84K, a novel by Claire North
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Despite repeated and continued efforts by the UK government (amongst others) of turning it into a reality, I still enjoy the odd dystopian fiction. More and more often though it does feel like things that will be rather than things that may. 84K is a good example. Set in a future where the inevitable march of capitalisation has eroded what little freedom's we possess, it shows a late western capitalist society of profit before people, dehumanised to the point where the cost of life has dropped to it's lowest point ever. In North's future Britain, everything has a price, with the country run for profit by "The Company". You can do anything you want, provided you have the money to pay for it, possibly up to and including murder.

Human rights are but a distant memory, long cast away as a hindrance to progress:

the Prime Minister declared, “Too long our enemies have hidden behind human rights as if they were extended to all!”

A quote not too far from David Cameron's in 2015 when talking about the new counter-terrorism bill:

For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone

If you ask me, either quote could be read in the voice of Dr Doom without seeming out of place.

The story follows someone who calls himself "Theo Miller" (not his real name), working in the Criminal Audit Office - a department that assesses each crime and allocates the appropriate monetary value to make sure the suitable debt to society is paid. Those who don't have enough money are indentured into the "patty line", treated little more than slaves and used to carry out the most dangerous, boring and derogatory tasks no-one else wants to do. But then an ex-girlfriend is killed, and assigning a value to such a crime seems entirely inappropriate. He can't just let her death become merely an entry on a balance sheet - when the richest in the world are getting away with murder, sometimes the numbers just don't add up.

It's not, as you might expect, a cheerful novel.

It does however have a dark humour running through the book, that helps to prevent it becoming too depressing. The authors voice helps too, as does the style used, which is quite different to most books you'll read. Sentences are often left unfinished, and run into each other, while the story jumps around in a non-linear timeline. This could have proved disastrous but North makes it work and I really enjoyed the different narrative structure. Given this complex style, It's a much easier read than it has any right to be - although I can imagine a reader becoming lost if their attention wandered too much (or they skim read the bits they didn't like). 

One of the less unusual, but no less polarising choices, is to make the protagonist completely vanilla, little more than a device to dangle the story from. Although we do get some occasionally interesting retrospection:

I am, fundamentally, a failure. I've known this for most of my life. Since I was a child, it was always clear to me that the world I inhabited was not one I had contributed to.

How many of us can truthfully say that they have made a lasting and tangible contribution to society, that they will leave this world a little bit better than when they entered?

The problem with this approach of bland protagonist is of course that it can be less engaging, if you don't engage with the supposed hero of the story, all the burden of engagement is on the story itself, making the setting / backdrop interesting enough, or at the very least having a more vibrant supporting cast. While in 84k it's all about story, the near-future dystopian cityscape is as fascinating as it is unnervingly plausible. The supporting characters are interesting in their own way, but most aren't fleshed out enough to be a replacement. There is one redeeming character though, that of Nella, a narrow-boat owner we meet at the beginning, and finder of a rather injured "Theo". Nella rescues Theo, clinging as they do to an outdated social conscience that still survives for some who travel the waterways.

So the question is, is the story, setting and presence of Nella good enough to make up for having a plain protagonist and largely colourless cast?

Absolutely. The author stays true to the nature of this dark and troublesome future, there is no big hero that can make everything right, but there is still light out in this darkness, there are still small acts of human kindness that provide some small spark of hope. For all it's dark foreboding, the story is clever, rewarding and intricate. It's stream-of-consciousness approach slowly builds a complex, rich plot, building to an absolutely outstanding ending. The book does fall into the trap of second-half pacing though, and could have been tightened up to deliver it's ending a little sooner, but that is hardly an uncommon occurrence and the drop in pace is fairly brief.

Written three years ago, 84k is a story that feels current and entirely relevant as bills are passed to give police more powers, a new post-brexit “quintessentially British” draft of the Human rights law is being pushed by a Justice Secretary who doesn't believe there should even be a human rights bill, and the ruling political party are once again highlighting how it's one rule for those who have enough money or power, another for those who haven't. Food banks are on the increase, costs of living rises higher than that of wage and property prices reach all-time highs while at the same time public services are sold off to private business. In such circumstances, it's increasingly difficult to believe that our society isn't heading down the path presented in 84k. A sobering thought and one that perhaps we should be paying more attention to.

A sharp, clever and thoughtful journey into our vanishing civil liberties and a stark warning for a near-future Britain.

Written on 20th December 2021 by .

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