House of Stairs by William Sleator
Young adult fiction must be a really tough genre to wrap your head around, for a writer. You have a story that you want to tell, and you have to tell it in such a way that it is simple enough for your target audience to read, yet engaging enough to keep them reading. The themes have to be familiar enough for them to understand and relate to, yet unusual enough to be interesting for them. Go too far in the wrong direction and you have a failure. So how does a YA writer do it, balancing all those issues, while still writing a good book?
Damned if I know. I’ve never managed to write a decent book for adults, much less young ones.
Fortunately, there are plenty of talented writers who can write for young people, and one of those is William Sleator.
A YA writer who specializes in science fiction, Sleator has written his fair share of strange, fantastic and sometimes disturbing books. Of all the ones I’ve read, this book is probably the one that creeped me out the most.
The setup for this story is simple. Five sixteen year-old orphans – two boys, three girls – are put into a giant room, with no visible walls, ceiling or floor. The only structures in this room are stairs and landings. Nothing else except for a small machine with flashing lights and odd sounds that dispenses food.
The five characters are very different and very interesting. First we have Peter, a scared boy, uncertain of his surroundings in the best of times, and utterly overwhelmed by being dropped into this bizarre place. He’s afraid of everything and everybody, and finds solace only his the strange trances he drops into, in which he is with an old orphanage roommate, Jasper, feeling safe and protected. As an interesting aside, it wasn’t until I was much older that I figured out Peter’s sexuality. It wasn’t that thinly veiled, either. I really don’t handle subtlety well, I think….
Lola is not a showgirl. Sorry, had to put that in. Lola is a tough, street-smart girl who has no tolerance for stupidity or cruelty. She’s had to learn a lot in her time, and doesn’t look to others to decide what she should or should not do.
Blossom is a fat little girl who is the first to figure out how to use the food dispenser (in a rage at it, she sticks out her tongue, and out pops a food pellet – but more on this later). She is cunning and devious, much sharper than people would give her credit for being. If anyone is truly dangerous in this crowd, it is her.
Abagail is a mousy girl, pretty in her own way, but with very little in the way of self-confidence. She tends to latch on to other people and question her own thoughts and actions. She does have compassion, however, though not the means to make her compassion a reality.
Finally, Oliver is the other boy of the group, and he is all that Peter is not. He is strong and confident and good-looking. For a while, Peter thinks that Oliver is his old friend, Jasper, and subsequently Peter is devoted to Oliver. A certain power structure evolves when it is discovered that of all the people, only Oliver can bring Peter out of his trances. Oliver has power, and he is not afraid to use it.
These five kids are trapped in this house of stairs. None of them know why they’re there, they only know that they are. They soon discover that the food-dispensing machine will only give them food under certain conditions. In the beginning , they are forced to repeat a series of actions and movements, that evolve into a kind of dance, hoping to get food from the machine.
From there it gets only worse. They soon discover that the dance isn’t enough. The infighting that comes naturally becomes essential to their survival, for only when they are cruel or greedy will the machine start flashing its lights and entice them to dance. The question then becomes whether or not the kids will do as the machine wishes, and how long they can hold out against it. Or if they will.
This book is disturbing to say the least. It levels some pretty harsh accusations about human nature, not just regarding the kids in the house of stairs, but also regarding the people who put them there. The kids are there for a reason, and not a good one. The whole setup (which is thoroughly, if somewhat clunkily, explained at the end) is about conditioning, and changing people’s personality through stimuli and reinforcement to make them behave as desired. Because it demonstrates people, young people in particular, behaving in a manner that displays the truth of their nature, this book has often been compared to Lord of the Flies, and rightly so.
In its way, it’s even more disturbing than Lord of the Flies – at least the kids in that book had been left to their own devices, as terrible as they were. In this book, the horrors that these five teens go through are part of a deliberate state-sanctioned experiment in human conditioning – a kind of horrible, Pavlovian Breakfast Club. Such is the nature of that experiment that the two children who resisted the conditioning were actually regarded as failures. Upon reflection, the people pulling the strings are far more frightening and disturbing than these poor, manipulated children.
If nothing else, the lesson to be learned from this story is simple – be a human being. There are some things that are too important to sacrifice for something as simple and petty as food and acceptance. We must never allow ourselves to be beasts. We have to be human. This has relevance today, when we are debating the ethics of torture – is it a necessary evil that we must tolerate if our society is to survive, or is it an offense against our humanity? If we allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking that an evil act is somehow the right thing to do, then we have lost a very important part of ourselves.
Of course, it’s also about science, but the message here is less dire – we must not allow science to lose its humanity. In this book, a strange future with a monolithic state government, science is entirely utilitarian, with no moral qualms about putting minors through psychological torture. The good news is that, at least as of this writing, science errs on the side of ethics. Modern science certainly has its moral gray areas, but the majority of scientists out there would never consent to run an experiment such as this. I hope.
The last line in the book is one of the more frightening ones in literature, right up there with the last line in 1984. It’s a blunt reminder of everything that has happened in the book, and a pointed summation of everything that Sleator has been trying to say – that humans have a base nature, that we can be manipulated, and we will, given the right circumstances, allow others to shape who we are. His message to his readers – teenagers like the ones in this book – is to refuse to submit to such control. Good advice for them, and for us.
“You… you’re not going to… to go along with it, are you?”
– Peter, House of Stairs