I’ve written enough reviews that coming up with an introductory paragraph has become the hardest part. Seemingly all the good ideas taken, setting the stage in a new way is a difficult, sometimes desperate affair. As such, I know how writers of dystopian fiction must feel as of 2018. The lowest hanging as well as the highest hanging fruit all picked, the tree of story premise is bare. Peering behind leaves and feeling around branches for something others may have missed, Claire North’s 84k (2018) takes a look at a near-future England where crime is an economically punitive affair.
Theo Miller works for the Criminal Audit Office. All crime assigned a monetary value, it is his job to analyze and define the financial indemnity the offender owes in compensation to the victim or their family, no jail-time required. Can’t pay your debt, well, off to exploitative community service for you—the patty lines. Corporations valued above all else, white collar offences and offences wherein corporations are victim hold the highest monetary values, while incidents on the street among common folk wield significantly less. Calloused by his work, crime comes to mean little to Theo, that is, until a case appears on his desk involving a former lover. The woman murdered, tallying up the value of her life in numbers touches something inside Theo. When another person from his past appears threatening to blackmail him, however, he has no choice but to dig deeper into the details of the murder. What he finds changes everything for himself, and Britain.
A scattered, unfastened novel, 84k nevertheless has the best of intentions. Perhaps most noticeable, North opts for non-standard syntax. Sentences parsed for mood or emulation of thought rather than subject-verb-object sequencing, the novel has a slack, floaty feel as a result. Secondly, North opts to go with three timelines, chopped up and relatively out of order, in telling the story of Theo Miller’s life. (There is enough order to maintain some sense of inter-linearity, however.) And thirdly, and most important regarding the novel’s theme, 84k is angry. Angry at the power corporations and the affluent wield in unjust fashion over the common person (class, gender, etc.), there are numerous moments North’s political views are on display in sharp, overt fashion. Given conviction involves payment rather than incarceration in the story, one can imagine the freedoms many of the rich enjoy knowing how easily a serious offense can be put behind them merely by pulling out a bank card.
But there are major issues with all of this. Foremost, the plot of 84k is very commercial, very neat-and-tidy, very happy ending-y. Good guy gets screwed by the system, gets his redemption and revenge, taking the system down with him. It’s so cheap in fact, that the seriousness of the socio-political issues North is attempting to address lose significant weight for it. The realism of the atrocities never parallels the “realism” of the plot. On one hand, immigrants are secretly being killed for the benefit of the government, while on the other, the bad guys are spouting one-liners straight from a Hollywood script. At one point Theo vows he’s going to take the whole system down and make it drown in blood. One can just as easily see Tom Cruise or Nicholas Cage screaming similar lines on the big screen as they perform some heroic theatrics. With characters and their actions larger than life, the realism of their problems is offset, meaning the underlying message loses impact. So mismatched are the message and delivery, in fact, that there were times I asked myself: is this supposed to be satire? Would Winston Smith have been as effective a main character if he tried Hollywood stunts getting at Big Brother?
84k just doesn’t take itself serious enough. In order for the true power of this particular dystopian narrative to have full effect, the author has a couple options. They could, as Orwell did, convey in as direct, dramatically real a manner as possible the way in which civil liberties are/could be being impinged upon, no frills or comic book plotting, and leave the character hanging in the worst possible way. Another viable option is, as hinted, raw satire. Terry Pratchett’s Making Money, for example, bites stronger into the area of 21st century economics and politics than does 84k. Pratchett’s angle is wholly unique, consistently cynical, and doesn’t pull any punches despite being set in his fantastical milieu of Discworld. With its occasional cheap one-liners, 2D characters, silver screen plotting, and lack of consistent seriousness, North pulls her punch.
North is owed a huge nod of respect, however, for trying an atypical style. With the glut of mediocre, same-y texts on the market, 84k at least pokes its nose out of the crowd for being stylistically different, not to mention it’s great seeing writers try new approaches; every writer should mix things up now and then. And North’s text is not a complete failure. The whole may not cohere, but in certain places it works well. The loose, floaty feel complements the quieter, somber moments. Am I really part of such a society? Is this real? Surreal? Such are the questions the characters seem to be asking without North putting the words directly on the page. When the harsh, bloody realities intercede, however, the style falls short. But for the interstices, it functions.
Speaking of prose, I cannot write a review of 84k without mentioning the cover copy. A Cory Doctorow quote, it reads: “An extraordinary novel that stands with the best of dystopian fiction, with dashes of The Handmaid’s Tale.” Shit, utter shit. I’ll have the steak and fries, and could you put the ketchup on the side, please? It’s like a quote from a chat at the pub, not the words of a knowledgeable reviewer or writer who has taken the time to properly form their words into a “profound” impression. 84k is not the greatest novel ever written, but North deserved better than a cheap, off-the-cuff Doctorow comment.
Overall, the dapper take on 84k is that it is a unique dystopian premise defending the have-nots against the power of the haves via a thrilling plot, written in nicely experimental prose. The downbeat view is that the novel is a desperate attempt at implementing one of the last unused dystopian premises, hoping to embellish it with enough anti-establishment cynicism to get like-minded people similarly enraged. My personal feeling is that the novel falls somewhere in the middle. North has good intentions, makes the quality point we should care more about the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and, if the intent at a strong political message is ignored, delivers a reasonably good story with drama, redemption and revenge. If the strong political message is taken into account, however, then the elements do not stack up into a good, solid whole. Tone does not fit the setting or premise, and the story and characters do not complement the message. Writers like James Morrow or Robert Sheckley would be able to deliver a more comprehensive, impacting package based on North’s premise. The idea of crime being punished monetarily is an idea dripping with potential for snarky commentary, something the chassis of mainstream fiction North opted for suits imminently less…