Want by Cindy Pon
Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits, protecting them from the pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by his city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost.
With the help of his friends, Zhou infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes of destroying the international Jin Corporation from within. Jin Corp not only manufactures the special suits the rich rely on, but they may also be manufacturing the pollution that makes them necessary.
Yet the deeper Zhou delves into this new world of excess and wealth, the more muddled his plans become. And against his better judgment, Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO. Can Zhou save his city without compromising who he is, or destroying his own heart? [Image and summary via Goodreads]
Welcome to the Rich in Color group discussion of Want! Mild spoilers ahead:
Jessica: Let’s all take a moment to appreciate that amazing, super gorgeous cover. *gazes dreamily*
Audrey: It’s a gorgeous cover. *admires it with you* I’m especially fond of the light reflections on the helmet.
K. Imani: I like the cover as well. I think it captures the futuristic feel of the story and Jason perfectly.
Jessica: So the moment Want was on my radar, I knew I had to get it because, you know, I’m Taiwanese American so the fact that it’s a YA sci-fi thriller set in Taipei, Taiwan made it very relevant to my interests. So much of the book felt real to me and my experiences – the places named, the food, just the general vibe of Taipei. The way the story was so rooted in a real life place made the futuristic stuff, like the suits that filtered out pollution, feel very real, too. What was your take on the setting?
Crystal: The setting is one unfamiliar to me, but that was appealing. I’m always looking for books set in other countries so I can travel vicariously. It’s a whole lot cheaper. In some ways, the pollution was the most significant thing about the setting though.
Audrey: I loved the setting. Near-future Taipei was great–I’ve never been to current-day Taipei, though I have seen pictures of it (including the famous night markets). Cindy Pon did a great job of painting a picture of the city for someone who doesn’t know much about it, particularly in describing the huge gap between the world of the rich and the world of the poor. One of the things I really like about science-fiction, especially the near-future variety, is seeing how tech and culture are extrapolated (voice- and thought-activated everything, flying cars, etc.). Pon did a great job of this, and I enjoyed learning more about the world of Want.
K. Imani: In a number of my writing workshops/classes, setting has always been stressed to almost be a character itself, and in WANT I felt like it totally was. The way Pon described the city, I could clearly see, and actually see the city dying because of the smog. I felt for not just all the people living there but all the plants and animals that were slowly dying as well. The way the buildings were described just broke my heart. The fact that the city was a character also truly emphasized how if we don’t take care of our planet, our entire society is affected, not just the humans.
Jessica: Yeah, if I were analyzing this in English class, I’d totally say something nerdy about how there’s another omnipresent character in Want – and that’s the pollution of Taipei itself. Even when Zhou is in the world of the you society, the absence of the pollution is felt as well. Considering that global warming is a very real threat right now, this made Want feel almost too current. Did you feel that the future portrayed in Want was a possible take on our own near future, or more of a distant what-if dystopian scenario? Maybe a little of both?
Crystal: I totally agree about the pollution being another character. It’s there lurking everywhere. The fact that people can’t get away from it without spending significant amounts of money is always there too. I hope this is a distant what-if, but some of the tension of reading the book is knowing that this type of situation could be a possibility for our future.
Audrey: I have the dubious pleasure of living along the Wasatch Front, and due to the geography of the area, we get thick blankets of smog in winter and summer that turn the sky yellow-brown and can make the mountains disappear on especially bad days. (I grimaced in sympathy whenever Zhou or Daiyu mentioned never being able to see the mountains from the city–it happens several times a year here.) Most of the time when the weather report is given on the radio, they include an air quality report and whether any action is recommended/required. It’s not Want level yet, but the quality of the air is a not-insignificant concern where I live. Currently waiting for masks to become a thing on bad days.
K. Imani: Oh, I definitely feel that if we aren’t careful with our air and work to end pollution, the world of Want is a possibility. As Audrey said her weather report includes air quality reports and the same is a given in many cities across the world. I feel like Want is a cautionary tale in that aspect; giving us warning as to the future that we are leaving for our children. Daiyu’s grandfather (I think it was) remembered blue sky which means that the world of Want is not too far removed from our current society. I feel Pon did a wonderful job of extrapolating what the future could be if we don’t take steps now to reverse pollution.
Jessica: Global warming was the elephant in the room in Want, but there’s definitely other issues presented that are either evergreen or relevant to what’s going on today – like the wealth gap, portrayed through the have’s and have not’s (you and mei) of Taipei. I was really struck by the added complexity added to the issue through the (SPOILER ALERT) introduction of the mass produced suits that were really meant to spur consumer spending by those who couldn’t afford it, and the way it was both a conspiracy to harm people and a transparent PR stunt. What did you all think of that? Were there any social issues portrayed in Want that jumped out at you?
Crystal: Want takes a good look at the environment, but the economic issues were also significant. The wage gap in the U.S. is on the increase and I think this too struck a little close to home. I saw it especially in the access to healthcare for Zhou’s mother and others. There are basic human rights that are violated many times over.
K. Imani: I agree with you about the access to healthcare too; that really hit home for me. I feel like that lack of basic healthcare for the meis was a great example, like the debate happening in our country right now. In addition to the corporate greed on display, this novel truly shows how if we let it get out of control, our world will have dire consequences.
Audrey: One of the things I enjoyed most about the exploration of the gap between the you and the mei was that Zhou could be appalled by the excess and frivolity of the you while also craving the comforts he had in a privileged position. He got used to breathing good air and having money to throw around–but he also got frustrated by all the ways the you just didn’t understand that there was a problem. The interview with Angela at the end–where she flat out says she cares about the pollution now because it finally affects her–was very telling. Environmental justice, affordable healthcare, government corruption, profits over people–all of those issues were important in Want, and I was happy to see them tackled head on.
K. Imani: So agree about Angela’s interview as it reflected real words I’ve heard certain followers of a certain unpopular president say as they realize that now they are affected by his policies. It just shows how comfortable people are in their privilege and don’t think about others. I’m glad that Pon pointed this belief out and hope that it makes people become more empathetic.
Jessica: Agreed. On a lighter note… Zhou! His introduction screamed ‘bad boy’ to me in the best possible way. I kept wondering how Zhou was going to turn it around and make things right with Daiyu, so I just loved the plot twist at the end regarding her.
Crystal: The whole romance portion of the book made my heart happy.
Audrey: I actually took a screenshot of the dedication–everyone loves a bad boy who plays with knives–and sent it to some of my friends, who definitely agreed. I loved that Zhou was apologetic about kidnapping Daiyu and did everything he could to not freak her out too much while he waited for a ransom. His conflict about getting close to her after the memory wipe was great–as was that plot twist. I was so happy since I spent the whole book basically waiting for Daiyu’s heart to be broken.
K. Imani: I loved the plot twist as well because it said a lot about Daiyu. I mean, I already thought she was kick ass, and when the plot twist occurred I was so happy. They were definitely equals in that relationship and I loved that they both challenged each other.
Jessica: Okay, so… books! There were a lot of bookish references in Want, ranging from A Wrinkle in Time to The Count of Monte Cristo. I particularly loved the mention of The Count of Monte Cristo, since it was so on-the-nose. Were there any book references that you liked in particular?
Crystal: I too loved the inclusion of so many book references throughout the story. Zhou really stole my heart in many ways and that was one of them for sure. And what a mix – Roald Dahl, Beverly Clearly, and Poe among others. His reading was certainly eclectic. I also liked that Dream of the Red Chamber was mentioned. I had never heard of it, but when I looked it up, I found out it’s basically the most famous Chinese novel ever. It’s twice as long as War and Peace with about 40 main characters. One of them is named Daiyu. So being a librarian and curious, I dug around and found this cool quote from the first chapter of The Red Chamber that’s been translated this way:
Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.
Kind of interesting when reading Want.
Audrey: I’m a sucker for a badass bookworm, and Zhou fit the bill. Jessica, I loved The Count of Monte Cristo reference, too, and had half been expecting that to be part of Zhou’s covering being blown. Crystal, I also loved how widely read Zhou was–I could recognize most of the references, even if I hadn’t read the books in question. It made me wonder what books from today would be worthy of being considered classics a hundred or so years from now.
K. Imani: I had the same thought, Audrey, of what books would be considered classics in the future. I actually loved that Zhou was a book nerd and even quoted some books. It made me love him even more. I especially like how he actually had read diversely and that we were introduced to some new authors. I actually learned about Cao Xueqin, the author of Dream of the Red Chamber, a few nights after I finished the book and now I totally want to read it as well.
Jessica: Yes! Do it! I read part of Dream of the Red Chamber in college for Chinese lit class, and it was super fun… but also very confusing. Confusing but fun.
Crystal: Aside from introducing me to a lengthy, but cool book I might attempt to read in the future, Want also introduced me to Jay Chou. Some of the characters were listening to one of his ballads so I had to chase down his music to play while I finished that chapter. Pure loveliness.
Jessica: A movie I’m really excited about right now is Crazy Rich Asians, which is absolutely not whitewashed and, well, the book was amazing. So it’s gonna be great. Reading Want and its vivid description of a glitzy and gritty future Taipei made me want a movie version of this soooo bad. I’m pretty psyched for the future when it comes to Asian representation in media. The next book I’m looking forward to, now that I have read and loved Want, is American Panda by Gloria Chao. Also, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo (!!) which is out now and I need to read ASAP. Do you all have any upcoming YA books that speak to you in particular?
Crystal: I’m interested in Calling My Name by Liara Tamani. I spent my high school and college years in the Bible Belt of Texas and attended a conservative church. Taja is a young teen from Houston in similar circumstances so I’m looking forward to that story. I’m also super excited to read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor and They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera. There are more, but the list is getting out of hand.
Audrey: I just bought Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson, which came out earlier this year. I’m super excited for Dread Nation by Justina Ireland, Love Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao, and Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore.
K.Imani: This is a tough question because I just want to read all the books, but I am looking forward to the sequel to Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper, Shadowhouse Falls, as well as Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor. I also bought a number of British YA books when I was in London so I’m really looking forward to reading those books.
Jessica: Exciting! *busily organizes to-read list*
If you haven’t read Want already, definitely go out and grab a copy – it’s amazing. And if you have, what were your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!