Anne Charnock’s debut novel ‘A Calculated Life’ began as an independently published work that through great reviews came to the attention of Amazon’s SF imprint, 47North. After they re-published the book it was nominated for the 2013 Philip K Dick and Kitschie Awards.
Anne discussed the novel with fellow SF writer Adam Roberts at the British Science Fiction Association Meeting at the Artillery Arms, North London.
Although in person Anne Charnock appears to have little in common with Jayna, her coolly contemplative protagonist in ‘A Calculated Life’, the 28 January BSFA Meeting revealed some interesting parallels. As well as being an artist Anne has been a journalist for many years, initially for an engineering publication. Journalism, like engineering, is supremely exacting as is the job Jayna does in the novel: she reports on trends she has predicted for commercial application. Her obsession with accuracy seems to echo Anne’s professional pride in how her articles would always be exactly the right length and horror at the presence of nine typos in the entire self-published version of the novel. Like Jayna, Anne travelled to new places for research and it was the memory of street vendors instead of shops (‘Where was Debenhams?!’) in one of these countries that solved the problem of how to characterise the free-form economy of the Enclaves in ‘A Calculated Life’. Anne’s journalism has taken her via ‘New Scientist’ to ‘The Huffington Post’ and she explained how she embraces the latter because she is able to write what she likes. Jayna’s use of precision to achieve freedom follows a similar arc, albeit with somewhat higher stakes…
Adam Roberts observed a kind of conservatism in SF in which writers create extraordinary worlds and then explore them with very conventional narratives, as if readers are only willing to make a single imaginative leap. ‘A Calculated Life’, like Adam’s own ‘Jack Glass’, is not one these works and neither book is any less compelling for it. They are ambiguous though. ‘Jack Glass’ was inaccurately re-subtitled ‘The Story of a Murderer’ by its publisher, while the very phrase ‘A Calculated Life’ implies a precision undermined by the story almost at once.
Jayna, a simulant created specifically for her job, 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.
Anne explained how the book evolved from her art, which similarly explores the relationship between people and technology. Two pieces on her website stand out. One is a picture illustrating a re-written piece of text complete with crossings out that describes the difficulty of achieving the right effect; the other shows Anne smashing up a millennium-era mobile phone and then thoughtfully reassembling the components. In both works, words and technology are reused to create something new. ‘A Calculated Life’ has a similar but quite unexpected outcome and there too part of the previous form survives, thankfully.
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.
As a previously self-published author, worth is a subject Anne understands well. She advised that book giveaways are fine for promotional purposes on platforms like Kindle Select but less so as an ongoing model. She also described how her writing process has been much more organised, with judicious use of a spreadsheet that could eventually become a new form of novel. It’s possible Jayna would approve. Or perhaps not.
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