Just over three centuries ago, the world writhed in chaos. Grossly overpopulated and under-resourced, societies across the globe collapsed into violence and squalor. An elite, now known as the Alphas, sought to end the suffering. Their solution was the Storm, an act of mercy that wiped out most of the world’s human population. The Alphas survived in bunkers across the world and rebuilt human society, refusing to repeat the mistakes of the past. The bunkers were transformed into high-tech self-sufficient settlements that function according to reason and science, with the values of “World Peace, Eternal Life, and All Suffering Ended”. The citizens live according to an Ethical Code that follows utilitarian principles and seeks to elevate humanity above the urges and inclinations of nature, which are destructive rather than useful in a modern society. It’s all rather cold and clinical, but in America-Five, the settlement where this story takes place, citizens never have to worry about getting food, shelter, excellent medical care or a good education. In the meantime, their scientists are constantly finding ways to extend the human lifespan, with the ultimate goal of achieving eternal life.
But every ‘utopia’ has its dystopian flaws. Not all humans live inside a settlement. A scattering survived the Storm, and now live in primitive tribes across the lush natural world that has been able to thrive in the past few centuries. Because they are subject to all the hardships, dangers and terrors of living in the wild, their very existence goes against the utilitarian principles of the Ethical Code. Their lives consist of more pain and suffering than pleasure, so the settlements seek to alleviate that suffering, by killing the tribespeople in “sweeps” – targeted missile strikes. In the three centuries since the Storm, the 158 domed settlements scattered across the North American continent have succeeded in sweeping over 8 million tribespeople and look forward to the day when the tribes have been eradicated.
Our protagonist, 24-year-old Natasha Wiley, works in the Office of Mercy where her job is to monitor tribes and find the ideal moment to sweep them. After each sweep, a small team is sent Outside to inspect the site, ensure that there are no survivors and replace the cameras. Natasha is considered too young and inexperienced for such a mission, but her beloved mentor Jeffrey recommends her for the next outing. Natasha finally realises her dream of going Outside and experiencing the natural world for the first time. But things go awry and Natasha encounters a group of tribespeople. For the first time she sees them as healthy, strong humans who want to live even though they don’t have a high-tech settlement to live in or bioreplacement to extend their lifespans. She stops seeing them as “desperate animals in want of relief” and looks for ways to reconcile the ethics of America-Five with helping the tribes. With a few like-minded allies, she sneaks out of the settlement, risking her life and her career to change the world for the better.
The Office of Mercy caught my eye because the blurb promised a dystopian story combined with science and philosophy. It sounded like a more thoughtful, engaging novel than this trend-genre generally seems to offer these days, especially since most dystopian fiction seems to be bland, commercial YA fodder. I’m happy to say that The Office of Mercy delivered what I’d been hoping for. It’s not as good as it could have been, and there are many things I would have refined or changed, but I like that it avoids being as simplistic as other novels I’ve read in this genre, and offers a thought-provoking ending.
The worldbuilding tends to be done in long, dense infodumps, but it’s not hard to read and it’s fairly consistent. The sweeps are one example of this. America-Five and the other settlements could easily kill the tribespeople in many ways, but their methods are designed to prevent suffering. If the tribespeople were to find out about the settlements or the sweeps, or if only some members died while others lived, they would suffer dread and grief. The settlement would be causing more pain. Thus, the Office of Mercy waits for a moment when all members of the tribe are gathered in one place, and then fires a bomb called a nova to kill them all before they even have a chance to realise what’s happening.
Another of the governing principles of the Ethical Code is the injunction to transcend nature and all its evils. Citizens strive to resist any irrational impulses like being afraid of the dark or greedy for food. These things are leftover instincts from when all humans lived in tribes like the ones Outside and had to fight wild animals while trying to avoid starving to death.
In addition, people no longer need to have sex or suffer the pains of relationships, because babies are grown in tanks, and new generations are produced only when there are sufficient resources to care for them. Relationships are tolerated but not encouraged and citizens can satisfy their sexual urges in virtual reality. This is the cause of some anguish for Natasha – she is in love with Jeffrey, but he is the kind of model citizen who would never let a sexual relationship get in the way of living a fully ethical existence. In America-Five, the happiness of the individual is less important than working toward the happiness of an entire society.
For Natasha though, the most important feeling to avoid is Misplaced Empathy – her tendency to feel sorry for the tribespeople she helps kill. The error in this is that she is imagining their deaths from her own perspective, from a comfortable life that is worth living and with the knowledge of the nova strikes. The tribespeople on the other hand, are believed to live dreadful lives that Natasha cannot even begin to empathise with, and they don’t know about the novas so they cannot fear them. Feeling sorry for them is “immoral and dangerous” because it may prevent Natasha from killing the tribes and reducing the amount of suffering in the world.
This is a clear starting point for rebellion. It’s only by building a mental “Wall” that the citizens can commit genocide so easily. Despite the contemporary disdain for religion, the Alpha’s Ethical Code functions a lot like a religion and similar doctrines in that it encourages people to do terrible things to others with the belief that their actions are important and morally good. Natasha has a history of mental ‘weakness’ in building Walls, so seeing the tribespeople in person is particularly devastating for her.
One of the things I like about this novel though, is that it’s not a simple matter of evil America-Five vs. innocent tribes. America-Five has as many pros as it does cons and the Alphas are philosophers rather than a group of dictatorial lunatics. They really have made a great deal of good social advancements – the settlements are not plagued by disease, poverty, starvation, or a lack of education. Unlike similar societies in dystopian fiction, they don’t have institutionalised inequality in terms of race, gender, beauty, religion, intelligence or physical prowess. There is hierarchy based on age, but it’s mild and reasonable. There is no ban on free speech. Such things would go against the Ethical Code. The people of America-Five are a normal, racially diverse bunch and although their lives will look rather sterile to most readers, it’s infinitely better than most societies today.
Nor is Natasha the usual glorified revolutionary. When she goes Outside she is overwhelmed by the beauty of nature (which is particularly lush now that the human race has stopped destroying it) and the thrills and dangers that the settlement has stripped from life. Her rebellion has moral grounds, but it is also profoundly naive at times, as she idealises something that is really no more than a novelty for her. She’s like a child who wants a pony but has only seen them on TV. For a while Natasha’s ideas actually make the novel sickenly sentimental and my rating was dropping steadily until the ending redeemed the book for me. It gave me a lot to think about regarding the impossibilities of utopia and what we might have to do to get close to something resembling paradise.
The Office of Mercy could have been a great book, if it wasn’t so unrefined (perhaps because this is Djanikian’s first novel). I already mentioned the frequent, clunky infodumps. The characters are all rather dull, and the first word that comes to mind when I think of Natasha is “watery”. Certain parts of the plot are intentionally weak so as to demonstrate Natasha’s naiveté, but then there are also parts that simply stupid and illogical, distracting me from my reading as I stopped to fume and fuss in Kindle annotations. Then there’s that old and utterly infuriating American bias that tells us there are over 150 domed settlements across North America, but only states once that there are “other Alpha-inhabited continents”, because who gives a fuck about any place that isn’t America?
But yeah, if you like the dystopian genre though, it’s worth checking this novel out.