Above image from the hardcover version (Viking, February 2013)
In the currently glutted dystopian science fiction market, an author who wants to stand out is going to have to bring something a little different to the field, or at least better than what sci-fi fans can find listed in the “Related to Items You’ve Viewed” section of their Amazon accounts. Ariel Djanikian offers a story that’s bigger on ideas than on action or teen love triangles, and it makes for a refreshing change. Then, too, The Office of Mercy is strong enough to stand as one self-contained work, rather than as the first in a franchise destined to be a lucrative but potentially forgettable trend. Even if Djanikian does write a sequel, she won’t have to depend on it to legitimize the thoughtful work she sets forward in her first novel.
The Office of Mercy makes use of some standard dystopian plot elements: several hundred years ago, a cataclysmic storm wiped out much of Earth’s population and covered its low-lying lands in sea water. Needing to create a new way of surviving, one group of people gathered themselves in several enormous, sealed environments shaped like flowers with their stems stretching miles below ground. Natasha Wiley, 24 years old, lives in the structure known as America-Five.
In America-Five, people of all different genetic backgrounds live peacefully and in comfort. There is equality between the sexes. People are raised from childhood to understand and internalize the ethical code handed down to them from the Alphas — the creators of the Americas. Their ethics system is based on an utter rationality that ascribes all chaos and violence to unrestrained human appetites.
As a result, food is rationed in filling but limited portions. Lustful relationships are discouraged, though not outlawed. Moderation in all things is the rule. But the Alphas’ most central tenet is that a life lived in suffering is not worth living at all.
Despite her youth and relative inexperience, Natasha was approved for a job in the prestigious Office of Mercy, where her job is to assist in tracking down the remnant Tribes that still live Outside and ending their suffering, permanently. However, she is growing more and more aware of an ambivalence feeling, especially after she is selected for an Outside mission, when she has her first in-person contact with Tribe members.
As a character, Natasha is less feisty and more introspective than recent heroines of dystopian fiction. A great deal of her struggle occurs internally: she is not so much trying to decide to whom she owes loyalty as she is trying to decide what she believes in. She is too well-cared-for to be angry and too naïve to be fearful, so she approaches her discoveries about the Outside and the Alphas with a wonder that draws the reader in.
The story is certainly interesting from start to finish, but readers looking for thrill-a-minute suspense will not find it here. Veterans of the genre will see a lot of the denouement coming a mile away. Djanikian doesn’t blindside readers with anything they haven’t seen in George Orwell or Hugh Howey. In this respect, The Office of Mercy disappoints.
What Djanikian does do well is create a futuristic world that is, in its implications if not its trappings, just about exactly like our world. Often in dystopian fiction, our present time is looked back on as a turning point, the time when we still might have been able to stop the world from slipping into… well, into a dystopia. Djanikian goes one better and suggests we are already there.
More disturbingly, through the twists of her plot, Djanikian implies that the system is so broken that individuals no longer have any truly good choices left, and that we will have to make those choices alone and with no support structure. She lucidly demonstrates how an ethics based on self-preservation alone renders genocide an entirely rational means of peacemaking. The characters in her book are not villains. They are good people with capacity for caring, which makes their lifestyle all the more recognizable and horrifying.
The Office of Mercy, again, doesn’t strike one as the start of a flashy trilogy, but there’s definitely a lead-in for a sequel if Djanikian decides to go that route. If that happens, hopefully she will take care to expand her implications as well as her plot. You can only read to find out what happens in a book once. After that, it’s only the ideas that have any room for growth.