. I interviewed Babu over the phone about his career change, creative process, and decisions when writing his debut novel, The Initiation. He remarked that while at MIT, one was often given the choice between being a scientist/engineer or an artist/painter/writer/etc., and one often chose the former with the artistic side being suppressed. For his career change, the inspiration for this novel happened on the subway to work and he decided to give it a go.

It is no surprise then that his protagonist in his novel too has a change of heart: Drayden, our math geek, intelligent, and not-so-brave protagonist, undergoes the daunting challenge that is the Initiation. Meanwhile, we too are initiated into a world of a dystopian Manhattan. Babu took the hellish subway from 72nd Street to get to work, and now, it’s Drayden’s turn to journey through the subway.

We are brought abruptly up to speed as Drayden’s mother is exiled in the first chapter, turning Drayden’s world upside down. Afterwards, he, his father, and his brother continue to live without his mother in their living zone, the Dorms. Dystopian thrillers tend to be good at world-building. Imagine a world caused by the confluence (an event named, incidentally, The Confluence) of multiple modern world problems such as superbugs due to antibiotic resistant bacteria or technology stripping people of jobs. You are correct in assuming this world is indeed hellish. Even the dialogue is peppered with New American lingo such as shkat, chotch, flunk, ack, wetchop, etc. Mechanical pencils are considered advanced technology.

Only Drayden knows the truth of how hellish this world is. He eavesdrops on an official and learns the Dorms are not going to be habitable in the near future. The Dorms living zone is experiencing diminishing food supplies, rampant corruption in the government, and decreasing energy supplies. The Initiation is a hell of a ride as Drayden and his ragtag team (coincidentally five other classmates he knows) survive the life or death (or exile) challenges of the Initiation for their own personal reasons. Drayden joins the challenge to get to the Bureau and investigate his mother’s exile and bring his family to the Palace. The novel is structured around The Initiation and how its characters overcome its challenges. The effort here is clear: Babu explained over the phone that he spent a month riding the subway system to research the specific turns and details not shown in a map. For New Yorkers, this will be appreciated.

Babu explained to me that the novel works on three levels. The first is the literal: the Initiation is structured around challenges testing bravery and intelligence. The second is the anxiety-driven experience of taking the subway from 72nd Street to Wall Street. Since 2012, the dilapidated infrastructure and constant delays make it difficult to get to work on time and the ride is known to be brutal. The third level is an amusing one: the Initiation is a nod to the initiation of the Greek culture at MIT in the ’90s as students endured three days of rush to leave their dorms.

The novel is fun for the world-building and the puzzles and challenges, which take up the bulk of the novel. Babu explained some of the more challenging puzzles were dropped to ensure the book was palatable for people who don’t like math. Most young adult novelists rarely put effort in their mind games, often focusing on the fantastical elements and the romances, so this was a breath of fresh air in the genre. Thematically, the novel has a bite: Drayden questions the inequality of his system, only for Eli Holst to call him out on his own hypocrisy (I won’t spoil the line). More heartwarming is Drayden’s own growth when he realizes the meaning of Mr. Kale’s words to him: while often dormant, bravery exists inside everyone.

I do have quibbles with the novel. Aside from Drayden, the other characters are not memorable. Babu describes them as microcosms of society, each with his or her own collective skills. For me, in terms of motivations, the characters don’t behave beyond cause and effect and can be read as one-dimensional. Tom is Drayden’s loyal friend who hits on girls, so he joins the Initiation (and hits on girls). Alex is the obligatory bully who gives Drayden a black eye and has a negative character arc. Charlie is Alex’s lackey but has a moral compass. Sidney is the less clever but more athletic female character and is juxtaposed a tad too often against Catrice to show Catrice is more intelligent. Each character has his or her own quirk, but it’s clear that the value system divides into the intellectuals, the athletic, and the otherwise, much like society. As Babu told me, “The Initiation is life; the characters are society and this prize of winning the Initiation at the end is the riches and the success for a small part of the population.”

Thematically, the novel gives a lot to think about, but this does not detract from the novel being a fun, light read for a weekend. Give it a try if you want to see what Babu envisions a future dystopian America would be like and a dystopian thriller that includes puzzling challenges.