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Books to read this summer: ‘Ripe’ by Sarah Rose Etter offers a frighteningly familiar dystopia

"Ripe" by Sarah Rose Etter, reviewed: One of this summer's must-reads

A man in silhouette reads a book between two large bookshelves in front of a window.
Shuai Guo, Pixabay Image used with permission by copyright holder

There are plenty of books to read on the more troubling aspects of life in Silicon Valley, but none are so personal in tone and downright haunting as Ripe by Sarah Rose Etter. You don’t have to live in the San Francisco Bay Area or work in tech to see yourself in its mirror. In the modern world, we’re all in Silicon Valley, and we’re all well-versed in the drudgery and throes of life under corporatocracy.

Ripe casts this familiar circumstance — which in the U.S. dates back at least as far as Bartleby — through a new narrative: That of a burned-out tech drone and her ever-present black hole. The dystopia she exists in feels futuristic, but it is in fact the very world we live in today. It isn’t just recognizable; it’s a photographic, if sometimes fantastic, representation, a photograph blurred by uppers, stress, and emotional whiplash between nihilism and earnestness.

Ripe by Sarah Rose Etter.
Nick Hilden Nick Hilden

Sarah Rose Etter: A rising voice

Ripe is Sarah Rose Etter’s second novel following The Book of X, a surreal tale of womanhood that was listed for and won all manner of awards. Her shorter work has appeared in a slew of leading publications, and now Ripe is garnering abundant praise. It’s already one of the most anticipated new book releases of the summer. Suffice it to say that she is a writer on the rise.

Her descriptions of tech life aren’t imagined. Etter has experienced the business firsthand, which is apparent in the book. Like a growing score of her generation, it is equally apparent that she is over the startup culture grind and grift.

Ripe for change

Perhaps more than anything, Ripe is the story of a woman on the cusp of — or perhaps in dire need of — change. The book jump-cuts between flashbacks of the narrator Cassie’s youth before leaving home for a stab at big-city, big-job success and, later, the increasingly dismal reality of that supposed success. It’s a tale of the quest for change that never quite comes, or that never quite brings the desired transformation: perhaps because Cassie is constantly haunted by a black hole that varies in size depending on factors like contentment and stress, but that always threatens to swallow her entirely.

Cassie isn’t the only thing in need of positive yet elusive change. The world around her is in disarray, seemingly ready to fall apart at any moment unless change comes quickly. The plight of the unhoused is blatant and critical. Wildfires and plague loom higher with each news cycle. Desperate people set themselves aflame in the street from time to time.

Through this grim landscape, Cassie commutes to work each day via trains full of “husks” and “Believers” who have fallen for the tech startup trap. Once at work, increasingly tyrannical techzecutives assign her tasks spanning from nonsensical to impossible to flat-out illegal. She spends her downtime with progressively downtrodden, life-crazed friends between seeing a guy who would commit to her if only he didn’t have a girlfriend to whom he was already committed. Oh, and she’s pregnant.

While this might sound like a pretty despairing read — and it is from time to time — it’s a satisfying one as well. As I read Ripe, I couldn’t help but recognize myself in it, regardless of the fact that I have never worked in tech nor had an office job of any kind. It’s more of an emotional or spiritual recognition. It’s the kind of book that screams at you: You’re not the only one who thinks this is all madness! While the world it portrays and that we live in might not have much to offer in the way of consolation, there is something relieving in knowing that you’re not the only one who sees the insanity for what it is.

Not quite science-fiction, though it does feel sci-fi adjacent, and not quite surrealist, though it does include fantastical, symbolic elements, Ripe is both up-to-the-minute timely and daring in its construction. It would fit nicely on a shelf next to the likes of Emily St. John Mandel, Olga Ravn, or Jinwoo Chong’s new book, Flux.

It belongs on your reading list. There are a slew of new books dropping this summer that will feed dystopic tastes, but few are as thematically fruitful as Ripe.

Ripe goes on sale July 11, and you can pre-order it now.

Editors' Recommendations

Nick Hilden
Nick Hilden is a lifestyle and culture writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Afar…
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