|Cover design by Bekki Guyatt|
Orbit, 22 September 2020
Available as: e-book
Source: advance e-copy via Netgalley
I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance e-copy of Sweet Harmony.
Claire North is the master of the intriguing idea, planted into our otherwise normal world and interrogated from all angles. Also: of glorious prose, believable characters and much else, which I'll come to in a moment. In her new novella, she steps a short way into the future of medicine and hypothesises the ability too use "naneites" - programme machines at the molecular level - to protect and preserve life, affect appearance and ability, modify mood and make many many other changes. ('Dazzling Smile - no more sad mornings!', 'Voice of an Angel - 96% agree that this is the perfect voice for the perfect woman!')
All for a price.
Harmony Meads, a 29 year old London estate agent, is 'beautiful, successful and fits in perfectly'. She's an enthusiastic user of these "upgrades" as is everyone in her office. They're all choices that she's made ('This is Harmony Meads, aged nineteen, making a choice about her body, her life') but choices have consequences, whether from the effect of programming glitches ('If you experience jaundice or liver failure, please contact your healthcare provider') to debt and enforcement action ('The upgrade was £17.99 a month for the initial twelve month contract, rising to £35 a month at the end of the introductory period...')
North's portrayal of Harmony as an anxious, aspirational twentysomething, spending money she doesn't have (there are always more credit cards) to secure a future away from '****ing Bracknell', to keep up with the team at work, to have a life, is touching and sad. This isn't an SF utopia or dystopia. It's recognisably our world - the train from Waterloo to Reading, overworked hospitals, social care stretched to its limits and, especially, advertising pushed at desperate people ('...at the end of the day, she wanted to be in control. She hit "buy". That was the beginning.') Harmony's life includes work pressures from a boss who sees having pretty people as part of the "brand", an abusive boyfriend and an elderly mother who wants the best for her daughter but whose tentative sympathy when everything goes wrong is unbearable.
The story shows us where Harmony is coming from, her hopes, desires and dreams; the insidious spiral she's got into, having to scrimp and save to make minimal payments on all the upgrades she's taken out; and the spinning of her life into chaos when things go wrong, when she loses that control. The contracts Harmony's signed allow for punitive measures, withdrawing the benefits previously offered and then going further. In a nightmare of calls to customer service, attempts to scrape together money and to keep up appearances, we have a world that is so familiar, so close to our own - the knife-edge between keeping everything in the air and seeing those plates begin to smash on the ground. North's vision of just how this technology might be used and abused is deeply plausible because it's rooted in just how people currently suffer when they lose a grip, even for a moment on their lives.
As I've come to expect from this author, Sweet Harmony doesn't just deliver a scary and convincing near future but also glorious, on-point writing. North describes 'skin the colour of city sunset' and 'The smell after rain, when all things come back to life' or in hospital 'old men shuffling the lock-kneed two-step to their ends'. Here's Harmony's friend Shelly. 'Her brilliant autumn-blonde hair flowed and curled around her face like frozen candlelight; her skin glowed like tungsten...' which is gorgeously vivid - but is then soured when we're informed that Shelly is so beautiful that 'all the boys assumed she was a tart, that there was no other reason to be that sensational save for the benefit of men...' In a world where you can constantly be upgraded, the neediness of those men, their desire to control women, assumes ever newer and crueller forms.
The upgrades have other insidious effects and throughout the book, North is picking away at how corrupting it all is, how as well as the financial burden, life becomes a pretence with things we might take for granted (such as getting drunk) becoming just paid for options once one's life and responses are owned by a private corporation. There's a safety net where basic functions and health are still maintained but it's an affectless, joyless world lacking vibrancy and sensuality.
That's the world which, in some form, Harmony spends most of this book trying to escape because in the end this isn't a book primarily about nightmare tech but about one life - and the roots of her discontent and ruinous debt habit are human roots, in family, society and place. And in the poisonous relationships and work pattens she finds herself. It's all about choices, choices made in circumstances we can't control and which are therefore hardly choices at all - are they?
For more about Sweet Harmony, see the Orbit website here.