New vision of dystopia in ‘The Office of Mercy’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 13, 2014

“The Office of Mercy,” by Ariel Djanikian. Penguin Books. Paperback. 320 pp. Also available as e-book.
A novel right up my line, “The Office of Mercy” is in that quickly growing genre of apocalyptic/dystopian fiction that requires the reader to stretch his or her imagination as to what the world could be like as we all hurtle into an uncertain future.
This is a genre that theoretically began with the myths of Dante, Virgil and Homer, but of course is more commonly thought of with reference to George Orwell’s “1984” and forward, through Stephen King’s “The Stand,” Sandor Szathmari’s “Voyage to Kazohinia,” “Alas, Babylon” by Pat Frank, “On the Beach” by Nevil Shute, “Ashes of the Earth” by Eliot Pattison and some of the later novels by James Howard Kunstler.
Inevitably, due to the proliferation of books in the genre, it is becoming more and more difficult to write original content and almost impossible not to borrow, or at least insinuate, some content from those novels by other authors that appeared previously.
Djanikian, in writing “The Office of Mercy,” has made some contributions to originality in the genre, but the author has also drawn references from the body of literature. As I said, this is now almost inevitable, and I cast no accusations because of it. I am neither talking here of parody nor plagiarism, but simply that, as the old saying goes, “There are no original thoughts.” Well, Djanikian does have some original thoughts, and she also has an original construct, and that is perhaps the best we can now expect in the genre.
“The Office of Mercy” is set several generations into our future, though the generations have stretched due to the ability, now, for biological replacements/regrowth if bodies are injured or ill; basically, the possibility exists for eternal life. Thus there remain some of the original generation, Alphas, followed by the Betas and so forth.
This group, and there are numerous clusters across the country, is America-5, located, as each group is, in a complex that exists 13 stories below ground in addition to a surface level complex. Each complex is self-sufficient. Outside the complex exists the rest of the country, where surviving tribes of humans still live. The purpose of the Office of Mercy, in effect, is to destroy these tribes, at least if they get too close to the complex. The members of Alpha-5 do this in sympathy for the individuals who make up the tribes as they do not have the benefits the members of America-5 enjoy, such as eternity. For the Office of Mercy, it is a matter of morality.
Within the America-5 complex, there are various divisions of labor, led by the Department of Government, which is entirely made up of the Alphas. Everything from food production to medical, construction, research, rejuvenation, everything that a modern, or futuristic society, requires, has its own department.
Natasha, the central character of the novel, works in the Office of Mercy, under Jeffrey, under Arthur. With remote outside cameras and sensors, the office spends its time surveying the outside for tribes. If tribes are detected, a sweep is conducted to destroy it; think drones. Only then does a detail leave the complex for recovery or to manually finish the job.
Obviously there are many more characters involved, and as within any society there are alliances, jealousies, conflicts and what passes for a touch of romance in the near future. Natasha, being a member of a younger generation, is the lowest level of employee in her department, but she is also somewhat the charge, and personal interest, of Jeffrey. She can do her job, but she begins to develop an affinity for the members of the tribes outside and comes to the realization that they are actual human beings. And thus, the bulk of the story begins.
I think my biggest complaint about the novel is the missing backstory; there is just too much the reader has to take on faith. We never know what event led to what remains of America to live in these underground complexes other than it is referred to as “the storm.” Although we are told at one point the Yangs built the complexes, we don’t know why. Did they have a premonition the world as they knew it was going to end? Who were the Yangs? At one point in the novel, there is an entire new wing of the above ground complex being built, but where does the construction material come from? Where does the construction equipment come from? Other than medical, food production, next-gen production and InfoTech services, there are no mentions of factories, mines or other basic necessities of survival. And even though there are 13 stories underground, most of that space is apparently taken over for the above mentioned uses and for “sleep-rooms.”
Nor is there mention of trade with the other complexes, or even how they communicate with each other, though it is obvious they do (there is a competition to see who can eliminate the most outside tribespeople). So, I came away from the novel wondering the same thing I do about 3-D printing — just how does it work?
Don’t get too discouraged, however. It is my understanding that the next novel from Djanikian, being written as we speak, is a prequel to “The Office of Mercy,” and within its pages we will learn about the storm, the Yangs and all the other missing parts. With that I say hooray! Whether Djanikian had the prequel planned from the start, or whether she or some editor realized there were a lot of questions with the current book, we readers are due to find out the answers.
That promise, in itself, makes the time invested in reading “The Office of Mercy” all worthwhile, and gives us a reason to look forward to the next book from this author. Read “The Office of Mercy” for what it is, an excellent jump into a crowded genre by a new author; the book and the author are worth the investment.