When Speth, 15 year old protagonist, chooses a vow of silence over becoming another mouthpiece for her assigned “brands”, she starts receiving “defriend” notifications from the advertisers on her mandatory wrist wearable. This is the outside-in American future of All Rights Reserved, domed cities where individual words of the common people are billable goods for the affluent, and corporations. All forms of expression, including gestures, hugs, even hairstyles are trademarked, copywritten, and commoditized in a vast hyper-corporate, hyper-litigious electronic architecture. And like all science fiction, author Gregory Katsoulis’ novel is as much a reflection of our present as an imagination of the future.
In a creatively described, Huxley-esque metropolis, smart billboards line streets and bridges to scan passersby and subject them to individually targeted ads. Speth’s family keeps their rent affordable by watching a thirty-hour per month quota of ads on a wall screen that adjusts the volume up if it senses they’re not paying attention. The exaggerations aren’t that far off from today’s real advertising-creep.
In our late capitalist society we participate in aggressive and passive promotion of private enterprise all-day every-day. Watch a movie trailer on the internet and you’re, apparently, willing to abide a thirty second advertisement you didn’t anticipate glued to the front end of the advertisement you did ask to watch. You probably also pay $$$ per month for the privilege of cable television channels re-selling your viewership in the form of commercials. You can’t avoid these syndicate traps, even if you want to. Recently I was in an airport men’s room where my pee flowing into a once complimentary trough irradiated a hidden decal for X brand of beer (the ad disappeared in the flush like a urinary Snapchat™). As consumers, we make many compromises to our privacy because of either what we perceive as the intrinsic value received, or the disturbing reality that we have no choice anyway.
In All Rights Reserved, product placement and corporate profit are layered into every strata under the suffocating dome. Ads constantly intrude into private life, and every conversation generates a receipt-for-purchase on one’s government imposed wrist monitor. Even the utterance of a brand name is subject to remunerative rights collection.
Speth’s city feels a lot like the post-apocalyptic urban outposts of familiar YA series like Divergent, The Giver, and The Host. What sets All Rights Reserved apart is the author’s underlying comment regarding a future both hysterically bleak and alarmingly relevant, where leering Dickensian villains hover over children threatening them with lawsuits and lifetimes of financial servitude. The glimmer of hope is that Speth – frustrated by the suicide of her desperate friend and the detention of her indebted parents – determines to become the first in her society to fearlessly keep her mouth shut. Her silent protest agitates the adult authorities confounded by her insolence, and she inspires a wave of zip-lipped revolt among her teen peers, referred to as The Silents. Katsoulis immerses his reader in this intriguing, coercive culture, which his protagonist – against self-preservation, societal scorn, and murdering thugs – seeks to tear down with only her wits for her weapon.
Equally successful is Katsoulis, a first time novelist, demonstrating a skillful author’s ability to keep increasing danger and doubt in Speth’s mission to rescue her family and perhaps her entire country. Unfortunately, this previous effective stakes-raising leads to the catastrophic, and rather glibly dramatized, death of a major character as the novel rounds into a disappointing third act. As much as I enjoyed the book’s sardonic humor, disheartening absurdity, and sometimes hammy characters, the third act devolves into less original genre action, complete with gunfights, car chases, and a master-villain hackneyed enough to make Snidely Whiplash seem complex. Also, by the end, Katsoulis simply disappears several characters in peril – perhaps in reservation for a sequel, but it felt to me like a lot of loose ends in an otherwise well thought book.
Don’t take my explication of these weaknesses for holding back a recommendation. On the whole, All Rights Reserved is a potent success of imagination, humor, compelling characters and, especially, commentary on the vulnerability of free speech and privacy. I could utter more praise, but as I sit writing in a national brand coffee shop, my handheld device keeps notifying me to drop everything and write an uncompensated review that will boost their coffee’s commercial profile. I guess we’re already there, Speth.