It's little wonder that Ariel Djanikian's debut novel is being marketed as a novel for the Hunger Games generation: a futuristic world where conventional society has collapsed is the setting for The Office of Mercy, a utopian/post apocalyptic novel that presents a dark look at the extent of sciences and a twisted form of ethics.
Taking place three centuries after a devastating event – The Storm – that decimated humanity, utopian settlements have grown in the remnants of the new world. These settlements, sealed off from the wilderness are self contained structures, housing generations of citizens who live in an ideal world where technological advances provide food, medicine and everlasting life. Supporting this life is an ethical code that seeks to reduce suffering for all of humanity, guiding the Citizens as they live out their lives. Unfortunately, there’s an enormous population of people, descended from the survivors of The Storm who etch out a living in the wilderness. America-5, Natasha Wiley’s home, and others, have taken it upon themselves to reduce the perceived suffering of those in the wilderness. Just as one might seek to put a suffering animal down, members of the Office of Mercy do the same with fire, guns and bombs.
There’s a horrifying, misguided morality to America-5’s actions, one that slowly unfolds throughout the story. The people of America 5 firmly believe that they’re doing the right and humane thing, and this is where Djanikian really presents an interesting story. All totalitarian societies require a certain level of compliance from its members, and Natasha, stationed in the Office of Mercy, regularly carries out a systematic agenda of genocide against those from the outside world. It’s not called that, of course: their term for it is a Sweep, but murder is murder, as Natasha and a growing number of individuals come to understand over the course of this novel. Natasha becomes troubled by the policies of her office’s actions after a frightening encounter with one of the outside tribes, throwing her against everything that she’s been brought up to believe. Along the way, some dark truths come out about her life and those around her.
The twist on this novel is a deterministic one: what exactly governs behavior? Is it one’s intrinsic nature that makes someone who they are, or is it one’s surroundings that define them? These are philosophical questions that have been asked since Plato, and throughout the story, we see how America-5 works to ensure that it’s citizens are all on the same page: indoctrination from an early age, mental exercises, and a common environment that reinforces positive behavior. Most stories come down on one side, but interestingly, Djanikian comes down unexpectedly with Natasha after some truly unexpected revelations about her past. I’d been expecting something conventional from the book by the latter half, but rather than throw aside the circumstances of her life and upbringing and given a choice, she embraces it in the face of what life outside of the settlement is really like.
In a way, it’s a bit of a disappointing ending for the book, because it cuts against the traditional meme, but in doing so, Djanikian sets up an interesting exchange between a highly technological and science oriented side and it’s polar opposite. On one hand, you have a society that has conquered death, but in doing so, embraces horrific practices to ensure their survival. On the other hand, you have a society that’s desperate to survive, and will go to extreme lengths to do so and it’s never quite clear which side is morally superior, as both engage in some pretty horrific acts by the end of the novel.
The Office of Mercy has a number of similar elements to other recent types of books, most notably The Hunger Games; the will she or won’t she romantic subplots, the violence and overall setting. The novel’s execution has a bit to be desired, and as a result, it doesn’t quite have the spark that The Hunger Games has. But, it’s a darker and more complicated read, and it alternates between surprisingly interesting and unreservedly dull, but it’s a story that has real legs throughout, presenting a number of fairly traditional dystopian ideas and turning them just a bit. It’s not a rehash of the same material, but a slightly new take, which makes the book an interesting and worthwhile read.