on 4 August 2014
I can see why this book was nominated for the Philip K Dick Award.
"A Calculated Life" is the story of Jayna, a genetically-engineered simulant with superhuman powers of analysis and deduction. Ostensibly physically human, simulants are hybrid blends of carefully-selected genes taken from mentally-outstanding human progenitors. However, simulants are "grown" rather than raised -- arriving fully-adult, with only rudimentary social skills and experiences. Though highly-valued, they are not self-determining beings: they are owned by The Constructor, who leases their skills out for exhorbitant fees.
The more wealthy and exceptional humans are able to obtain bionic implants, which make them more intelligent and capable, but not with the superhuman abilities of a simulant. The poor and unexceptional humans are just stuck with their mediocrity.
We follow Jayna as she gradually learns more about humans by observation of them and interaction with them. But there's a problem: Jayna's generation has been augmented with more sensory capability than previous generations. This seems to be causing glitches in Jayna's siblings: reports are starting to circulate of simulants who deviate from accepted norms and are taken back for reprogramming -- erasing their previous lives. And what is happening to Jayna?
I found the book's pace gradual but intensely absorbing. Rather than giving the background in a big infodump at the beginning, the author lets the reader gradually figure things out as the narrative progresses. I'm not a big fan of infodumps, so this style is always a winner for me.
My only real criticism is that the story ended all too soon. I would LOVE to read it in a more fleshed-out, fully-realised form.
I'm hoping that this short novel will someday get the same treatment as Nancy Kress' Beggars in Spain, Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley, and Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon: expansion by the author, with a little more experience and more thought, into a wonderful full-length novel.
In the meantime, though, it's still well worth the read. 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 because I REALLY enjoyed this story.
on 5 March 2014
Set in a dystopian near future the main heroine is one of a super intelligent ‘people’ bred specifically for roles in industry. Against this there are also those privileged humans who have intelligence implants and those less fortunate left to live in the slums outside of the large conurbations and do the more menial jobs of society. The pure bred intelligents are segregated from the rest of the population all living together forming relationships between themselves, however the story tells of the heroine who finds herself discovering human nature and forming more human relationships outside of her own ‘kind’.
This is a great read, you really get into the mind of the heroine and feel with her as she ‘develops’. No spoilers but the ending is an excellently thought out conclusion. This is certainly one book that would translate to the screen really well, you never know, I keep my fingers crossed!
on 4 February 2015
Jayna, a simulant created to predict trends for the kind of superficially genial corporation we are all too familiar with, is so clever she can determine the effect on crime of a prevailing wind. However, she is naïve, even innocent and despite appearing to be a young woman has not been alive long. The creeping conformity of Jayna’s world suggests a dystopia but the environment lacks the genre’s usual brutal hallmarks. Yes, there is a commodified class structure and yes there is an individual revolution that does not end well but as in our own time events are not set at a single extreme like they are in ‘1984’. This ambivalence lies at the heart of ‘A Calculated Life’.
Some reviews comment that not a lot happens but actually great deal does; it’s just that apparently small things like a change in menu or a chance observation in a shop have terrific significance to Jayna. She feels something as a result of these events but does not have the emotional vocabulary to express it. Perhaps it is the rhythm of the writing, its precision if you like; but the ending is devastating because of this slow accumulation of carefully expressed, often sensual experience.
Jayna’s quizzical innocence threatens to make her unlikeable; certainly some of her co-workers think so and the office politics in the early part of the novel are very relatable. However, two elements of the story ensure we never lose empathy. One is humour; the dystopian paradigm requires the intervention of a chaotic element, usually a lover and that does happen here but the inciting incident is Jayna getting some calculations wrong. Like the wind/crime interface it’s a subtle joke, as is a predictive novel about someone who predicts things, gets some right, others wrong and acts on the latter. The second, more touching element is the way Jayna’s very female efficiency finally benefits others but not herself.
That Jayna is a product legally ordered, operated and recycled according to what seem to be standard terms and conditions raises the tricky subject of worth. Like the autistic narrator of Elizabeth Moon’s seminal ‘Speed of Dark’, Jayna makes painstaking sense of the world around her in a way that is revelatory to those of us who take it for granted. Unlike that novel, ‘A Calculated Life’ is not in the first person although Jayna’s character imbues the writing to such an extent we could be in the presence of a character so alienated from herself that a first person narrative has become third person by default.
It’s heartening that this quietly compelling novel has been so well received and I look forward to future books by the author.
on 16 February 2013
Anne's writing is as economical and studied as the main protagonist's thought patterns. It feels as though each phrase has been carefully, lightly and deftly placed rather than written.
I particularly liked the gradual reveal that Jayna wasn't a high functioning savant but something quite different.
It's a slow burner but it suits the material - and it kicks up a gear in the second half of the book. The epilogue(s) give satisfying closure too.
Overall, it's a great example of a rare thing - finely written, thoughtful, modern British sci-fi.
on 31 July 2014
Enjoyed reading this, but was disappointed that it didn't go on for longer. It kind of felt like it was only part-way through the story when it ended. I enjoyed following Jayna's emotional development, and liked the way that the author didn't patronise the reader by spelling out the differences between the different person 'types' (will say no more in an effort to avoid spoilers!).
The nitpicker in me has to point out that the story is clearly set in England and uses UK English - so why the American spellings? It jarred a bit every time I came across an American spelling - but that's probably just cos I'm a pedant ;)
on 28 January 2015
Anne Charnock's training and experience as a journalist pays off in her debut novel. She has a spare, precise style which makes for comfortable reading. You feel from the start that you are in the hands of a pro.
She also pulls off the neat trick of writing at least two types of book at the same time. A Calculated Life is a coming-of-age story, but it is also a mild dystopia, set in Manchester, England, a city which is recovering from a near-apocalyptic collapse which is never explained. The protagonist, Jayna, is a genetically manipulated human who starts the book in ignorance of many important facts about the world she lives in, and ends it with a much deeper understanding. The reader's understanding of her world expands in synch with Jayna's because although it is written in the third person, the viewpoint is generally Jayna's.
Jayna is a Simulant, a human who has been genetically endowed with formidable analytical powers. She spends her days trawling through massive data sets on apparently unconnected phenomena, and finding patterns of correlation and causality. These connections can be very lucrative for her employers, a research and consulting firm.
Jayna lives in a hostel with a group of her peers, who envy her because she works in the private sector, which affords more perks and more interesting work than their government jobs. Normal humans provide their food and other hotel services, and on the surface, the Simulants have comfortable, orderly lives and want for nothing. They appear heavily autistic, and are discouraged from seeking experiences beyond their work and their narrow social lives; it gradually becomes apparent that straying too far can have severe consequences, with transgressors being returned to the labs which made them to have their brains wiped.
As well as the Simulants, there are two classes of “normal” humans. The fortunate ones have implants which enhance their native intelligence, although they have much less intellectual horsepower than the Simulants. They live in suburbs, and their lives seem like those of today's aspirational urban middle class. They work hard, have happy nuclear families, and host ebullient dinner parties in their spacious designer homes.
The less fortunate have not had implants, sometimes because they were not medically suitable, sometimes because of some personal or family transgression. They live in the “enclaves”, much further out from the centre of town than the suburbs. Their accommodation is cramped and noisy, and allocated by government fiat. Their lives are disordered and violence is common.
In some ways the book feels like a mild version of Brave New World, and Charnock is a good and subtle world-builder, although several aspects of the one she presents here are slightly discordant. Jayna and her friends are different from other people, and there are repeated hints of resentment against them. But they are indisputably human, and Jayna forms several relationships of real affection with members of the other groups. It therefore jars that the normal humans readily assign the Simulants the status of non-humans with no rights whatsoever. Of course this has happened many times in human history – holocausts have happened, usually in times of war or great unrest. Perhaps this is why Charnock set the book in a time when society is recovering from some kind of major disruption.
Some readers have found the ending (which I won't reveal) too abrupt, but for me it was an apt conclusion to an intriguing tale whose brevity is one of its many charms.
on 8 January 2015
The moment I read the opening lines of A Calculated Life by Anne Chamock, " The second smallest stick insect lay askew and lifeless on the trails of ivy..." I was certain that I would enjoy this book and, as it came with an accompanying audio track I would be able to continue with the story even when doing other things. At first, the reading did not disappoint but, sad to say, the audio did no justice to the writing. Despite the dialogue excerpts being well rendered, the (mostly) narrative sections were read in a depressingly downbeat way. It is for this reason that I have awarded this book only three, not four, stars.
As previous reviewers have mentioned, by following the main protagonist in her day to day observations and wonderment, we view ourselves through more innocent eyes to consider the question, what is the nature of humanity. The writing is good, easy to read and there is just enough tension to draw us onward to the end of the novel. The ending is good, too, as encapsulated in the first of the two prologues but I was disappointed with the pre-prologue finale which left me wondering, why there? Why then? How?
Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in people, forget the science fiction label. But don't bother with the soundtrack.
on 10 September 2014
I generally go for space opera type sci-fi but I very much enjoyed this book.
Liked the that the world in which the main character lived was gradually revealed to the reader.
The future world she creates is not so dissimilar to ours, which makes a great backdrop for exploring more subtle things such as the characters attitudes, expectations etc.
Its an intimate style and story, but there is still a plot that moves along nicely and keeps your interest.
on 20 July 2014
I really enjoyed this. It was so good that I found it hard to put down. In the end I read it all through the night,(using a light on my kindle) an finishing at 5am.
on 5 March 2013
A Calculated Life is a thoroughly enjoyable read.
In the beginning of the book, I had some difficulty relating to the bio-engineered protagonist, Jayna, as she was so different from the normal heroines you encounter in futuristic sci-fi novels.
But as the novel progresses, Jayna's world becomes more like our own, making us desire to dive deeper into the dystopia that encompasses her world.
Overall, this novel brings together a captivating storyline, a thought provoking examination of our earth's possible future, and a well-crafted writing style. The only real criticism I have for the novel is that it ends just as you're getting comfortable in the protagonist's world. The epilogue ties up the loose ends but, as with all greatly intriguing novels, you're left with more questions than answers.