Book Review: 84K - Claire North

84K - Claire North ****

Claire North scares me. She has a way of showing the world we are living in - or not far off living in - in a way that is truly terrifying. It's no surprise then that she can write a book that, as the title suggests, is effectively a rewrite of George Orwell's 1984 for the sometimes even more horrifying reality of the post-1984 age. It's no surprise either that 84K turns out to an unnervingly realistic and timely account of a world where everything has a price, and anything or anyone whose price is deemed as being minimally contributory ...well, what's the point of them?

Coming from a small town, a town wholly dependent on the sponsorship of BudgetFoods, the man called Theo Miller - it's not his real name, but what it stands for is important - has managed to escape from the kind of life that his background and upbringing have marked out for him, working as a patty or a drone in a factory. His father's criminal connections get him into Oxford where the prospects are considerably different, and Theo - having struck up a friendship there with the real Theo Miller and adopted his identity - has acquired the necessary connections to be employed in the Criminal Audit Office of the Ministry for Social Responsibility. As an auditor, an experienced and diligent professional, it's Theo job to evaluate an individual's value to society. Strictly in terms of hard cash.

One file that comes across his desk is that of Dani Cumali, a girl he once knew in his former life, a young woman without similar support and connections whose prospects and life took an entirely different course. Dani has been murdered, the hired killer handing themselves in and paying the necessary indemnity to cover the costs - which is all that matters really, and what is the value put on Dani Cumali's life? £84,000.

Crime pays if you can afford it, but why would anyone go to the trouble of killing a faceless drone worker working the patty line? And why had Dani been trying to make contact with Theo in the weeks leading up to her murder? Having looked into her case - not without a certain measure of personal interest - and having even been present at her living quarters in the moments just following her execution, Theo discovers that Dani may have come into possession of some very incriminating evidence that could not only threaten to bring down the government, it could even bring down the Company that really controls it.

Perhaps the most sinister aspect of 84K is indeed this account of how business, in the form of the Company, comes to be the power that effectively governs. In Dani and Theo's childhood, businesses don't just sponsor football teams but own them and the towns that they come from as well. Welfare and education in their home town is sponsored by BudgetFoods company - one off-shoot of a larger conglomerate that eventually comes to dominate. "Both Dani and Theo wanted to do art, but it wasn't a sponsored subject, so they did graphics for marketing instead", we are told, and that just about sums up how corporate interests come to dominate and change the direction of life. ID checks and surveillance contribute to the gradual erosion of civil liberties and human rights and before you know it anything seen as acting against corporate interests - even the government - carries costs and forced labour.

"Vagrants could be Tasered on sight in this part of the city - they caused emotional distress and emotional distress was basically assault". If we didn't have the recent examples of Carillion, TTIP and Windsor Borough Council you'd think all this is a little far-fetched, but as it is, it seems like a logical progression of where we are heading, or may even not be so far off as it is now. The question that Claire North explores in 84K of course is how far into corruption, cover-ups and even actual murder of citizens would a government go to maintain this kind of power, and how far does it have to go before citizens speak up and fight against it?

Theo Miller has uncovered evidence of some quite serious abuses dreamed up by the unholy alliance of government and big business, but it's the personal associations and connections that drive him to take action in 84K. Even then, it's mostly stuff that everyone already knows is going on, even if they don't admit it, but who can you take evidence to anyway when the authorities and media are in cahoots? Who wants to bring down the whole system that keeps them in jobs?

This is the nightmarish situation that Claire North describes so well, but 84K itself sometimes struggles to find a way out of the mire it creates. Passages of the writing slip into fragmented sentences of unfinished or unutterable thoughts - a variation on the overheard conversations that enriched the world of her previous novel The End of the Day - this time the technique is used to curtail rather than expand a worldview. The real-world basis of the idea and the execution is terrifying and effective, but the scope of the book and Theo's ambitions do nonetheless seem limited, and 84K never really extends beyond the vision of Orwell's 1984. We never find out what Theo Miller's real name is, but I suspect it could be Winston Smith.

84K by Claire North is published by Orbit on 24th May 2018

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