This Time of Darkness
By H. M. Hoover
Viking Press,1980; Starscape, 2003
This Time of Darkness is a children's science fiction novel, a tale of a dystopian future written before this became a popular sub-genre. It is one of Hoover's more popular books, probably in large part due to its inclusion in the Starscape catalog, which also included Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and books by Robert Jordan, Patricia C. Wrede, and Diana Wynne Jones.
Amy lives in The City -- a massive underground warren packed to overflowing with humanity. Although, no one is allowed to actually overflow; Amy has never met anyone who has been anywhere near the upper levels, and the rumors of actual windows on level 80 are highly suspect, as there is no evidence that level 80 even exists.
Amy's life is hard even by City standards. When she was young an old lady was assigned as a boarder in her family's apartment, and against her mother's wishes she taught Amy to read. Recently this secret has leaked out, and while reading isn't illegal it is certainly sinister enough to keep Amy's friends from speaking to her. And on top of that, she's been passed over for promotion to a vocational training dorm, leaving her stuck in school like a little kid.
Her life changes when she meets a new boy, Axel, who spends most of his time rocking and staring at nothing. It emerges that Axel didn't grow up in The City, and doesn't know the first thing about City life -- he doesn't even know how to requisition basic supplies. If he is to be believed, he actually comes from Outside, where his family works on a farm. She convinces him that she can get him back outside, and they start on a trek to find level 80 and a way out. But when they reach the top of the stairs, they don't find exactly what they were expecting, and they find that they have a much longer journey ahead of them if they are going to return Axel to his family.
This was one of H.M. Hoover's earlier books for children. It is one of the better examples of science fiction for children from before the time when young adult literature made the genre profitable. These were the days when almost all of the good SF for kids was actually fantasy. If you wanted to read about spaceships the librarian still pointed you towards The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, and if you wanted to read about the distant future you were reliant on a kind adult introducing you to The Rolling Stones. This was five years before Ender's Game, and 13 years before The Giver. Hoover was a visionary of the children's science fiction, and is chronically unappreciated.
As you may have gathered, I think this is a pretty good book. It is a good adventure, brings an interesting future world to life, and holds up as a good SF story 30 years after it was written. It is also a bit darker than the average children's book from that period, but without being depressing or scary. It is also obviously intended as a children's book, rather than a YA novel: it is not a coming of age novel, it has no romance, and the main characters do not save the world. It is just two kids running from the bad guys, exploring an interesting world, and trying to complete a simple quest. Reading it as an adult, it is perhaps not as tightly plotted as it could be, and the moving target (home is always just one more hurdle away) makes the book seem to go on just a bit too long -- not that it gets boring, but it does get slightly frustrating. Still, all in all it is a very good tale.
I would recommend this book to children from 8-14 who are interested in science fiction, and to older readers who have an interest in well-written children's science fiction. At 160 pages this is fairly light reading, and if you come across it is is worth checking out.