Rating: 3 stars
Length: Average (304 pages in hardback)
Publication: February 21, 2013 from Viking
Premise: Natasha Wiley has grown up in America-Five, safe and protected under glass with the rest of her community. She finds satisfaction in her Office of Mercy job, where the workers compassionately sweep those who live Outside. The primitive nomads would only suffer, and their existence threatens the immortal perfection that guides her world, but a mission to the Outside forces her to question everything she's been taught.
Warnings: non-graphic genocide, moderate violence
Recommendation: If you're looking for something post-apocalyptic and philosophical, this might be what you want, but it's also forgettable enough that I don't recommend buying it new, especially in hardback.
Light spoilers in the red pen section, but it's largely either on the flap of the book or heavily implied from an early stage.
What makes this one compelling:
America-Five keeps watch over the area that used to be the East Coast, trying to grow new generations of people while being mindful of the dangers that lurk outside. Children are thought to control and suppress their instinctive reactions to hunger, the dark, lust, and other primitive impulses--they were useful when danger was part of life, but now peace and rational ethics guide their actions. These ethics were created generations ago by the Alphas, who believe that the highest good is to minimize or even eliminate human suffering. They thought that they had done that centuries ago, when nuclear war devastated the world and the only survivors were left in secure shelters, but a few people survived and have managed to form groups for protection. Some even remember the destruction and know who to blame for it, but anyone who ventures close enough to the surveillance systems near each settlement is eventually killed, or "swept." The people inside have access to advanced weapons are willing to use them to end suffering wherever they see it rather than let those Outside continue to live tortured existences scrambling for food. This central mechanic of the book works eerily well, especially in one early scene-- the settlements are keeping score of how many people they've swept, and the Office of Mercy workers bicker over who's responsible for boosting the count by watching surveillance and adding a new baby to the total before the sweep. They believe down to the bone that they're doing the right thing and are delighted to be better at it than other settlement, and that unsettling joy creates a backbone for the work.
The obvious next step in any rotten-cored dystopia is to tear down the killing as wrong and try to stop it, and the narrative does go that way for a while, but Ariel Djanikian excels at stepping close to easy answers and then shifting just enough to skew perceptions yet again. Discussing this element without spoilers is difficult, but suffice to say that no one involved has entirely pure motives. Natasha has wanted to be a more active Office of Mercy worker for years, and an expedition Outside to repair surveillance equipment destroyed by a passing tribe provides the opportunity when Jeffrey, her superior and mentor, supports her going on the mission. She and some of the other team members are emotionally compromised when they realize that the members of the nearby Tribe share enough language to communicate with them, and she soon embraces those feelings when she can't control them. The narrative controls her internal conflict well-- one moment she's determined to put up the Wall she's been taught to create around her emotions, and the next she's passionately declaring that the Ethical Code is cruel and can't possibly matter. For all her training and experience, the coping mechanisms have left her unprepared for any emotion too overpowering to be tucked away. Her plans and ideals seem firm at each new decision or beginning, but they deteriorate in a flood of new information and unintended consequences in a way that feels quite true to life. Natasha is allowed to fail, sometimes quite badly, in a way that many protagonists are not.
Mistakes and shaky reasoning would ordinarily point to this being more of a young adult mindset, but Natasha seems to be caught between varying levels of emotional development in a way that's supported by the settlement. She is, at twenty-four, one of the Epsilon generation, currently the youngest save for the Zetas being incubated. To the Alphas (who are about three hundred thanks to bioreplacement), Betas, Deltas, and Gammas, the Epsilons are still children who need to take time, maybe another decade, before being assigned to anything too serious or being fully accepted as adults. The narrative takes current trends about prolonged childhood and adolescence and projects them to the extreme-- if a lifespan consists of centuries or even eternity, just how long do you have to live before your thoughts and goals are seen as fully valid? Natasha's naïve trust and starry-eyed idealism can be grating to read in some places, the point that she doesn't seem to have heard of common sense, but it gradually falls into place as the book progresses. She and the other Epsilons are taught to control emotion without engaging in it, to avoid lust and excessive emotional attachment, to suppress outdated instincts-- in short, they're taught to ignore common sense and intuition in favor of an Ethical Code based on dry philosophy, and that makes them mentally fragile and easily manipulated. It's subtle and takes a while to really work, but this does a better job than most books of getting inside what makes these people so different from reader expectations.
The red pen:
The central plot for Natasha revolves around the pursuit of truth and justice, which sounds generic but works for her-- she wants to figure out what objectively happened during the last dangerous Tribe attack on America-Five and then frame her actions based on that moment. Her problems with taking one piece of a pattern and building sweeping assumptions from there do end up feeling realistic, but gathering information feels much too easy. Natasha lives in a society where people are reeducated for being mean to each other in public and where the Alphas seem to know everything and control all information, but she doesn't encounter anything much more difficult than the full records of what she wants not being available in the public archive. There was plenty of room here to explore the truth and the inter-generational layers of secrecy and lies beneath the facade of everyone being an equal citizen in service to the settlement, but instead Natasha just takes an unconventional suggestion from the closest thing America-Five has to a rebel and gets the answers she wants in crystal-clear details. From there, she and her allies form a plan almost immediately and no one has serious questions about whether it will work or whether it's safe, only how to get it done. There are some great twists near the end, but there's not enough struggle in the middle to make the climax really snap or enough follow-through to make it feel as though it ends instead of just trailing off.
The other real problem here is the Tribe. We see quite a lot of the thoughts of the citizens of America-Five; they explain themselves and their thoughts, and the calm way they articulate that when it comes to attempted genocide works so well that it's frightening. The people of the Tribe are...nicer, in theory, and they don't have sophisticated weapons, but they have almost no development, especially not as individuals. They're just a mass trying to reach for certain goals like "can we not be blown up with nova weapons anymore please," and that's filled in with very short stilted conversations and Natasha's idealistic collection of inarticulate noble savage stereotypes....which would make sense if she could ever remember seeing dirt before, or hadn't been raised to see everything they enjoy as just prolonging the suffering before their merciful and inevitable death. Natasha's own arc here has its problems, like a lifetime of conditioning crumbling after five tense minutes in the field, but the scenes with the Tribe members feel compressed at best and emotionally flat at worst. The arc Djanikian is building requires that these people hold the reader's sympathy, but they're just not interesting enough to do so except by default because they're not committing genocide. They're dull through Natasha's eyes and we're not shown what they're like away from her, or even hints of what they're thinking that they don't say, so one whole group in this culture clash has almost no dimension.
Sensible though it is to have many of these characters struggle with the most basic emotions, the whole system shakes when the narrative dabbles in romance. Natasha has an obvious crush on Jeffrey, her supervisor, from the beginning, and it's implied that she has for years. Leaving aside the large age gap between their generations and the spoiler-laden reasons that sabotage their potential trust, this just doesn't work. Romances can actually flow quite well in emotionally-repressed settings like this because the flush of the first love you've ever felt in a place where it's dangerous or discouraged or forbidden is powerful, but that means they require more work and space in the narrative, not less. Essentially, Natasha and Jeffrey have too conventional a relationship: he prides himself on being above emotional attachment, but she pines after him and she's just so special, then she gets hurt and he's worried, so he takes it out on her (which is admittedly interesting because he doesn't know how to handle feelings at all). And then eventually they have agitated conversations, kisses, conversations about how kisses are irrational, more kisses, etc. Stretch out any of Spock's "no, I don't have feelings, feelings are for loser humans" episodes of classic Trek into a romantic arc and you've got a fair idea of what this looks like. And then apparently the narrative doesn't care what the middle of a relationship looks like, because they go straight from emotions to full-on One True Epic Love, which ends up coming across as twisting the relationship into whatever shapes are convenient for that particular chapter. The relationship builds, angsts, spikes, and then flops around for a while, but it only feels convincing in the shortest of flashes because these people live in a completely different world but are still having a by-the-numbers relationship.
The verdict: This a decent debut novel; it explores tropes about happiness, ethics, and the future of humanity with thoughtfulness, and it raises the stakes in such a way that it feels somewhat different. The characterization is uneven and it doesn't feels like there's anywhere to go from this ending, but I'd be willing to try Djanikian's future efforts. The Office of Mercy is by no means bad, but the idea of what this author might do on less well-worn ground is more compelling than the story itself.
Prospects: There don't seem to be any sequels planned and there's not really room for one, but something set in the same universe at a later date might make for interesting reading.
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