George Orwell may have written his novel 1984 in 1949, but his themes of an all-powerful government, the submersion of the individual, and invasion of privacy reverberated with his readership—and still do. First-time author Marie Lu was born in 1984, and her book, Legend, plumbs these same themes—in ways that will also resonate with readers today.
In Lu’s world, global warming has reshaped continents, the military runs the country and disseminates the information, and plagues run rampant through the poorest neighborhoods. Enter 15-year-old June, who was born into privilege, with both parents employed by the government, and who believes what she’s been taught. Day, on the other hand, also 15, has witnessed firsthand how the government’s policies have betrayed his family and put their lives in danger. They cannot both be right.
When I had a chance to interview Marie Lu about her book, she discussed the underpinnings of her fiction as being rooted in fact. “The dystopian setting came about when I was looking online at a map of what the world would be like if all the fresh water in the world melted and the oceans rose 100 meters,” said Lu. The ever-evolving plague grew out of the author’s research on factory farming, and how quickly diseases like SARS can spread via factories of farms with animals on antibiotics. And Day’s dexterity and agility, scaling buildings and the like, were inspired by a discipline called parkour or “free running,” developed in France, with roots in the martial arts but with a focus on moving efficiently around obstacles.
Marie Lu said that she did not set out to convey a message with Legend. Quite the opposite. The inspiration came one day when she was watching Les Miserables and tried to imagine what it would be like for two teenagers who found themselves in the opposing positions of Valjean and Javert. But as she reflected on her novel, she realized that a pivotal moment in her own life inspired a climactic scene in the book. In 1989, Lu was living with her aunt in Beijing, and tensions were mounting all summer between the government and its citizens. One day, kindergarten was canceled, and Lu found herself with her aunt in Tiananmen Square. The turning point of her book is “a mirror,” as Lu put it, of watching the protestors in Tiananmen Square. Suddenly her futuristic "Republic of America" does not look so farfetched.