Guest Post: Anne Charnock on writing the POV of A Calculated Life

I recently read and reviewed A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock, and I liked it so much that I contacted Anne and asked her if she’d write a guest post telling us a bit more about her book. What struck me most about the novel was that it was a character study of Jayna, a human being designed to function as a machine, who tries to broaden her understanding of the world. I asked Anne to describe her experience of writing from the POV of this kind of character. 

Welcome to Violin in a Void Anne!

Charnock 2Thanks for inviting me on to your blog, Lauren! I’ll do my best to answer your question and I hope I don’t go off at a tangent.

Writing from the point of view of a hyper-intelligent human presented me with a significant challenge! From the outset I decided that my protagonist, Jayna, would be ‘an innocent abroad’. I set her out on a journey and along the way I wanted to reveal a gradual change in her worldview. Through the opening chapters of the novel, her natural curiosity shifts towards something more questioning; she becomes more critical. Ultimately I wanted Jayna to shed her innocence. I suppose it’s comparable to a coming-of-age story in which a young person becomes aware of their place in a larger, less-than-benevolent, world.

To be a bit techy first: I felt a first-person narrative would be doomed to failure. How could I possibly emulate her intelligence? A more experienced writer might attempt that challenge. But, instead, I adopted a ‘third-person limited’ POV. In other words, the reader follows only one character, Jayna, rather seeing the world from several characters’ POV. In fact, this limited third-person narration is fairly close to a first person POV compared to third-person omniscient narration. (Saul Bellow’s Seize The Day is a good example of a third-person limited POV and I used his novel as my guide when I redrafted my manuscript).

My strategy was to reveal Jayna’s worldview through her interactions with other people. Dialogue played an important role. The reader recognizes her misinterpretations and misunderstandings. A major strategy was to create situations that were tricky for her to handle. So In the first chapter she unwittingly upsets a colleague and in the fourth chapter she leaps to a wildly incorrect conclusion. She is aware that in her dealings with other people she’s ‘getting it wrong’ and she strives for improvement.

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In your review of A Calculated Life, Lauren, you noted that Jayna has a fascination with children. I created an early turning point, in terms of her developing psyche, when a colleague brings her young son to the office. Soon after this event, Jayna asks herself what would happen if she acted like a child, lived in the moment, with no care for the consequences. Her resulting action is dramatic within the overall tone of the novel.

It was important that I revealed Jayna’s changing mindset through her actions, that is, by showing rather than telling the reader! I particularly enjoyed this—allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Having said that, I did reveal Jayna’s thoughts from time to time, sometimes as stream-of-consciousness.

You are perfectly correct in your review that this novel is a character study and that it is toned down and introspective compared to many other dystopian novels. Looking back I can recall many years ago watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford and Sean Young. This is one of my all-time favourite films. But even though I loved the all-action nature of the film with its male protagonist, Deckard, I was fascinated and haunted by Rachel, the replicant. I remember thinking at the time that Rachel’s story, rather than Deckard’s, seemed the more interesting, and certainly the most heart-breaking even though her story was less ‘dramatic’. Maybe an early seed for A Calculated Life was sown then.

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Anne’s Bio:

My writing career began in journalism and my reports appeared in New Scientist, The Guardian, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune and Geographical, among others. I was educated at the University of East Anglia, where I studied environmental sciences, and at The Manchester School of Art.

Despite the many column inches of factual reporting, I didn’t consider writing fiction until my career turned to visual art. In my fine art practice I tried to answer the questions: What is it to be human? What is it to be a machine? I wrote A Calculated Life as a new route to finding answers.

Where to find Anne:
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Check out the book trailer for A Calculated Life

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.