TL;DR – Young adult sci-fi mystery involving generations of humanity stuck inside a metal habitat and run by a group that hides secrets from the rest of the populace. Everyone is stuck inside, and you can’t go outside for reasons only the group in power knows. When rumour spreads of a way out, curiosity becomes a powerful force.
Summary (warning: spoilers)
Trella was born and raised ‘Inside’. Her job as a ‘scrub’ involves cleaning the network of pipes that run through the mysterious metal structure she and thousands of others call home. Their home is ruled by the Travas family, who are militaristic in their approach to maintaining law and order within Inside.
Life is pretty miserable in the lower two levels of Inside due to overpopulation, and the mundane existence everyone has and the jobs they perform. So, when Trella meets a man from the upper two levels who talks about a door to the outside, it triggers a movement to overthrow their established oppressors. Reluctantly, Trella becomes the face of this movement.
The world is not a sphere, it is a square prism (or prison depending on your point of view). This square prism is two kilometres wide, two kilometres long, and twenty-five metres high. There are four levels, each level broken up into nine squares. Each square (also known as quads and sectors) performs a role. For example, the cafeteria and dining area for the lower two levels resides in one of the squares on level two, hydroponics is in one of the squares in level one etc.
People who reside in the upper two levels are called, you guessed it, ‘Uppers’. And the people in the bottom two levels are called ‘Lowers’ (and they’re also referred to as ‘scrubs’ for the jobs that they have to undertake). You can see immediately that such titles would cause a division; a failure of whoever makes the decisions in understanding that collaboration may achieve greater harmony than division. Thus, the world of Inside Out has been created. Snyder’s dystopian imagining has humanity trying to survive in this prism with the scrubs doing most of the grunt work ensuring food, clothing and power is maintained while the Uppers are left to do whatever Uppers do.
Snyder’s main character is a girl named Trella, a scrub who works within the system of pipes and ductwork keeping them clean. She spends more time in the pipes than with her fellow scrubs and has been coined ‘Queen of the Pipes’ (a term used in derision as opposed to allure). Her understanding of the network has allowed her to discover ways not only into the upper levels but also knowledge of every nook, cranny, and boundary of their confined box.
To maintain order, the Uppers have established population control police (‘Pop Cops’). Scrubs that cause significant dissent that could lead to rebellion are arrested and sent to the ‘Chomper’ for recycling. Prophets, established by Pop Cops, spout propaganda to also facilitate control. These prophets would say if a scrub works hard on the Inside, then when their life ends their soul will be freed to go Outside (their physical body would be fed to Chomper).
Not much of an existence, but all the generations that might have remembered what it was like before the box have long since died.
And when a prophet named Domotor (aka ‘Broken Man’) rocks up in his wheelchair and confides in Trella the existence of Gateway and asks for her help, she thinks it is all a set up. A test to see if she is loyal to the system or wanting to start a revolution. You see, there is a myth among the lower levels about a place called Gateway that is a door to the Outside. The myth has persisted though no evidence of Gateway has ever been found. Not even by Trella who has explored practically every inch of their box.
Her thoughts change when Domotor is taken by the Pop Cops. If the Pop Cops are trying to silence Domotor then they perceive him as a threat. Trella, with the help of her only scrub friend, Cogon, rescue Domotor and whisk him away to a hidden room on the lowest level. This triggers events where Trella tries to uncover the truth about Gateway while trying to navigate the increased Pop Cops presence who are hunting down those responsible for rescuing Domotor.
Snyder has created a convincing world that should have young adult readers engaged. There’s enough mystery that had me wanting to get to the final page.
However, my struggles with the story came in two areas. The first is the characters. Inside Out has been described as, ‘The fans of The Hunger Games will devour this.’ I did not feel that Snyder brought about enough layers to Trella as Suzanne Collins did with Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. The empathy towards Katniss was far greater than it was with Trella, who comes off as someone who doesn’t really care about anyone. Deep down we know she does. Trella’s friendship with Cogon is genuine and when he is slated for execution, she is spurred even further to stop the uppers and show the existence of Gateway. When Trella meets Riley, an upper who is willing to help her, we know the chemistry is there even if Trella tries to deny it. But this emotional angst doesn’t have the pull that it should.
The second area where I struggled is the world itself. A dystopia where humans are stuck inside something and the outside is forbidden is a solid plot device. One of the best novels I have read that uses this setting is Wool by Hugh Howey. In Wool, humanity is stuck in a silo that is built deep into the earth because the outside is uninhabitable. The silo has one hundred and forty-four stories and the mysteries around the silo and how it came into existence are as many if not more than the prism in Inside Out. But it is not the scale of Snyder’s world that I struggled with. It is the language and descriptions she used in her writing.
Both characterisation and setting lack the depth of writing used in The Hunger Games or Wool. The areas within the prism are described in functional terms – solid waste handling, cafeteria, barracks, laundry etc – and I only got a vague feeling of the atmosphere. Yes, there’s fear, anger, disillusionment, mundanity, and slivers of hope but they are delivered in a way that was muted. Because Trella traverses many different sectors and levels, Snyder is forced to use a key code to describe where Trella goes. The nine squares are labelled A to I and the four levels are numbered. So A1 is the top left corner area on level one. This is a simple but boring way of telling the reader where Trella ends up. Whether it is E2 or G4, the codes end up detracting from the reading, and I found myself glossing over these bits.
Likewise, the characters don’t have the pull that I had hoped. One of the main antagonists, Pop Cop LC Karla, is one-dimensional in her actions and delivery. She does not seem to question her role in the system and appears to have no qualms in recycling scrubs or manipulating them into giving her information. She is almost robotic in form and personality.
What Snyder does do that kept me going is introduce the idea that the uppers are not all the same. We discover there are different groups within the uppers themselves and some of these groups are against how the scrubs are being treated. This is essential to provide some level of complexity to the world structure Snyder has created.
But overall, I struggled with the final arc. The successful overthrow of the ruling Travas family did not engage me, and Trella is depicted as somewhat superhuman. At one point, she is tortured to a point where you would struggle to stand on two feet let alone perform the level of movement and dexterity that she shows in moving through the pipes. The Pop Cops also seem to be quite inept. On more than one occasion Trella is able to grab weapons off the Pop Cops (e.g. stun guns from their belts) when she is suffering from injuries that would leave anyone else incapacitated.
There are also plot problems. Trella tries to locate Gateway only to believe it’s all a hoax. She gives up and is ready to hand herself over to LC Karla. She leaves behind a note and removes a microphone and receiver disguised as an earring and button respectively that she uses to communicate to the rebels in the lower levels. But in the following chapters she has them back on her person even though there is no explanation of how she came to acquire them again.
Then there’s the fact that the Travas family seems to want to encourage the scrubs to copulate and have more babies, which leads to overcrowding in the lower levels. Trella tries to understand the motivation behind this but is unable to do so and the story ends without this being explained. If anything, having the lowers grow in population means they outnumber the Pop Cops, leading to the eventual rebellion. It makes no sense that the Travas family would use overcrowding as a control method.
The other unexplained plot device is we find out there was a time when the uppers and lowers worked together. This all went down the tube because the Travas wanted to be the ones solely in control. Why did the Travas want to do this? Who knows? They come off as simply power hungry simpletons who want to rule Inside through fear and intimidation. That’s always going to be a recipe for success when you encourage population growth in a confined space and expect everyone to accept it and continue working tirelessly like drones. NOT!
There is a sequel to Inside Out called Outside In which may explain all these plot holes but I’m not invested enough to pick it up.
When the big reveal is shown that they are actually inside a spaceship and outside is nothing but the vacuum of space, I neither care nor feel any desire to see where the spaceship is going (not that their destination is revealed anyway). Inside Out had the potential to be gripping but in the end was a disappointing read.
1.5 out of 5.