There was a brief period of timing following the publication of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma during which I was keenly aware of corn. Corn is a staple of industrial agriculture. If you read the ingredients of almost any packaged food, you will find there corn, or some corn by-product. Researchers can perform testing on skeletons to determine how much corn the deceased ate during his or her lifetime. Modern Americans far exceed the consumption rates of the Maya, who ate a lot of corn. Corn cultivation, if done carelessly, can be destructive to the environment. It leeches nitrogen from the soil, rendering it unproductive. That’s why Native Americans grew beans amid their corn: Not only did the cornstalks function as natural beanpoles, but the beans also returned nitrogen to the soil. It’s like Native Americans knew something we don’t, like they were all living in harmony with nature and shit.
So, if you look at our reliance on corn, on our ever-expanding cultivation of it, you begin to wonder: Are we eating the corn, or is the corn eating us? Thus is the premise of Chuck Wendig’s young adult dystopian novel, Under the Empyrean Sky (2013).
Granted, in Wendig’s far-flung future, corn isn’t eating people per se, but that’s not for lack of trying. Deep in the Heartland, a wide expanse of what must have once been the American Midwest, corn stretches as far as the eye can see. The modified strains that grow in the Heartland are tough, durable, predatory. The husks are sharp as knives. The plants grow fast and, left untended, will consume anything in their way.
It’s into this hostile agro-dystopia that we encounter Cael McAvoy, a teenager on the brink of adulthood, who makes his living by scavenging ruined technologies found in the corn. He and his crew, Lane, Rigo, and Gwennie, are at odds with a rival team led by the mayor’s son. Their relationship takes a turn for the worse with the Obligation, an annual event during which 17 year old Heartlanders learn to whom they’ll be married when they turn 18. Gwen, Cael’s love interest, is bound to the mayor’s son. And to top it all off, Cael’s sister, Mer, has run away, and his Pop is worn out, unwilling or unable to stand up to their Empyrean overlords, who live in luxury on islands floating in the sky above the corn.
If at this point you’re scratching your head a bit, that’s good: This is definitely a unique premise. Wendig has significant current issues–agriculture, technology, class–and spun them into a setting unlike any other. The first few chapters, in which Cael and his crew travel on foot through the corn, serve as an excellent introduction to this strange new world. That said, Wendig doesn’t quite maintain that momentum throughout the rest of the novel.
Some of that sense of “flagging,” for lack of a better way of putting it, may be due to the fact that this is a young adult novel. Much has been said lately about whether or not adults should or should not be embarrassed to read YA, but that’s not my concern here. Rather, readers familiar with Wendig’s other work, for instance, Blackbirds and its successors, know that Wendig is inclined to graphic language and violence; they are the tools with which he makes his art. He has to tone those down for YA, of course, and the loss is palpable. There is violence, mostly fistfights, and there is vulgarity, for instance, “Jeezum Crow,” apparently a corrupted, Heartland version of “Jesus Christ,” but, for seasoned Wendig readers, Under the Empyrean Sky is decidedly tame.
There are also issues with the plot, as Cael strives to determine his direction. This type of thing might be expected of YA; the protagonist has to discover himself or otherwise learn some lesson, a tendency that appeals to its primary audience, who is (presumably) going through much the same thing. Readers accustomed to Wendig’s propulsive momentum will miss that here. The plot wanders, as Cael deals with his wrecked boat, his family, his friends, his girlfriend… Cael has tough luck, but the reader wishes for a respite.
That’s not to say that Under the Empyrean Sky is bad. The premise, of course, is fascinating, and there are moments of real promise, for instance, the opening chapters, and, later, when Cael and his buddies explore a neighboring town. Readers will identify with the characters, who are almost exclusively down on their luck, although, as I understand it, some female readers may take issue with Cael’s behavior. (Cael is the kind of troubled teenager who gets on one’s nerves, and, worse, he treats Gwennie as his property.) Indeed, female characters are few and far between here–surprising, given Wendig’s emphasis on Miriam Black in his other novels–and seem to serve as punching bags for the men in their life, sometimes quite literally. The one bright spot is Mer, and she’s wise enough to disappear early on.
Under the Empyrean Sky is not a perfect book; its plot sometimes meanders, and it lacks some of the “oomph” of Wendig’s other work. Still, it is a unique setting for a story, it grapples with some big ideas, its characters are relatable, and there are some truly stirring scenes. There is YA marketed toward everyone and YA best marketed to its primary audience; Under the Empyrean Sky is among the latter. That said, tried and true Wendig fans will find much here to enjoy. A fun romp through a twisted agro-wasteland, Under the Empyrean Sky is a bit hit-or-miss, and recommended mainly to Wendig’s current fan base and readers willing to take a chance on a novel with a truly promising concept.