The Office of Mercy
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Natasha Wiley is a twenty-four-year-old resident of America-Five, a utopian settlement built on the values of world peace, eternal life, and the end of suffering. Since the apocalyptic Storm, America-Five citizens have been living in an underground city where hunger and money don't exist, babies are incubated in generations, everyone has a job, and all essential human needs find immediate fulfillment through advanced technological means.
Natasha herself has an important role in the Office of Mercy, a special department devoted to monitoring and "relieving" the pain of the nomadic tribespeople who continue to roam the Outside land surrounding the settlement. For someone who's always been secretly fascinated with the Outside, it's a dream job, or so Natasha once thought: When her trusted mentor Jeffrey leads a rare sweep event against the Crane tribe, Natasha is suddenly uncomfortable with the idea of killing the families she's been watching every day. As she senses cracks in the emotional Wall required of her job, she expresses her doubt to Jeffrey, who reassures her that their mission is an ethical one, that the suffering of the starving tribes outweighs any emotional desire they might have to keep them alive.
Soon after, Jeffrey selects her to join a special team charged with venturing Outside and performing a sweep on a second encroaching tribe, the Pines. She knows she's young and inexperienced, but given a chance to finally experience the world she's seen only on a video screen, Natasha pushes aside her reservations and joins the group.
Once Outside, though, Natasha realizes just how unreliable her Wall is. A dangerous encounter with the Pines people tests everything Natasha has been taught about America-Five and her purpose within it. Joining forces with a rebellious group inside the settlement, she starts to raise new questions that challenge her allegiances to her home, her work, and Jeffrey. Above all, she must confront the idea that her society's exalted ideals are upheld at a startling cost—and she must decide how far she's willing to go to make things right.
Ariel Djanikian's thrilling debut is by turns dramatic and thoughtful. Set in a richly articulated world with striking parallels to our own, The Office of Mercy is a harrowing tale of a future vision gone awry.
Ariel Djanikian graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004 and holds an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with her husband and daughter. The Office of Mercy is her first novel. Visit arieldjanikian.com.
Q. The Office of Mercy takes place in a future world set underground. What inspired you to write this story?
From the start, I knew I wanted to write about a group of people in pursuit of eternal life. Our drive to control the natural world and perfect human health might one day come to fruition, and I've always been desperate to know what that might look like. Many lives are healthier and longer now than they once were, so why couldn't we eventually eradicate disease, suffering, and unemployment—and maybe even loneliness and a sense of purposelessness too? Of course, major changes like the one I imagined usually come with major causalities. And the society I wrote about succeeds in its utopian project only by abandoning the natural world and going underground—by caring for only a few.
Often books set in the future are grappling with a set of problems that are looming in our society now, and I hope that's true for this novel. The struggle of how to balance a zealous devotion to technological, cultural, and scientific advancement with the necessity of sharing resources among billions of people is probably one of the great moral quandaries of our time. The powerful thing about a novel is that you can take a question like What should we do about the suffering of other people? and answer it with an extreme. For me, this is where Natasha, Jeffrey, and the Office of Mercy came in, and the idea took off from there.
Q. As the book's heroine and ethical compass, Natasha begins to have serious doubts about America-Five and her role in this society. We later come to understand that she is in some ways destined to question it, yet there are others who do too. How does Natasha's situation set her apart from, say, Raj?
Natasha and Raj come to share the same belief: that the moral imperative of ending suffering does not justify murder. But yes, they come to this realization via different paths. Empathy plays a huge part in this book. And a capacity to empathetically connect with people outside the settlement is what allows Natasha to transcend her society's policies. Her own history makes this leap more possible, but she's also a curious and thoughtful person. Her natural inclination is to imagine deeply about other people.
Raj is a little different. He's more concerned with the basic notion of life and the horror of ending, by deliberate means, this mysterious and magnificent force. The technology has progressed, but it has yet to explain human consciousness: how crude molecules can assemble in such a way to become self-aware. The scientific polish and smugness of America-Five doesn't fool him at all.
Q. World building is a critical component in writing sci-fi and dystopian fiction. What was your process for creating the setting and history of America-Five?
First there has to be that moment when you see it. For me, this happened in 2008, during a time when I was living in Wisconsin. We were snowed in and I was looking out at the blizzard (one of the many we had that winter), when I had a vision of the Dome and the underground levels, set against a sun-drenched forest. The rest of the landscape and settlement came into being as the story demanded. For instance, there needed to be a lab to grow the replacement organs, a farm for food, a nursery for the new generation. The history of America-Five I sketched out very early on into writing the book. The details did change as the novel took form. But that can be fun too—getting all the pieces to fit together. Kind of like creating a puzzle and solving it at the same time.
Q. In many dystopian books the natural landscape as we know it is destroyed, so it's interesting that in this novel there's a wild and thriving forest outside of the high-tech environs of America-Five. Can you talk about the interplay of these two parallel spaces?
Absolutely. As I said, this is the key image that drew me into the world: the glimmering Dome peeking out from a lush, dense forest. For most of the novel, a strict divide persists between the two spaces—and that's exactly how the citizens want it. Their goal is to be self-contained and self-sufficient. Nature is barbaric; it demands the mortality of the individual. The citizens want no part in the chaos and unpredictability of an environment that eludes their control. They have basically turned their backs on the universe—and on God and on history too, for that matter. When the separation between the inside and outside begins to break down, death can creep into the citizens' home.
Q. How did you choose the central values (World Peace, Eternal Life, and All Suffering Ended) for America-Five? What in your view makes them problematic?
I couldn't think of three bigger, better goals for a society to shoot for. In one sense, to realize them would be to realize a true paradise. The catch, of course, is that general values like these can be easily turned on their heads. The citizens of America-Five have achieved world peace by creating the Storm, they possess eternal life in part because other people have no life, and they have ended suffering by annihilating—not suffering itself—but the people who suffer. I liked this inherent duplicity. The values sound good at first, but clearly, it's the how that matters.
Q. The society you describe is strict in many ways but surprisingly lenient in others—Raj and his group seem to be able to meet and talk fairly freely, and people meet for illicit couplings without punishment. How did you decide which behaviors would be allowed or tolerated?
The leaders of this society, the Alphas, have trained their citizens to believe that they are all living in a near-to-best possible world. In many ways, the Alphas see history as having ended with them—a fact that pleases them immensely. Their inability to anticipate any serious disruption to the social fabric is what makes them so lenient when it comes to free speech and small indiscretions in civic life. It was clear to me, though, that they would not tolerate threats of violence, which is where the story eventually leads.
Q. With all of the technology at their disposal, the citizens of America-Five are still human and subject to emotional whims and disturbing dreams. How would you envision this society dealing with these problems in the future?
I'm not sure that they would drastically change their policies. This society believes itself to be humanistic and enlightened. They have too much pride to stoop to extreme measures of punishment or brainwashing. Dreams and whims are a terrifying and inevitable part of the mind, and I don't think that any technological enhancement can free us from them. Having said that, I'd bet the citizens would consider redesigning the shared-memory capabilities of their entertainment space, the Pretends.
Q. This book could be shelved as sci-fi, urban fantasy, or dystopian. How would you characterize it? Did you have a strong sense of genre when you began writing, and how, if at all, did that change as the drafts progressed?
I knew I wanted the big, blank canvas that a book set in the future provides. Once I got going, though, the finer points of genre classifications did not really factor into my process. More important were the many authors whose books make up a web of stories and traditions that I wanted this novel to fit within : George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Margaret Atwood, Orson Scott Card, Philip K. Dick, Octavia Butler, and Kazuo Ishiguro, to name just a few. As for the first part of the question, I think any of those categories could apply.
Q. One of the most compelling aspects of this book is the way you play with the reader's expectations as we see the narrative through Natasha's eyes. How did your own sympathies evolve over the course of writing the book?
The book stays close to Natasha's experience, so for the most part I was trying to stay faithful to her perspective and allow my sensibilities to follow hers. That was dynamic work on its own, given that she's someone who changes her mind when presented with convincing evidence ; and that she's willing to enter the fray and make tough decisions, rather than watch from the sidelines. More broadly, though, my sympathies needed to shift around a great deal in order to create groups of people in conflict with one another. I hope that's one of the novel's draws : how questions like What can we do to stop the suffering of other people? can be answered differently, and convincingly, by individuals each claiming the moral high ground.
Q. What can readers expect from you in the future?
I'm working on a prequel to The Office of Mercy, the story of the Alphas who created the Storm. Ever since I started writing about this world, I've been imagining what led them to do something so severe and so final.
- What are the values underlying America-Five's policies? What is Natasha taught from an early age about her society?
- What are the advantages to life in America-Five? What are the drawbacks?
- Natasha has always wanted to work in the Office of Mercy. What are her motivations for doing so?
- Natasha and Jeffrey share a special kinship. What is it that draws them to one another and how does this change over the course of the book?
- What is the Wall? What function does it serve for Natasha, Jeffrey, and others working in the Office of Mercy?
- Natasha is disturbed when she realizes the Pines speak English. Why does this revelation change her attitude toward the tribes and the sweeps?
- Over time, the very concept of "mercy" comes into question for Natasha and some of the others in the settlement. What is their dilemma, and how does it contradict what they have been taught?
- When Natasha meets with the Pines and finds out more about her own past she agrees to help them. What does she do and what is the outcome of this action?
- Based on our current conditions, how might you envision a future world? In what ways would it look like America-Five?
- In the end, Natasha must make the decision whether to stay in America-Five or whether to follow Jeffrey Outside. What does she decide and why? Did this decision surprise you?