Dystopia is such delicate material to work with. Done well, it quietly informs theme, emerges from the background at opportune moments to interact with character, and does its part to influence mood and atmosphere. Done poorly, it is an in-your-face experience that detracts from the story in its exuberance of imagination and/or . Given such a large number of post-Y2K texts use the motif, it has become increasingly difficult for a writer to not only do dystopia well, but distinguish their world. In her debut novel A Calculated Life (2013), Anne Charnock accomplishes just this.
A simple comparison: Kameron Hurley’s God’s War is DYS-TO-PIA. The author goes far out of her way to make the setting as black as possible. The futuristic Manchester, England Charnock portrays in A Calculated Life is likewise grim. But there is a significant difference in presentation. Where Hurley takes every opportunity (paragraph, even) to cram some visceral, grimy aspect of life down the reader’s throat, Charnock’s manner of portraying a depressing world is rooted in more subtle ideas. Teeny-tiny apartments, unsatisfied people, limited freedoms, narrow employment opportunities in an economically downcast period, drab building materials, the nuanced oppression of the class system—her setting clings much closer to empathy and relevancy than Hurley’s comic book sensationalism, resulting in a dystopia with potential to comment upon reality.
And it does. Jayna is a simulant recently “awakened” and put to work as a research analyst for a corporation. Possessing superb analytical skills, she is kept busy preparing market reports, social algorithms, and surveying corporate media for patterns and trends. Collecting stick insects as a hobby in the simulant dormitory, she attempts to be as normal as her organic boss and colleagues are but within the bounds of simulant protocol. But things are not as straight-forward as they could be. One of Jayna’s fellow simulants is recalled at the outset for having had sexual relations with an organic. The behavior considered abnormal, Jayna’s logical mind watches proceedings from the sidelines. Unable to stop herself from analyzing the situation, can she prevent the same fate for herself?
Working through the soul-sucking aspects of corporate life, pressure to conform in such an environment, the behind-the-scenes effort perceived to be needed by a business woman, the social tip-toing, and the very personal aspects of existence amidst a group of people automatically considered better due to status, socially and biologically—these are just some of the ideas floating through A Calculated Life. Charnock addressing them from an insightful, insider’s perspective, half the interest (and challenge to the reader) of the novel is having what are common aspects of life in the West presented via Jayna’s rational point of view.
Central to the text is thus Jayna’s sense of self-perception and social observation. Oscillating back and forth between how she should act and does act, should look and does look, and how to be human both idylly and practically, her thoughts bounce off how she sees organics around her behaving, appearing, socializing, etc. compared to the knowledge inbred into she and her fellow simulants. Charnock an astute observer herself, what results is an inquiry into feminism and society that will make the reader truly pause to compare their own experiences and perceptions.
Not satisfied with this level of persona and social examination, Charnock takes A Calculated Life to the next, universally human level. Floating within Jayna is a continual battle between cold logic and the chaos of unpredictability (i.e. how to be a human both ideally and practically). The former sometimes human and the latter more human, inherent to the battle is the intersection of what we want versus what we can have, and what we perceive compared to what we are. The simulants created with the idea of perfecting the logical side of mankind while avoiding its chaotic tendencies, Jayna’s designers have a hard time wiping out all of the human elements. The final sections of the novel drawing this to a head, the conclusion, while not surprising, remains a fitting capstone to plot while confirming Charnock’s humanist agenda. Aldous Huxley applauding in the background, it is a nice touch, indeed.
Before closing, I have read “reviews” of A Calculated Life putting down the novel for its style, complaints being it’s too cold and unnatural. Jayna a simulant designed for research analysis, it’s only natural that the first-person narrative likewise be somewhat dry and analytic, as the cover insinuates. But by choosing to write in a more rigid, angular mode, Charnock achieves something beyond: an atypical narrative. With much of the market these days aiming for mediocrity, i.e. a vanilla-ness that hits the lowest common denominator, Charnock’s rendering of the logical mind is refreshing—and a point of recommendation, not a mark against.
In the end, A Calculated Life is an atypical dystopian novel that balances a relatively conventional plot idea (clone seeks individuality) with a social and cultural examination that strikes more than one chord of relevancy in modern society, the feminine and corporate side in particular. Simultaneously confirming the human sentiment of Brave New World without being imitative, it is a very good debut that does dystopia justice.