Book review: 84K by Claire North

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Dystopian novels are, by their very nature, meant to be disturbing.

They are intended to prompt us to question whether we’re headed as a society, which may or may not manifest as the novel details, is something we want, awakening us to the “boiling frog” of slow, seemingly innocuous trends culminating in something far more nefarious so we can take action to avoid it.

But some dystopian novels, such as Clare North’s 84K – a direct and chilling reference to the financial worth of one of the main characters – leave you feeling even more unsettled than normal so closely do they cleave to present unpalatable realities.

It’s no secret that the world is tilting to the extreme right, a swing away from the liberalism, human rights and relatively peaceful centrist world order of the mid-to-late twentieth century, bringing with it an increasing embrace of economic rationalism, of the kind most popularly practised by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

In this brave new world, everything has a value; the old idea that something should exist just because it enriches our lives or is beautiful or serves the public good is redundant, replaced by dollar signs everywhere you look.

“Cos if you don’t play along with what the Company wants, you die. You die cos you can’t pay for the doctor to treat you. You die cos the police won’t come without insurance. Cos the fire brigade doesn’t cover your area, cos you can’t get a job, cos you can’t buy the food, cos the water stopped, cos there was no light at night and if that’s not slavery, if that’s not the world gone if that’s not… (P. 178)

In 84K, which crackles with a resonant humanity despite its documentation of a society where human rights have been abolished as surplus to requirements, everything has a price.

Are you the victim of a crime? The police will only turn up if you have the appropriate level of insurance. Need medical help? Insurance coverage plays pivotal role again? Want to go to university and better yourself? Can you afford the exorbitant sums this, and so much else, requires.

It’s a horrifying scenario that North unfurls with surgical precision and insightfulness, leaving you reeling at the idea of everything and everyone only being worth what the Company, to which the Government has essentially signed over all its services for a profit, deems them to be.

Recalling China’s grand and deeply disturbing “Social Credit” system, where everyone is awarded an ever-fluid economic and social reputation, British society in 84K is entirely beholden to the idea that people are only worth something in dollar and cents terms.

It means that people like protagonist Theo Miller, who for a quiet man who never rocks the boat has one gigantic skeleton in the closet, who has a job, working in the Criminal Audit Office which dispense justice via fines rather than a court system, is someone of value.

Claire North (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

However, people like his childhood friend and ex-lover Dana Cumali, who comes back into his life unexpectedly with some astonishing, life-changing news that sets Theo off a hitherto unconsidered revolutionary path, is seen as easily expendable, a “Patty” (named after essentially slave labour which toils to make, among things, hamburger patties) whose death is of little consequence.

On the great societal balance sheet, the rich and the employed are esteemed while the poor, the mentally unstable, the lost are scorned, leeches on a society which is blind to the fact, by choice and convenience, that it created this seething, growing underclass it now routinely condemns.

Into this world where an official ID is the gateway to employability, education and a host of other aspirational things – fine if you can afford it but many can’t – and justice and health are only available to those with sufficiently deep pockets (which, given the exorbitant charges in a society where everything has to make a profit), steps a newly-roused Theo who slowly comes to realise that by saying nothing, he is just as complicit as people like Philip Arnslade and Simon Fardell, two obscenely-rich person who sit at the apex of money, power and influence.

The genius of North’s always assured and luxuriant writing, which in this instance employs an almost stream of consciousness style to tell its tale, is that it never comes out with polemic fists flying, denouncing inhuman, after horrific financial evil.

Rather, it lets the ever-accumulating horrors damn themselves by their own callous disregard for everything we consider as innately, valuably human.

“I [Theo Miller] have spent my life sending people into slavery, and freeing killers because they were rich, or because the person they killed was poor, or an immigrant, or no good for society, and it was … I did it because it was a job. Because all I ever wanted was a job, and to be safe, and not cause any trouble.
I have led a thoroughly despicable life. Or rather … not despicable. My evils have been ordinary evils. My sins against the world are daily, little sins that no one would question. I am a normal man, and have done no wrong, and there is a place in hell waiting for me. That’s
that’s what I have decided.” (P. 301)

As Theo digs ever more deeply, with Dani’s help, into the nightmare underpinnings of a society he thought he know, and realises he was aware of but chose to ignore – after all, his job entailed assessing peoples’ criminality on monetary bases rather than any notion of justice – he comes to appreciate that he inhabits a world which has forsaken humanity for money, ever more money, consequences be damned.

These consequences include a society where slave labour is accepted, murderous acts are routine (and quickly pardoned if you have enough money) and the only worth is a monetary one, and while the powers that be might be able to live with it, Theo no longer can, all too aware of the way far too many people have fallen through the cracks, never to climb back up again.

It’s horrifying, and 84K amplifies how horrific it is by focusing on the human tragedy, the multiplicity of stories of loss, pain, death and deprivation that exist despite a bright and shining societal philosophy that speaks of advancement, achievement and contribution.

North doesn’t promise happy endings or easy solutions; what she does deliver is a massive wake-up call, a rallying cry, told in ways small, nuanced and very, very human, but all the more powerful for it, for us to realise what we are sliding towards before it’s too late and we are nothing but a credit or debit on an insidious balance sheet.

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