(2018) Claire North, Orbit, £18.99, hrdbk, 452pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50737-8
Oh, dear, I thought, slipping effortlessly into my reluctant reader mode as I hefted 84K in my hand. It was a weighty tome, over 450 pages long, and - gulp Ė I tried not to think that it might only have 20 chapters, or so, even - double gulp - less than that. If it did, it was going to be a struggle to read, but my fears were unfounded, the story unfolded in two parts, split into some 83 chapters, so it was not going to be hard to read at all. Was it? Well, actually it was.
Why was that, I hear you ask. Well, there were several reasons. One was the unfolding of the plot, where several strands were mixed together, some set now, some set in the past, be it the recent past, or further back. Two, was it the actual narrative voice, at times almost stream of consciousness, at other times, disjointed, even incomplete, unfinished. I donít mind unique narrative voices. William Gibson has a pretty unique one, the late Graham Joyce, certainly had one. George Saunders award-winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo which hardly has any living characters, and is set mainly in a graveyard, was a difficult read to start with, but soon became a book that I devoured, but 84K...well. Three, could it be the lead character, Theo Miller, who isnít really Theo Miller at all. Heís long dead, fifteen years ago and lies in an unmarked grave. This is someone who has buried himself deep and hiding inside a character called Theo Miller, and is quite happy to stay under the radar, in the shadows, until the end of his days, and isnít really that interesting, even when he musters up enough motivation to make a stand in the world that North has created.
And it is a great dystopian world she has created. I write this review in a week at the end of 2018 where a paralysed man with ďlocked-in syndromeĒ is being hounded for his benefits, and the most sweeping surveillance powers in the Western world have come into force barely unnoticed by the general public. I write this where people have just indulged in a mammoth spending spree, and the papers are full of pictures of a 69 year-old man stripping off in a jungle, so are we that far away the society North envisages? Already we have vast monopoly companies who feed us our information, who help us to shop or make social interactions. In 84K companies have joined together to become The Company and they control everything, taking over the functions of central and local government, for a price, if you can afford to pay it. If not, you are on the margins of society, unable to call on emergency services because you donít have enough credit, or enough insurance to pay for them to come and rescue you.
Everything has a value, even crime and Theo Miller works in the Criminal Audit Office and he assesses crimes and gives them a value, and crimes vary from theft, embezzlement, rape, assault, even murder. Victims vary and criminals vary, and of course, it isnít a level playing field. The rich and powerful can get away with it to some extent, and the poor, and marginalised deserve what they get; in a way, because thatís who they are - nobodies - and if they have indulged in a spot of criminal activity themselves and canít pay it then they are shunted off to work camps known as Corrective Reform Institutes where at least they can be productive for the greater good.
Theo hides from his past and heís got rather good at being unnoticed and schlepping along, until someone from his past, the non-Theo days recognises him. It is Dani, a former lover, who has lost her daughter, a daughter that might be his daughter, and she needs his help. Theo has a dilemma, but he wonít have it for long as Dani is murdered. End of problem, until he has to assess her murder and arrive at the cost. 84K should cover it, and you even get a discount for confessing and paying promptly. Except, 84K is not enough and Theo shakes off his malaise, and is a man with on a mission, justice for Dani, for the country and to find his daughter. This is a horrible world Theo travels through, and the women he encounters are far more interesting than he is, from tarot-card reading Neila who lives on the fringes of society on a narrowboat to Lady Helen, and I do like the idea of people trying to escape to Scotland to claim political asylum.
84K is an important book from an important new writer, who in this incarnation (North has previously published books as Catherine Webb and Kate Griffin) has already been short-listed for the Clarke (book) Award, won the John Campbell Memorial Award, Spain's Ignotus and a World Fantasy Award for 'best novel', I just thought it was overlong and a difficult novel to grasp, but a worthwhile one. Other people, Iím sure, will find it effortless and a must-read. You pays your £18.99 and makes your choice.
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