I’m finding it hard to quite distil what A Calculated Life is actually about without constant referrals to the Amazon blurb. There’s a lot of hints from what I’ve read so far – about a dystopian police state with a “compliant population free of addictions”; very Orwellian, with a tinge of I, Robot, with genetically-engineered “stimulants” being discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens – this sounds excellent and full of promise but unfortunately, after proceeding to about halfway through the book, none of this seems to be tying together.
I recognise that A Calculated Life is certainly a more contemplative book, wherein its challenging and exploring the concepts that hang as core tenets of the universe. What is a “normal” life in this strange world? However, in terms of a story taking place of this universe, I feel the book falls quite flat.
The protagonist is Jayna, who is eventually revealed to be one of the genetically-engineered “simulants” (though it took me until halfway in to finally work this out), who works for predictive agency Mayhew McCline, an agency that predicts with mathematical accuracy economic and social trends, who over the course of the book appears to be challenging her core programming and trying to learn more about the deviations from routine and prediction that makes her human counterparts, well, human. However, I felt that for the most part, until I realised that she was indeed a “simulant”, Jayna was a completely unlikeable protagonist I couldn’t relate to. Her personality seemed scant, and what was there, to me, felt cold and clinical, channelling the tritest of “introverted nerd” stereotypes, emerging into a classic Buzz Killington-esque shell. Her robotic personality, over-analysing every action of her counterparts, certainly seemed too straight-laced and “well-behaved” to be interesting. As I approached the halfway point, I definitely felt that as Jayna was starting to noticeably challenge her findings and, at the same time, her genetic engineering to discover a “normality” that lived outside the world of statistics and models that she’d been entrenched in for so long; however, by this point it felt too late to get invested into the plot. The disconnect between the protagonist and any of the ominous echoes of the setting seemed to be too wide to be bridged by this point.
Anne Charnock’s prose in A Calculated Life is competent and unobtrusive, without needless embellishment. It does, however, certainly personify Jayna’s boring personality; it’s a bit uninspiring, workmanlike and works to support the mundane banality in the early part of the book that focuses (too much) on the minutiae of Jayna’s life. There’s a clear action deficit that permeates through what I’ve read so far; sure, I understand that A Calculated Life is more contemplative and conceptual, but with the characters discussing situations like the housing lottery that causes a lot of angst among the population, and a lot of description of how conformity and routine heavily impacts daily life, there’s no sense of brutality attached to this sense of conformity, which dilutes its dramatic impact. If at most a strongly-worded letter would be sent to those that disobey or otherwise rebel against the “system”, then why would one fear this oppressive state? There seems to be no impact upon the characters, who instead spend pages having meandering conversations that serve little purpose. Whether these relate to Jayna’s emotional inexperience naivety is almost inconsequential when regardless, these contemplative conversations seem to do little to hurry the plot along. Likewise, there’s a clear absence of any perceived conflict that directly impacts the characters and drives them forward, and this proves fatal to the book; for a relatively short piece (200~ pages; 3,000 Kindle locations) it certainly feels, as I’m progressing, to be getting longer and longer.
In terms of plotting, I’d say the plot in A Calculated Life seems to simmer at best. Approaching the halfway point, I felt an impatience for the plot to actually start to move toward the conflict that the mid-point of a book usually displays. Even at this stage, the plot is still carrying out a lot of the “setup” that you expect in, say, the first third; by this point I definitely feel the plot should be moving from exploring the circumstances around which the characters find themselves to how the characters might be directly affected or affecting these circumstances. A death of a colleague at Jayna’s employer, for instance, is established to take place relatively early on but continues to only be a background event, hinted at but still seeming distant and unconnected to the protagonist. Is this a key event? By this point, it should’ve been established one way or the other.
Unfortunately for me, A Calculated Life didn’t do anything for me. The combination of meandering, tepid plot, while glimpsing at a promising concept and setup, with a dry and uninspiring and ultimately boring protagonist proved fatal in maintaining my interest. A Calculated Life is certainly contemplative, although I’d just wish it was more direct in approaching the themes it purports to explore. Some might find this an enjoyable, thought-provoking read; however, while the book is sound conceptually, the execution was underwhelming.
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