It's proper Grim Meathook Futurism, a claustrophobic and disjoint story that stands with the best of hard and hopeless dystopian sf, from Riddley Walker to Nineteen Eighty Four to The Chrysalids, with dashes of Handmaid's Tale.
Theo works in the Criminal Audit Office. When someone is robbed, or murdered, or raped, or mugged, or defrauded, the Company brings the perpetrator to justice, and the Criminal Audit Office negotiates the indemnity — the sum that must be paid to make social amends. It's all very balanced: kill an executive with the Company, a job creator who provides enormous value to society and you will have to pay a very large sum. Kill a "scrounger" on benefits and well, it's just the honest truth that they weren't contributing much, were they? A much smaller sum is in order.
Large or small, the penalty for failing to stump up for the indemnity is the same: you are sent to the patty line, the generic term for the forced-labour camps where the socially useless are rehabilitated through work. The original patty lines made the cheapest hamburger patties, but they've branched out since, with criminals now doing most of the jobs that you really wouldn't want to sully your hands with, from having sex with rich people to cleaning up spent nuclear fuel rods.
It's a novel of Exterminism, the awfully useful and terrifying term from Peter Frase's book "Four Futures." Under exterminism, people themselves become surplus to requirements, not necessary even to drive down the wages of the people competing for the few jobs the automated system requires.
There's something deliciously terrible about novels of totalitarianism, the boot stamping on the human face forever, but North's 84K is more than mere catastrophe porn. All through this novel are scattered embers of hope — not optimism (the belief that things will get better) but hope (the belief that we can do things that might improve the situation). It's the contrast of the great, brooding force of late-stage capitalism devouring the humans it no longer needs, with the human heart beating hopefully, insisting that there are values that can't be captured in price-signals, that make this an extraordinary novel. It's a novel that shows how change can come, even when the world seems doomed, and why we are not foolish to try.
84K [Claire North/Orbit]
(Image: Jef Aerosol, CC-BY)