The Short Version: After an immense Storm ravages the globe, the survivors have gone underground in bunker-like Settlements. In America-Five, the easternmost Settlement, Natasha Wiley is a young functionary in the Office of Mercy – tasked with eradicating (“sweeping”, they call it) any surviving peoples outside the Settlements. But after a manual sweep goes awry, Natasha begins to question the quality of this ‘mercy’ and finds herself opposing the entire system.
The Review: It’s been quite a while since I’ve read a book that had a song or album connect to it. When I was younger, it happened a fair amount – MUTEMATH’s debut album is linked to Terry Brooks’ Word & Void trilogy, I still think of Drizzt Do’Urden when certain songs from Hootie & the Blowfish’s “Fairweather Johnson” come on, a couple others – but I don’t listen to as much music while reading these days (or if I do, it’s a playlist created for the book, not a single album). And yet, for the entirety of reading The Office of Mercy, I couldn’t get Coldplay’s new song “Midnight” out of my head. I mention this because that same creeping sensation you get (or, well, I get) while listening to that song suffuses this book – right down to the serious philosophical questions that underpin the traditional genre trappings.
Put it another way, this novel is a grower. A multilayered reveal that you aren’t expecting at the start. In fact, those reveals only continue as the end approaches – leaving the reader with the strange sensation of their being both far more to come and at the same time an almost perfectly snipped-off ending. Of all the classic, dystopic sci-fi novels this novel could (and should) be related to, it almost reminds me most of Fahrenheit 451 for that reason. I recall reading that book and being shocked that it ended where and how it did – and similarly, I was on the train in disbelief as the pages dwindled. And to see (in a sequence that echoes both A Clockwork Orange and 1984) Natasha’s eventual fate arrive in such a basic and simple way… it’s almost obvious, really. You couldn’t have expected Djanikian to end the novel any way other than how she did – and I wonder if that isn’t a symptom of our times, of the times in which a reader might read this novel.
So much dystopian literature these days tries to graft modern ethics onto a post-modern setting – but the thing that keeps the aforementioned classic dystopias in our minds is that they grappled instead with how our ethics might change. What we might need to do, in the face of this, that, or the other catastrophe. Similarly, The Office of Mercy forces us to consider (without any easy answer) what we believe ‘mercy’ to mean. Is it merciful to drop a bomb on an effectively-undeveloped tribe of natives who may well just seek warmer climes? What if they’re all starving, if they wouldn’t make it to those warmer climes? Is it justified? What about bringing those people into the fold? For that matter, what about the fold itself: is it right to force out some of the very things that made us human in order to create ‘perfect’, eternal beings? Believe it or not, there are pros and cons to all of these things and I don’t think it’s possible to walk away from this book with didactic yes-or-no answers. There’s simply too much grey to be black or white.
It’s startling, actually, how narrow the focus of this novel is. Djanikian does a good job at filling in historical gaps, giving the reader a sense of where/when this brave new world is taking place. Some of it feels expository at times (a character in a library looking things up, for example) but how else are you supposed to deliver the information when you don’t want it to be a massive info-drop? I’ll take the exposition because it means the story can get out of its own way and we can focus on the actual plot. Would I have liked to know more about the science behind all the bioengineering, the truth behind this Storm, even more about the socio-political realities of the pre-Storm era? Sure. All of that fascinates me. But my imagination, undoubtedly, does a better job wallpapering those untaken hallways than I would had Djanikian walked me down them – that’s part of the fun, after all. We’re meant to come to our own conclusions.
The whole thing speeds along – there’s perhaps one interlude that feels a bit too padded and a bit too broad in the way it attempts to deepen relationships between the characters – but, again, the surprise comes not from the plot but from the questions surrounding it. What would, in any other novel today, have been the climax is dispatched with startling swiftness and the author’s intent of putting these questions front and center swims into focus. It’s a neat trick, all the more tricky for its being so simple / old-school – and it makes the book stand above its brethren by a bit.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I don’t think this book will change anyone’s minds about mercy, about justice, about right and wrong – but we’ve gotten too easy on our sci-fi writers, especially those writing dystopias. Yes, we’re all afraid of the modern world taking us into some totalitarian/faux-egalitarian/generally-messed-up future – but it isn’t enough to just give us a bad scenario and put people acting ‘good’ inside of it. You need to think a bit harder and see how the people in those future scenarios would honestly behave. Because it isn’t going to be like we behave today. That’s the glorious thing about classic dystopic novels and it’s what makes this one a worthy successor to those talents.