A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock

A Calculated LifeTitle: A Calculated Life
Author: Anne Charnock
Published:  24 September 2013
Publisher: 47North
Genre: science fiction, dystopian
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

I requested this novel after is was nominated for The Kitchies Golden Tentacle Award (debut novel) 2013, and I think it’s one of the more interesting takes on the dystopian genre.

In a futuristic Manchester, Jayna is a simulant, a genetically engineered human designed to have superb analytical skills but only basic social skills and almost no social life. She has been leased out to a predictive economics company, where her talent for identifying patterns and processing data have been highly profitable for her superiors.

In one of her previous research projects, Jayna found a link between north easterly winds and violent crime. The correlation looks pretty solid until a family is murdered during a westerly wind. Although this warrants no more than a brief discussion with her superiors, Jayna is determined to improve her work. She decides that her world is too small and her experiences too limited. She processes colossal amounts of information, but all of it comes from stats and documents, while she lacks the personal understanding to flesh it out. She wants to expand her knowledge by behaving more randomly, interacting with more people, and having more varied experiences.

This sounds like an admirable endeavour, but Jayna quickly realises that it could be a dangerous one too. She and her peers start hearing reports of simulants who were sent back to the Constructor to be reprogrammed after committing offences like “Poor time-keeping, sneaking into restaurants, sexual liaisons”. These things are perfectly normal for other humans, but are considered serious flaws in the simulants, who were designed to function like machines and stick to highly regulated patterns of behaviour.

Jayna has never questioned this, but as she explores a world she’s never seen, from the rich to the poor, learning about adults, children and families, she starts to put her own life as a simulant into perspective, and begins to understand her society as the dystopia it has become.

The world of the novel is built fairly slowly and with a minimum of info dumping, but it’s relatively simple. The most important thing to understand is that society – at least in England – has been altered by cognitive implants that improve brain function. There are also inoculations to protect people from things like addiction as well as disease, and as a result violent crime has become rare. Most people with implants are bionics – normal people with enhanced cognitive functions. The simulants are more specialised, artificial versions. They are genetically engineered to have specific skills. Jayna’s model, for example, is highly analytical.The implant then further enhances those cognitive abilities because it’s working with a better base.

Then there are the organics – basic humans with little or no enhancements. The organics are typically people who can’t afford or aren’t permitted to have implants, and as a disenfranchised group with inferior cognitive abilities, they are stuck on the bottom rung of society. You might think that the simulants could be the most powerful because they’re the most intelligent, but they’re virtually slaves, human machines kept on a leash. Society is geared to benefit the bionics, who are wealthy, free, and highly intelligent (but not in a freakishly simulant way).

Jayna doesn’t think about society in these terms though; it’s just something that you come to understand as she learns more about the world around her. The novel is essentially a character study, putting you in the life and mindset of a simulant, and that’s what makes it an interesting read, rather than any of the dystopian aspects. Jayna never had a childhood, and she has no family. She lives in a “rest station” – hostel-style accommodation for simulants. Her meals are only supposed to come from authorised sources – the canteens at the rest station or the office. She may not take unauthorised trips to certain areas. She has a small allowance for recreational purposes, but receives no salary. It’s lights out at the rest station at 7:30pm, and she’s asleep by 8pm every night. She’s designed to have no interest in sex, but has been tweaked to be more personable than the last model, so she’s better suited to working with other people – the perfect cubicle drone. Her behaviour is no doubt monitored, although we don’t know to what extent.

Despite the way she’s designed and regulated, Jayna has determined little streaks of personality that shine through. She keeps stick insects. She’s fascinated by children, with their boundless energy and irrational behaviour. Despite her seemingly robotic characteristics and the occasional faux pas, Jayna comes off as kind and thoughtful. It’s not easy for her to understand other people, but she makes more of an effort to do so.

This makes her character an odd mix of strict rationality and awkward curiosity. It’s both sweet and sad to see how excited she gets at the opportunity to observe a colleague’s child at work, to see her try to change her life by doing some tiny random or irrational thing, or learn about people by attending a barbecue at her boss’s home.

It’s fairly subtle, toned-down dystopian fiction. The dystopian elements are neatly woven into the world and seen from the POV of a character who is only just starting to think about these things critically and who struggles to do so. Jayna’s story doesn’t lend itself to particularly dramatic events, although many of her new experiences are extremely dramatic or compelling to her. One of the most exciting moments is when she sees a violent fight break out. On another occasion she starts running and says “the world shook” because she’s never run before. Although she slowly begins to resist the social system she’s trapped in, it’s very much a personal resistance. It could be the seed of something much bigger, but the novel focuses on the simpler narrative.

I really like this about it. Most dystopian stories are brash and sensational. The tragedy of it is always in your face, pushing at least one rebellious character to fight the system in what could be a Hollywood blockbuster. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but I like this introspective version, which is more like an art house movie.

It does have some flaws – there’s a plot strand that’s left dangling and I’m not sure how I feel about certain aspects of the ending. But that’s just nitpicking. A Calculated Life is a strong debut. Recommended.