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84K

December 5, 2018

84K, by Claire North, is one of the most marvelous works of fiction I’ve read in the last few years. It was brought to my attention by Jenny at Reading the End, who often finds and recommends new books I want to read.

84K is a dystopian satire about corporate culture run wild, with an anti-hero whose actions are almost entirely ineffectual and a supporting cast of mostly-unheard citizens who keep trying to figure out how to effectively rebel against the corporation who now owns their government and, effectively, their selves.

It’s not until about a quarter of the way through the book that you realize that the fictional “patty line,” clearly understood to mean jail, is literally referring to people who process the burgers that free citizens buy and eat. This satire, it’s not subtle.

It’s not about the far future, either. My congressional representative recently said, in a public debate, that the employees of a local company that donated thousands of dollars to his campaign had done it voluntarily; that “it was the workers’ decision.” It was no such thing. The owner of the company is a Republican, and anyone who wants to keep his job donates as she encourages him to. In 84K, the character who calls himself Theo Miller attends a training weekend for his job and says
“the weekend was voluntary.
If you did not attend you would be docked one week’s pay and a note put on your file—‘BBA.’ No one knew what BBA stood for, but the last woman to have these fated letters added had been given a job at a morgue, showing family members the corpses of their loved ones.”

Although 84K is set in a dystopian future-Britain, the way the corporate-owned government came into power sounds astonishingly like what is currently happening in the United States:
“…they abolished human rights. The government insisted it was necessary to counter terrorism….When they shut down the newspapers for printing stories of corruption and dirty deals, he’d signed the petitions.
When they’d closed the universities for spreading warnings of impending social and economic calamity, he’d thought about attending the rallies, but then decided against it because work would probably frown on these things, and there were people there who took your photo and posted your face online—saboteurs and enemies of the people—and besides, it rained a lot that month and he just needed a morning off….
When it became legal compulsory to carry ID, £300 for the certified ID card, £500 fine if caught without it, he knew he was observing an injustice that send thousands of innocent people to the patty line, too skint to buy, too skint to pay for being too skint to buy. When it became impossible to vote without the ID, he knew he lived in a tyranny, but by then he wasn’t sure what there was left to do in protest. He’d be okay. If he kept his head down. He’d be fine.”

Not only are there a lot of people in this country who are keeping their heads down, there are already laws about homelessness that entail fines for anyone sleeping on the street. If you ask what’s the point, because clearly the homeless person can’t pay, you will eventually figure out that the point is, as it is in the novel, to criminalize poverty.

Theo endures an “hour-and-forty-minute commute on the train, head down and body swaying in carriages where once there had been seats before the train company judged them inefficient.” Have you been on an urban commuter train lately? Or bought tickets to stand up for the duration of a concert?

When Theo gets to his job, every day, he figures out how much a life is worth.
“There was a case he worked, once, a boy, seven, was run over by three teenagers. They hit him, then rolled over him four more times, laughing, and he died. They filmed the whole thing….
But the teenagers had money, and the boy was autistic and assessed as being unlikely to contribute very much to society. Then it turned out his mother was an immigrant anyway so it wasn’t like the boy was even a citizen just a scrounger on the nanny state….
How much had the boys paid?
He thought….if he closed his eyes…maybe £35,000 each? Maybe a little more, because they’d also damaged a neighbor’s car, and it was a Volvo.”

At certain points, when Theo is thinking about how the world works, the prose starts to reflect the stops and starts of how he has incorporated what he has been told all his life:
“At college his meals are cooked for him six days a week. Room cleaned. Shoes polished. He goes to the library and someone else puts the books away if he forgets. At the weekend he has money for drink, or can walk by the river without a care in the world, or take a bicycle out into the countryside and let the sunlight wash away the work, and when he returns to his soft bed
he is better
can work better, do what he needs to do, better, and one day
if he works hard enough, earning through his labours
one day maybe someone else will turn down the duvet in the corner of his bed and someone else will press the smell of cleanliness into his fresh-washed clothes and he need not scrub at dishes and argue with the water company and stand in line for the bus that never comes because these things are fundamentally
not the things he is best at
he can give
so much more to the world
so much more
if he’s just given the opportunity to do it.”

In fact, Theo learns, he is living in a “slave state. There aren’t any chains on our feet or beatings on our backs because there don’t need to be. 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….”

At one point, Theo thinks he can expose the Company, that he has proof that will bring them down. He has video of “Company Police shooting runaways….maps of the mass graves behind the prisons, the records of how many people died cos the hospital wouldn’t let them in….” Then he realizes that “of course, Everyone knows. I’ve known. I send people to die, and I knew it. I’ve always known. No one ever says it. We stop before the hard things. We never finish saying anything that might matter at all.”

As another character says, “Everyone knows, but no one looks. We don’t look because if we look it makes us evil because we aren’t doing something about it, or it makes us sad because we can’t do anything about it, or it proves that we’re monsters when we always thought we were righteous….”

There’s an internet meme I keep thinking about: “IF YOU EVER WONDERED WHAT YOU WOULD HAVE DONE DURING 1930’S GERMANY OR THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT; CONGRATULATIONS: YOU ARE DOING IT NOW.”

So what are you doing? I’m sick of hearing that people I know are “tired of talking about politics” and “don’t have time to get involved.” If more of us don’t speak up and take action, we’ll be living in the world predicted by Martin Niemoller’s famous Holocaust poem:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
47156229_2432534133429244_4434022604579274752_nBecause I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

 

 

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2018 10:01 pm

    I’m not a big fan of dystopia but I like the sound of this one. Satire about corporate culture? Yes, please.

    • December 6, 2018 8:39 am

      It’s a satire that pulls no punches. I’ll be interested to hear what you think about it.

  2. December 6, 2018 8:58 am

    Sounds too depressingly like real life these days!

    • December 6, 2018 9:01 am

      I didn’t find it depressing at all, though. It’s a call to action, with the assurance that none of this is normal.

  3. Elizabeth permalink
    December 6, 2018 12:26 pm

    I’m with Rhapsody, sounds very bleak and too close to real life.

  4. December 6, 2018 1:47 pm

    Such a compelling review. This book speaks about situations in real life or close to it. Very creative and imaginative. And yes, the meme you quote at the end is spot on. Imo, the Holocaust didn’t happen because there were a lot of Nazis. It happened because regular folks were indifferent. Indifference, apathy, “live and let live” are killers.

    • December 7, 2018 10:11 pm

      Yes, also the “I don’t care about politics” line.

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