Claire North brings a haunting and all-too-realistic vision of the near-future to life for her most recent novel, 84K (2018), in which an already-existing real world injustice is pushed to its natural limit: every possible crime and infraction are assigned a monetary value, from murder to petty theft and everything in between, and wealthy citizens escape punishment by simply paying the appropriate fine. Those who cannot pay their fine are, at best, interned in working penitentiaries known as “the patty line,” making cosmetics and frozen dinners and shiny baubles that they could never afford, and at worst… well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
Parliament isn’t really Parliament anymore; along with stripping basic rights from every single person and re-styling itself “The People’s Engagement Forum,” the governing body seems more focused on its members getting away with literal murder than actual governance, and every aspect of public and private life has been taken over by various companies and concerns, all of which are ultimately answerable to a singular entity known only as The Company. And while Company-controlled life in cities and proprietary towns is strictly regimented and controlled, the surrounding lands and unaffiliated ghost-towns are overrun with anarchistic bands of “ragers” who howl at the moon and the sea, kick people to death for their own amusement, and are shot on sight for sport by Company men.
Theo Miller works in London’s Criminal Audit Office, an innocuous-sounding name for the organization which determines how much a crime is really worth — assault by a rich person on a poor person isn’t as costly as it would be the other way round, for example — and has quietly hovered in the back corners of his department for years. Theo’s very good at keeping his head down and not calling attention to himself. He doesn’t have friends, he rents a tiny room in a boardinghouse, and what little remains of his family doesn’t know where he is or that he’s calling himself Theo Miller. It’s a stable job, one that allows him to buy fresh food on occasion and make sure he can afford things like his government-required identification card, but keeps him well away from mingling with the upper echelons of society.
All of that comes to a shuddering halt when Dani Cumali, a woman he used to know back when they were teenagers and he was not yet Theo, re-enters his life with some extraordinary claims about a daughter they supposedly share and Dani’s possession of blackmail that could bring down the Company. Dani is killed shortly after making contact with Theo, igniting a previously-undiscovered passion within him for justice and starting him down a long, terrible path of self-discovery and -sacrifice.
North doesn’t pull any punches in 84K: the worst of humanity is laid bare here, often in graphic detail, and there are no comic-book moments of deus ex machina that suddenly turn it all around and make everything right in the wink of an eye. The Company is insidious, with hooks and claws in even the most minute parts of daily life, and resisting that kind of infection is frequently a Sisyphean struggle. Resisting, however, might be the best and only way to assert one’s independence and human nature in the face of inhumane greed and a loss of perceived societal value. Theo’s journey from complicity to subversion to outright rebellion is enthralling and compelling, and here again North makes bold choices: Theo isn’t a born revolutionary, he’s not instinctively handy with things like lockpicks or explosives or firearms, and he has no idea how this all will end. (Nor will the reader, I’ll wager.) But he’s smart, there are many things he is good at, and he possesses an innate drive to doggedly pursue justice long after the chance to give up.
Beyond the bones of the story itself, though, there’s a lot of engaging wordplay and unconventional writing going on here. I imagine that “the patty line” plays on the idea that, rather than being meat for the grinder, people who can’t pay their indemnities and go on the patty line are what’s left after the meat’s been through the grinder. (Additionally, the practice of paying off an indemnity through forced physical labor began by putting people to work in making the very cheapest of hamburger patties, but was found to be so successful in giving those awful indigents something useful to do that it quickly spread to other production facilities, and then outward to occupations like sex work and waste disposal, but the name stuck.) The text of the novel itself is often presented in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, meandering across the page to better illustrate the rapid-fire course of a conversation or the circling logic of an internal monologue. It would still be a fascinating book to listen to, but North obviously spent time thinking about how 84K would look, and her effort pays off.
Sometimes grim, sometimes horrifying, and sometimes hopeful, 84K was the first of Claire North’s novels that I’ve read, and I guarantee it won’t be the last. Highly recommended.