Just how subjective is one’s ethical code? Ariel Djanikian’s debut novel, “The Office of Mercy,” depicts a future world in which the answer to this question lies within a government office dedicated to enforcing “mercy” using comprehensive surveillance techniques to kill people off the moment they begin to suffer to an intense degree.
Like many dystopias, “The Office of Mercy” presents a theoretical utopia gone horribly wrong in its physical implementation. Initially, the world is presented from an idealized perspective similar to the outlook of its founding “Alphas.” In a manner akin to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Djanikian employs the Greek alphabet to establish an intelligence-based hierarchy within the high-tech government offices. In fact, “The Office of Mercy” employs so many tropes of its genre that, save for its concept of an indoctrinated “ethical code,” the novel reads like a copy of “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent.”
The majority of the populace, also known as the tribes, lives under the false premise that they are free from formalized political structures beyond their own tribal hierarchy. While they live in a naturalized world as hunter-gatherers and have a high degree of free will, these people on the “Outside” don’t have the ability to persevere through pain for a slim chance of survival. Instead, surveillance regulators in the nation-state of America-Five’s Office of Mercy eliminate them before they can endure any more suffering.
“The Office of Mercy” presents government controllers such as the book’s protagonist, Natasha, like video game operators, manipulating the lush “Outside” from the sterile “Inside.” It seems odd, though, that a government would go through such great pains to conduct an all-consuming societal surveillance over people who serve no direct purpose to the government’s interest.
While Natasha cares for the tribespeople, she still seems to regard them as inferior at the beginning of the novel. This twisted logic allows her to do her duty, and, because she tracks them with infrared technology, they are dehumanized unconsciously in her mind. By viewing people as blobs of heat energy instead of as concrete human beings, the “Inside” effectively dehumanizes the people it is supposed to protect.
Unfortunately, the fact that Natasha complies to the Office of Mercy’s “ethical code” of systematic slaughter, euphemized in the novel as “sweeping,” challenges her likeability as a protagonist. Natasha’s ignorance makes it very difficult for the reader to like or root for her as she struggles throughout the novel. Even when she has her epiphany a hundred pages in that she was wrong to regard the tribes as an inferior species, saying, “They’re not the kind of people we thought,” it’s still hard to not feel frustrated toward Natasha’s character.
Stylistically speaking, informative details in the novel are delivered to the reader in an unintegrated list format in the first chapter, continuing a pitfall of the science fiction genre of what Bruce Sterling calls, in his science fiction workshop guide “Turkey City Lexicon,” an “info-dump.” In its exposition, “The Office of Mercy” conveys a fascinating concept but seems to focus a bit too much on feeding the reader a great deal of technical world-building information. Instead of allowing the relevant details to be revealed as the story progresses, the narrator places everything on the table in the beginning and leaves nothing shrouded in mystery for the reader to look forward to discovering.
While “The Office of Mercy” presents no new stylistic innovations in its genre as an action-packed, young adult dystopian novel, it provokes a great deal of thought about the subjectivity of our ethical codes. Like the government in “The Office of Mercy,” our society takes for granted that there can be forms of acceptable, systemized slaughter. In order to do this, the victims must be seen as inanimate objects or less intelligent beings. Perhaps if, like Natasha, we can come to the realization that all beings are far more intelligent than we thought and deserve our respect, we can break free of the shaky moral codes we have accepted and cease the premature slaughter of all creatures.
Kate Irwin covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].