Review

Profound societal concerns in an easily digestible adventure

FICTION

SOFIA AND THE UTOPIA MACHINE

By Judith Huang

Epigram Books/Paperback/333 pages/$18.08/ Major bookstores

3.5 stars


In a future Singapore where the gaps in society have grown alarmingly vast, a young girl finds a way to make more room - a whole new world, in fact.

Singaporean writer Judith Huang's debut novel, with its teenage protagonist and coming-of-age plot, might well be construed as young adult, but it ably packs profound social concerns within the easily digestible capsule of adventure.

Her heroine Sofia is a bright 15-year-old whose father has been missing for most of her life, a source of silent anguish for her mother Clara, a Biopolis scientist.

In this world, the elite live among the clouds in luxuriant Canopy homes. Below them are the Midlevels, where civil servants like Clara live in blocks of flats. Chips in their wrists keep them plugged perpetually into social networks, but also allow the authorities to keep tabs on every aspect of their lives.

At the bottom of the system are the Voids. The poorest Singaporeans live in these sordid depths, in danger of toxic "darkmould" fungus and the encroaching sea.

Moving between the levels is not unheard of - Sofia's father, she is told, was a scholar made good from the Voids - but the odds are literally stacked against it.

The premise of the class divide made visible on a vertical spectrum is not new - one thinks of the stratified apartment block of J.G. Ballard's High-Rise (1975) - but Huang's world, with its unmistakably Singaporean touches, is immensely relatable.

When Sofia meets Julian, a Canopy boy from a certain powerful family, she stumbles upon a top-secret invention that only she can operate.

Before long, she has inadvertently become both the goddess of a new world and a fugitive from the government, fleeing to the no-man's-land of Pulau Ubin with the aid of her mother's expatriate colleague and a good-hearted Catholic priest from the Voids.

Huang, who is also a poet, shines especially in her take on creation narratives, through which the mythologies of Sofia's microcosm take shape.

One such myth is the story of the fisherman who journeys through the ocean to found his own utopia, a beautiful, grotesque tale of enigma and sacrifice in which Huang's talent for imagery come into play.

The other narrative in Sofia's reality trips less lyrically along - there is a rather perfunctory romance and a couple of political essays that veer a little too close to being impassioned General Papers - but Huang's knack for world-building leaves one keen to see more.

What she allows to bloom in these pages is that sense of wonder so lacking in our prosaic, pragmatic lives. It is something worth holding on to, as we ponder how best we can, through our choices, make space for others in our society.

If you like this, read: The Gatekeeper by Nuraliah Norasid (Epigram Books, 2017, $26.64, Books Kinokuniya). On an island where humans co-exist uneasily with other races, a young Medusa goes into hiding in an underground community after she turns her whole village into stone.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2018, with the headline 'Profound societal concerns in an easily digestible adventure'. Print Edition | Subscribe