One
By Eve Smith
Orenda Books
ISBN: 9781914585746
300pp.

“Imagine a boot stamping a human face… for ever.” — George Orwell in 1984. A far cry from the decidedly military connotation of Orwell’s prophetic pronouncement of the last century, Eve Smith’s speculative thriller One, which has the quote placed inside its cover, translates to a more heinous, a more squalid and viler human predisposition to control the weak than simple military hegemony.

While the military controls men and matters through a rigorous schedule intended for the battleground, One, the political party of Eve Smith’s creative imagination, is the protagonist enacting a spine-chilling tale of conjectural fascism, let loose under the guise of political progress, resource parity and preservation of the human race.

At the other end, is a beleaguered populace living in terror even as, unbeknown to it, a radical freedom movement is being surreptitiously conducted by another socio-political faction.

As always in such cases, what is being play-acted is the 2,000-year-old classic Melian Dialogue, held between the soldiers of Athens and the people of Melos, with the Athenians arguing that the supremacy of their own empire is for the preservation of the people of Melos. It implies that, in statecraft, there is no such thing as justice, that it is power and the wielders of power who know best. Period.

A page-turner of a dystopian novel about a future one-party United Kingdom that harshly enforces a one-child policy is as much about what it means to be human

In much the same vein, Smith’s book, One, becomes a game of fascist power in a futuristic landscape, inhabited by self-important political leaders who sport a fanatic ideology asserting that it is only their political ideology that can preserve the human race, however bizarre their policies.

This is in a futuristic United Kingdom, which stands at the edge of a precipice overlooking the extinction of the human race, because natural resources have been drained by climate change which, in turn, has been caused by global plunder by the humans themselves. Natural resources across the globe have been exploited to the extent that, from food to fuel to entertainment to movement, everything has to be under stringent state rationing. It is humans who have to be controlled, in whatever manner.

In Eve Smith’s dark, dystopian fiction, the UK has been taken over by the political party ‘One’, whose leaders believe that their policy of allowing just one child per family is the panacea to all evil and essential for the survival of the human race. Insulated by the confidence of its own indispensability, the party administers its dictates through a network of policing ‘Bots’, policy executors who are more loyal than the king, and younger underlings brainwashed to robotic status.

At the receiving end is a terrified populace of wailing women and errant fathers unable to raise a voice. There is no stopping the excesses against human dignity, freedom of thought and action, or the right to make personal decisions. Neither is there space in the One party’s ethics for the excess birth of children. They simply cease to exist.

Citizens from across the world’s starving, tortured lands clamour to enter a UK deceptively being acclaimed as a safe haven; the refugee influx makes the ruling One party redesign a stricter code of life. Whereas initially, every second child born to a couple would be, perforce, reallocated, now every second pregnancy is to be terminated. Those who fail to conform to state dictate are in for a horrendous life, incarceration and agonised existence.

No wonder, then, that 20-something Kay’s chance discovery of the DNA of an unregistered birth matching her own sends her into panic mode. Kay is a ‘baby-reaper’ at the Ministry of Population Planning, deputed to ‘reap’ all excess pregnancies wherever and whenever and however. She loves her job, because she believes in her work, but that discovery on her computer changes her forever.

Thence begins a high drama of mystery, detective work and personal evaluation, in which each step forward is literally two steps backwards; until Kay realises the pawn she herself had become in this game, of which she has been a devout processor for years.

Smith’s book is certainly a continuation of the aura of her two earlier novels — The Waiting Room, set in the aftermath of an antibiotic resistance crisis, and Off Target, about a world where genetic engineering of children is routine. Yet, to the discerning reader, it is also a very sensitively handled piece of creative writing, where human baseness vies with inherent human sensitivity and sensibility. The inhuman ethos of absolute power overrides the senses and does at times bring on a high, but then so does the inherent virtuousness of human emotions.

Smith creates an almost beautiful collage of Kay’s emotional state, where ideological belief, duty, familial love and a search for self-identity are pitted against one another. She is spurred into investigative action, mainly to save her parents, because she is horrified by the consequences they would face if the discovery were to turn out to be correct and were to become public… which it was sure to be, since computer data is always right…

Her surreptitious investigation in search of her unregistered sibling unravels truths that change her entire perspective, from the public to the private: the public as in the right of governing powers to decide what is right and beneficial for the ruled, and the private as in questioning the tough reality of her own existence.

Kay, the diehard, duty-bound state employee, conditioned to think and act robotically, also has a humane side. This becomes a source of courage, not only in her search for truth but also in a painful process of self-evaluation, as she realises how she herself has been a pawn in inflicting unimaginable pain on her undeclared sister.

Eve Smith’s thriller can thus be read at two levels. On the one, it is the page-turner that has the reader on edge, biting nails, moving in tandem with the flow of the narrative as it proceeds to write a spreadsheet detailing the immense possibilities of the human propensity to evil. But, in the final analysis, it is at the second level that the book becomes an art piece. Amidst the turmoil of a world gone crazy, Kay’s search for truth becomes a quest to reinstate herself as a human being.

Speculative thrillers are a popular breed of creative writing but Eve Smith’s One takes the genre to a new level. Read on, but with an eye at the second level of the book’s ethos.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and creative content/report writer who has taught in the Lums Lifetime programme. X: @daudnyla

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 1st, 2023

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