This week, the subject of my review is Claire North’s dystopian novella Sweet Harmony, set in a near-future world where humanity has lovingly embraced nano-technology. But is the beauty it engineers only skin-deep?
Harmony Meads has a pimple. Not the end of the world, you might think, but then you don’t have nanomachines teeming through your body that are supposed to keep this kind of thing from happening. Harmony has an upgrade for everything – her smile, the whiteness of her teeth, her birth control – you name it, she’s tweaked it. But running too many at once could spell disaster for her in more ways than one.
If you’re after an escapist read to help you temporarily forget about some of life’s pressures, Sweet Harmony might make for (intentionally) uncomfortable reading. Harmony’s upgrades don’t come cheap, and the conversations she has with the debt managers of the company administering them are believably desperate. Calculating the length of time it will take her to pay off her debts, diving into overdrafts and pushing financial worries to the back of her mind in the hope that they won’t catch up to her will be horribly familiar to many, and only add to the feeling of mounting pressure that builds throughout this novella.
Those financial concerns spring from societal expectations, with Harmony subject to all the normal, horrible ideas society has about beauty, as well as it being taken as read that she look a certain way in order to better pass herself off as a high flying go-getter for her work. She finds herself trapped in her terrible, doomed spiral of debt, spending money on her upgrades in the hope that they’ll lead her into more exclusive circles; it’s impossible not to empathise with many of her decisions, programmed as she – and we – are into consumerism and materialism.
This is bitingly sharp and incisive satire from North, which also looks ahead to explore the ways society and people might develop were this technology to become a reality. At times, scenes of bacchanalian depravity recall the likes of D.B.C. Pierre’s Lights Out in Wonderland or Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, the beautiful people Harmony is surrounded by almost vampiric or demonic in their exploration of sensory gluttony. Elsewhere, the elderly are kept alive long past the time when fate might have decreed their number was up, which provides plenty of food for thought.
For a story that only takes a couple of hours to read, Sweet Harmony has plenty to chew on. Claire North once again displays her ability to take a single, enticing concept and explore it in ways you never would have thought of yourself. Ideal for fans of Black Mirror, or Cory Doctorow’s Radicalized (which you can read my review of here).