84k by Claire North

SKCA Category – Science Fiction

Publisher – Orbit

Published – Out Now

Price - £8.99 paperback £4.99 Kindle eBook

Theo Miller knows the value of human life – to the very last penny.

Working in the Criminal Audit Office, he assesses each crime that crosses his desk and makes sure the correct debt to society is paid in full.

But when his ex-lover is killed, it’s different. This is one death he can’t let become merely an entry on a balance sheet. Because when the richest in the world are getting away with murder, sometimes the numbers just don’t add up.

Accountability for your actions seems to be getting out of out of fashion these days. You can say or do some terrible thing but for some your status (rich, powerful – combination of both) protects you even if say your government’s own later drug policy condemns others. There’s a building sense of hopelessness that we can’t change things. In Claire North’s stunning novel, a UK just a few years in the future shows us a United Kingdom that has proceeded down the path and a man who decided to keep his head down and out of trouble must confront his choices.

In the near future The Company owns a company that owns a company that owns everything.  Inextricably linked at the highest levels of government they control taxes (making many billionaires); towns and the justice system.  Into this we find Theo Miller an auditor; his role is when someone commits a crime the guilty will be asked to pay a sum...if you can’t pay you go to the patty lines (enforced manual labour) but if you can then the criminal walks away. Theo has a secret he has adopted the identify of a dead man so is a bit alarmed when he recognises one of the cleaners as a lover from his teenage years. She recognises him; suggests she too has a major secret about the government and tells him they have a daughter. Then she’s murdered; her assassin calls the police to confess and is happy to pay the £84k fine. Theo has the case to assess…he could walk away but decides this time to get involved.

What follows is a nightmare trip into a dystopia that seems incredibly plausible the science fiction elements are really just positing a very near future. This is more the type of social science fiction that Orwell and others would paint for us (and is it purely a coincidence that the sum involved is 84k?). Surveillance is everywhere and the state sees all. As the story develops, we start to see how this society works and this is very much a tale about classes and elites. Theo the son of a criminal was given a leg up into the upper-class coming from a small coastal town where the local factory was pretty much the only job. As always, the upper classes/the wealthy have an edge and make the rules that fit themselves – Theo’s peers at university think they can even have a duel and just get away with it by paying off the families. Unsurprisingly they end up in Government themselves (as if that could ever happen here…).

At the other end of the scale are the patty line and the ragers. The later are the people who have no real function in society and so do the worst jobs imaginable – there is no escape that’s your future; that’s where you’ll likely be here until you die, and everyone seems to have accepted that. The ragers are scarier; the people who just scream at the skies or fight with all they meet in order to release their frustrations with life. Theo travels between these two groups and starts to see the world rather than just walk through it with his feet to the ground but ultimately, he is still focused on his own goals to always want to change it…

But the real heart of the book is how in this world people have accepted it. This country is cruel, bleak and unfair yet everyone seems to have made their peace with it. North asks how and why we get to this state of deliberate ignorance. A device used constantly through the book is that both characters and narration is never complete…. You’ll find lots of sentences end not quite…and that’s because this is a world where yes, we know it is bad but well there isn’t anything, we can do about it. Its known we don’t have to be explicit about it because that would just make everyone uncomfortable; ther eis no point admitting to it.  As we see the State/Company will happily tale action against those it feels a threat. One horribly sobering moment in the book is when we see the true scale of the Company’s evil and we realise so many people knew about it it’s not a shock it’s just actually confirming suspicions. Even the motivations for telling everyone aren’t always noble.  This narrative style may be the issue for some but I have always liked how the Claire North books chose a style that fits the plot but this one may be tricky for readers who prefer a little more certainty in their narration. For me it made the book a very immersive experience.

Ambiguity is a huge part of the book.  We are reminded Theo isn’t Theo; his daughter may not be his daughter and our heroes aren’t actually heroes. It fits this world where no one wants to take a stand anymore and looking after number one is key.  A real highlight are the characters we meet along the way. Theo is clearly very conflicted but North fills the world with lots of people who jump off the page. Highlights are Neila the fortune teller cruising the canals and taking herself away from the land; a member of the upper classes who tries to explain why her family see the world this way and eventually realises its wrong and Bea a working class girl who comes up with a brilliant t-shirt design and the rich rip her off. Her short tale of revenge and hoe this comes back to hurt her encapsulates his world so much. That we care about the characters is one of the things that I really like -a lot of dystopia makes us see the world and the people in it all as universally horrible but this reminds us that people are often just people  - willing to help someone because its still the right thing to do and that gives this novel a small flame of hope.  Caring though does mean when terrible things happen its even more underlining how horrible this world can be…

It’s not a comfortable read but I felt an extremely impressive one. I often found myself asking how far I would have gone in accepting this world and how could I have stopped it. The answers were not always hopeful. I do think it’s a warning about letting those with significant power and privilege take the hard decisions. This feels a book anyone who enjoys political science fiction should be reading and lets hope our world doesn’t take the same path.