In a Right State – Ben Ellis

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

In A Right State is a peculiar book, far from easy to review.  In a nutshell, it’s a dystopian twist on a future Great Britain, one where corporations rule the country and everything is focused on business and profit.  The story opens, quite intriguingly, on one of the main characters, Duncan, as he follows with some trepidation the auction of his deceased wife’s body parts: in a time when the wasteful past (our present) has been replaced by a heightened consciousness of our resources, CO2 emissions have been eliminated and solar power rules, the environmental cost of a burial or a cremation is unthinkable, hence the auctioning off of a body for research purposes. Waste not, want not.

The problem is, Duncan has a little secret that close examination of his wife’s body will reveal: he grows real, organic vegetables in a plot under his home – and that makes him an outlaw, because only OGM food is the accepted norm, or rather the law. So he destroys the underground garden and runs away with a few bags of precious seeds, with the corporate police hot on his heels.

Amy, on the other hand, is the dutiful employee of a major corporation – she might not be happy about her non-existent career prospects, but she keeps being the good drone she’s been taught to be, until the day her innocent workplace association with deceased Nicole – Duncan’s wife – puts her under suspicion, and she decides to burn all bridges behind her, taking Duncan along in a mad flight that will put them in contact with the mysterious Colonel, a man who seems hell-bent on undermining the system. A sort of Renaissance man in a culture that has forgotten literature, music, stage plays and movies, because the only “creative” writing is whatever goes into product promotion.  But maybe even the Colonel not as good, or as selfless as he seems…

Intriguing? Yes. The premise, starting with that weird, so very weird scene about the auction, is a sound one and some details are even chillingly realistic: take for example the constant commercial ads (the only form of entertainment in this future society), the violation of privacy that allows those ads to be played at any time in your house or while you’re taking a walk, whether you want it or not – these phenomena are something that we can observe right now, although on a far smaller scale. Have you ever been tormented by constant calls from phone companies offering you great opportunities for voice and internet access, or pestered by sellers of other products? So you know what I mean…

Yet this very interesting premise at some point became lost, for me, in the uncertain mood of the story, that alternates between seriousness and tongue-in-cheek fun, in a sort of Hellzapoppin-like sequence of sketches that made me often wonder if there was a definite sense of direction. There are also long stretches of exposition (the chapter where the Colonel is introduced is one of the clearest examples), and more often than not we are told about the characters’ feelings and reactions, but almost never shown. I’ve often wondered if this story wanted to be a sarcastic cautionary tale about the dangers in the path our society is taking, or if we were meant to be worried and take it as a dire warning.  The first few chapters of the book also suffer from some instances of mixed tenses, adding to the general bafflement I mentioned above and that is compounded by narrative contradictions that quite bothered me: for example, if there is such a constant control on citizen activity (satellites, DNA scans and other means that would make the NSA guys envious), how could Duncan build the complicated underground garden and its equally complicated camouflage mechanism?

Despite the danger, despite the number of people pursuing our “heroes” with a vast array of technological gadgets, they rarely seem to take their plight seriously, finding the time for some well-delivered prank and witty repartee.  This would seem to point toward a lighter-toned narrative, but the bloody horror and anguish of the end of the book turn this notion on its head, only to offer again a brief glimmer of sincere hope with the last sentence…

I’m confused. Or probably unable to see the point because of some inherent lack of perspective.

Not a bad book in itself, on the contrary it was a quick, interesting read, but despite that I could not… pin it down, for want of a better word.

My Rating: 6,5/10


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