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Book Review – 84K

Claire North1 is always a delight. Her book The Sudden Appearance of Hope ended up on the short list for Brave New Words Award, and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is one of my favourites, it being my short of time-travel what-if weird.

84K is anti-utopian fiction set in a near future, and extrapolates current British politics to an utterly bleak (and seemingly inevitable) conclusion. A world where freedom is just another word and every life has a price tag, assessed, stamped and added to a spreadsheet. The story revolves around a man who is called Theo Miller. He works at the Criminal Audit Office, an organisation owned by The Company. But then everything is.

Theo’s life is one spent under the radar, never running too fast or raising his voice. He assesses the cost of individual crimes for a living. This is a world where those with little or no money are sent to work menial roles to pay off the cost of the simplest misdemeanours. It also means that those who can pay can pretty much do what they like. Inevitably, he finds himself in a situation where the books cannot be balanced, and his past, long held in check, drives him to act.

It is a thrilling read; taut and well balanced. This is both literary fiction and science-fiction, in the same vein as A Handmaids Tale or 1984. 2 Given the title, comparisons to Orwell’s 1984 are inevitable, and though they are some strong similarities in tone and approach, North’s writing is brighter, sharper and much more engaging than Orwell’s.

The narrative is tighter and though the tone and message are just as bleak, the story is more resonant and relevant. 84K has the advantage of being a new story set in a recognisable world, of course, but it every bit as thought provoking as other dystopian classics such as Farenheit 451 and Brave New World.

There is no Big Brother in North’s world; instead The Company fills the omnipresent space. Theo Miller is a deeper and more motivated character than Winston Smith and so on. They are parallels, certainly but 84K is more relevant, more vital and much harder to ignore. It’s also much, much more angry. There’s a really rage underneath the page, a powerful stab at current heartlessness and greed of our modern world. This makes the work truly gripping, though if you’re in the process of despairing over UK politics, you’ll either find the cathartic or a just a little bit much.

This is a dystopian anthem for modern activist, a warning of an all to near future and a wake-up call for anyone who believes justice should not come with a price tag. 84K is an important book but also a cracking thriller and a great bit of near-future speculative fiction.

A version of this review appeared in Starburst Magazine. This is a revised version.

1: Aka Catherine Webb, AKA Kate Griffin. Writers with multiple names are always a delight, especially when we have them on the podcast, because we can claim we have multiple guests.
2: Books can of course be more than one genre; those who tell you otherwise are trying to sell you something.

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