Now here's an interesting thing: a dystopian novel that's actually (a) original, (b) well-written and (c) thought provoking. The theory goes, you see, that dystopia is so 'in' among teenagers right now because of the highly uncertain future they face. Dystopian novels strike a chord and articulate their fears, conscious or otherwise. Subsequently, there's been a real glut of dystopia in recent years. Sad to say, that can leave one feeling cold: too many deal with thought provoking themes in a rather glib and token way, instead choosing to layer on straightforward action and suspense.
In not very many words or pages, Maggot Moon succeeds in being a glorious exception to the general rule. Rather than being set in the future, it is set in an alternative 'what if' past, in which Britain as we know it today is a subjugated, satellite state of an unseen 'Motherland'. The Motherland is preparing to give it's rivals a show of strength by landing on the moon; what main character Standish and his friend Hector discover, though, is that said landing is to be faked. Defying the inherent dangers involved, Standish decides he has to do something about it...
The novel is told from the wonderfully idiosyncratic point of view of Standish. He makes an unlikely hero: a bit reminiscent of Robert Graves' Claudius, in the sense that everyone has him down as an idiot, but he's unfortunately not quite able to disguise his keen ability to see things as they really are as successfully. Some of his narrative tics can be annoying (e.g. "frick-fracking hell"), but he is mostly easy to root for. Gardner keeps things pacy with very short chapters, and the suspense becomes almost unbearable around two thirds in, marked by an effective switch to the present tense. The illustrations smeared across some of the pages, in particular the rat who gets poisoned, also serve to add to the general air of ominous terror.
Thematically, there are shades of 1984 in Gardner's book, with the dictatorial regime Standish lives under using an external foe to spread fear among their citizens, thus preventing them from holding their own Government to account. But the regime, with its obsession over projecting an image of power whilst brutally suppressing its own people, brings to mind a certain regime of today which is flexing its war muscles in front of the cameras while its people starve off it (no prizes for guessing which nation that is). Lest we forget, and as Orwell himself warned us, this is something that could happen to any country. Maggot Moon is thus a vital, cautionary tale for our times, and one you could worse than recommend to not only a teenager, but pretty much anyone.