84K cover(84K, by Claire North. Orbit. 2018, 452 pp., $15.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon


As anyone who’s paying attention knows, the rich often get away with murder. In Claire North’s fine new dystopian novel, 84K, they always get away with it.

Why? Privatization: The takeover of state functions by corporations including, in 84K, the takeover of the legal and prison systems in the UK. As part of the revamping of those institutions, crimes, including murder, are no longer punishable by prison, but rather fines, unless the perpetrator can’t pay. So the rich get away with anything and everything, while the poor (“patties”) are thrown into private prison hell for paltry offenses, where they’re enslaved. (Not incidentally, enslavement of prisoners — the vast majority poor — in the U.S. is very common.)

In this laissez-faire nightmare of a society, human rights are nonexistent and money determines everything, including the value of a human life. Hence the title: 84K refers to the “indemnity” paid by the murderer of one of the book’s heroic characters.

That murder spurs the book’s primary character, “the man called Theo Miller,” into action after a lifetime of going along to get along, never standing up for himself or anything or anyone else. Theo is an “auditor” who assesses the fines, the  “indemnities,” for various crimes, based on the circumstances and the victims’ socio-economic status. Once he’s assigned to the “84K” murder and begins doing a more than perfunctory job, all hell breaks loose, sending him down a convoluted, dangerous path, which eventually leads to resistance to the ghastly social structures under which he lives, or rather exists.

84K has virtues aplenty. North does a fine job of showing the disastrous, degrading effects upon the poor of a privatized government (a fascist government in which political and corporate power are merged), and also the degrading effects upon the rich, who are callous, entitled, brutal, and who treat the poor as things to be bought and sold (literally) rather than as human beings. As well, North adeptly demolishes the standard bullshit talking points used to justify economic privilege and gross inequality, and to dehumanize those at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap.

The writing in 84K is skillful, with North adeptly shifting back and forth between past and present, and doing an unusually good job of portraying the primary character’s emotional and mental states. She does the latter in part through her use of idiosyncratic typography, something of which I’m most decidedly not a fan. But, strangely enough, for the most part it works, so I found it less bothersome than other instances of gimmicky typography I’ve seen over the years.

84K does, though, have problems. Theo is the only fully formed character, with most of the secondary characters being not much more than names attached to superficial physical descriptions. As well, it’s hard to buy some of the ways in which the poor vent their frustration in 84K, such as howling like dogs en masse for hours on end. The gratuitous, pointless violence North portrays as pervasive among the poor is also a bit of a stretch. And the resistance movement she sketchily describes is depressingly pedestrian, a standard authoritarian structure with, of all things, a “queen.”

If North had done a better job describing the forms a resistance movement could take, and the practices it could employ — see Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway for examples — 84K would have been a more useful book.

Still, there’s great value in pointing to the dangers of the screw-the-poor laissez-faire path down which both the USA and UK are plunging. So . . . . .

Highly recommended.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, a Spanish-English translation, a nonfiction book, two compilations, and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover


  1. RonB says:

    Highly recommended for communists and socialists who live with the fairies. This is a poor book, written by an author who appears full of resentment and jealousy. So much truth obscured by political bent. For example those in prison cost the true taxpayer (net) far more than those fined, once again being a further burden on the state, paid for by the hard working wealthy. It is those hard working earners of wealth who are robbed by those who would naturally perish without the proceeds of immorality, although more probable that they would get off their backsides and work instead.


    • Thanks for the chuckles. “The hard working earners of wealth” is priceless. Yes, there’s no doubt about it — choosing filthy rich parents is “hard work.”


      • RonB says:

        I doubt you choose your parents, but certainly I know a lot that worked hard, including myself. I don’t know anyone with filthy rich parents but I have read about a few, the vast majority earn their lot.Another point is that I believe children are robbed by parents leaving them a lot of money. The challenges in my life that have brought so much happiness are very important. Unearned wealth cannot replace that enjoyment. My children and grandchildren will not inherit much at all, research into health issues will get 95%+


  2. justin says:

    very beautiful theme layout of this blog


    • Thanks. I can’t take much credit for it, though. It uses a standard WordPress theme and my control over the layout within that theme is quite limited.


    • RonB says:

      Big emotional hug to Justin. So many wonderful portrayals of purgatory too.


      • Thanks. I’m glad you realize that the theme is a fitting salute to the ugly times we live in and the ugly people who infest them — the racist bootlickers who wear kneepads as they kiss the butts of their corporate overlords and Glorious Leader.


      • RonB says:

        Not really. I believe we are all born as loving humans who are manipulated in childhood to become something they are not. In recent decades Marxism has rooted itself in children but no matter what it is, the first purpose of humans is to challenge indoctrination and find true self. Without that first step purpose cannot be understood.


      • Evidence to the contrary: Donald Trump. One really wonders what his dad did to him to turn him into a bullying, lying, hypocritical narcissist, parasite, and racist. And one also wonders why so many find Trump’s particular form of thuggishness attractive.


      • RonB says:

        LOL…. Powerful people have been called out in far more emotive terms than yours, but by using reason Trump is doing an incredibly good job with the USA economy and has the best relationships for many years with Russia, China, NK etc. A truly remarkable man who history will remember, unlike such as Obama. His stance on climate change fraud alone makes him a champion. His parents certainly cannot have been petty ideologists but would have encouraged thinking rather than memorising. Whilst I respect your viewpoint it is not supported by fact or reason, and we can only debate and learn by rational discourse. Unfortunately the USA has become a place of division and hatred with unsubstantiated insult the modus operandi of the elitist media and establishment, copied by the masses without thought.


      • A final word: A Trump supporter decrying incivility is like Hannibal Lecter decrying cannibalism.


      • RonB says:

        Better to debate with those of differing opinion than to bleat alongside other sheep, so thanks.
        Civility is a social concept that is impregnated, yet is a meaningless nicety.


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