Everyone is equal. But no one is safe.
In a ruined world, Manhattan is now New America, a walled-in society based on equality. But the perfect facade hides a dark truth.
A timid math geek, sixteen-year-old Drayden watches his life crumble when his beloved mother is exiled. The mystery of her banishment leads him to a sinister secret: New America is in trouble, and every one of its citizens is in jeopardy.
With time running out, he enters the Initiation. It’s a test within the empty subway tunnels—a perilous journey of puzzles and deadly physical trials. Winners join the ruling Bureau and move to its safe haven. But failure means death. Can Drayden conquer the Initiation, or is salvation out of his grasp?
The Inspiration for
Here’s a stat that gets tossed around a lot: 80% of all people want to write a novel, though less than 1% do. If accurate, it means most people aspire to write one. I find that startling. What’s also surprising, for me, is I was not one of them.
Call mine sudden inspiration. A deep dive into the reasons is beyond the scope of this post. But let’s chalk it up to job dissatisfaction, a need to express the creative energy for which I had no outlet, my first midlife crisis, and a voracious reading habit. After years of marveling over the magic of long form fiction, I too wanted to craft a story so epic it required 300 pages to tell.
At the time, in early 2015, I’d been reading a ton of YA post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. One of the reasons I loved the genre was the hope it offered. That, regardless of how bleak a situation is, the human spirit always finds a way to endure. I wondered, what might I contribute to this space?
My writing journey led me to mswishlist.com, which is a website for literary agents to post what they’re currently seeking. One agent’s comment read, “I’ll look at anything YA—EXCEPT dystopian.” Her refrain was echoed by other agents. Interesting, I thought. Challenge accepted!
This genre is regularly called “fatigued.” I needed to differentiate my story and bring something unique to the table. To start, I considered the dubious elements of my favorite novels. Many occur after apocalypses that are either never-mentioned, vague, or silly. Others feature fantasy, or VERY convenient futuristic technology. While not necessarily bad, wouldn’t a realistic dystopia—a believable one—be so much more frightening? So, mine would be realistic. What about the original angle though? As many authors do, I turned to what I know.
I was a bond trader for nineteen years, after getting my math degree from MIT. I’m aware that most people don’t enjoy math, although sometimes they do without realizing it. The perfect examples are puzzles, brainteasers, and riddles. For me, problem solving is both fun and gratifying, and dammit, I’m determined to make people agree with me! I wanted to incorporate it into my novel.
I was encouraged by Andy Weir’s The Martian, in which astronaut Mark Watney tackles a series of complex problems. Its success caught the literary world off guard, because you need a Ph.D in physics to understand the science. Even the author was surprised the “techie-ness” didn’t seem to take away from people’s enjoyment of the story. There was plenty to like, but the basic construct of the plot is a sequence of esoteric problems.
Brain teasers were also on my mind, as I sought ways to make math more fun for my daughter, then nine. She hates math. One day, I found myself contemplating different puzzles she might enjoy, and focused on ones that could be demonstrated in real life. For example, one asks you to rearrange a square of toothpicks into a different shape in only two moves. Where was I at the time? Stuck underground, delayed on my way to work. On the subway.
Unless you live in New York City, you don’t know what it’s like to take the NYC subway every day. I was a daily commuter—a “straphanger”—between 2000 and 2016. Around 2012, the subway became severely overcrowded and unreliable. Its deficiency is daily New York news fodder. In addition to the degradation from a surge in ridership, the system has been neglected for decades. The infrastructure is fatally broken.
Being a subway commuter instills enough fear and anxiety to drive people to therapy. In short, it sucks. How so, you ask?
Temperatures reach 110 degrees in the summer while you wait on the platform. The trains are so crowded you must let several pass by, unless you’re standing exactly where the doors open. There’s shoving and trickery to secure those “money” platform spots. I loathe the dude who pushes to the front of the waiting crowd, ostensibly to peer down the tracks for an approaching train, and then stays there. Thanks bro.
Once inside, you’re smushed up against the doors, or immobilized in a sea of people. It’s sweaty. Riders bicker or fight. Someone is often eating food that smells vile, like old fish. A crazy person is screaming passages from their own made-up Bible.
Somehow, in 2018, subway announcements still sound like they’re made on a WWII-era radio in heavy combat. With the lax security, the risk of a terrorist attack is always on your mind.
I don’t remember the reason for the delay that fateful day at the Chambers Street station. If they’d announced it, I wouldn’t have understood it anyway. As I stared onto the platform, pondering math puzzles, the idea for The Initiation was born. The meat of it is a perilous journey through the subway tunnels, in which teens must conquer a series of brainy challenges, or face death.
To the math haters, have no fear—editing softened it enough for anyone to enjoy. Unlike The Martian, no Ph.D., is required if you care to take a shot at the problems alongside the characters.
While The Initiation isn’t set in the present day subway, the hellish quest through the tunnels is a metaphor for the entire straphanger experience. Reading about future dystopian worlds often makes us feel better about our own. I can only hope that reading about a deadly trek through the subway will put our straphanger woes in perspective.
Chris Babu is either a former bond trader who writes, or a writer who formerly traded bonds. He desperately hopes he’s the latter. His debut YA novel, The Initiation, came out February 27th from Permuted Press. He can also be found at chrisbabu.com.
Chris Babu grew up in North Haven, CT, playing soccer and the violin in his free time. After devouring The Shining under the covers with a flashlight when he was eight, Chris was hooked on fiction. He’s always had a thing for young adult books. But he’s also a major science and math nerd – physics being his favorite – and he has a math degree from MIT.
For nineteen years, he worked as a bond trader on Wall Street, riding the subway to and from work every day. He traded mortgage-backed securities for Bank of America and then Deutsche Bank, where he eventually ran the MBS trading desk. Now Chris writes full-time, always with his trusted assistant Buddy, a 130-pound Great Dane, who can usually be found on his lap. They split their time between New York City and the east end of Long Island. Their omnipresence at home drives his wife Michelle and daughter Lily crazy. The Initiation is his first novel.