Bitesize Books: Sweet Harmony

Full of enthusiasm and conveniently between books, I dived into the pile of novellas I had stacked up for All Systems Read a day early. I kicked off my weekend of SFnal novellas with Sweet Harmony by Claire North, shortlisted for this year’s Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards.

Book cover: Sweet Harmony - Claire NorthOne day soon, healthcare will be revolutionised by nanos – programmable machines inserted in our bodies that can help us manage diseases and avoid strokes or heart attacks. But the nanos can do so much more. Your body can be programmed to be fitter, stronger, prettier, happier, sexier, better in any way you can imagine – for a reasonable monthly fee (always read the small print). Harmony Meads can’t afford the uncounted apps she’s installed to upgrade herself. But it’s worth it: every step towards perfection assures her happiness and success. Until the day she can’t make a payment, and the app provider starts switching things off to encourage her to settle her debts…

This is one of those awkward reads that I admired but didn’t enjoy at all. Claire North writes great prose, peopled with believable characters who I found very easy to despise – in this case (as with 84K) in a near-future setting that cuts awfully close to the bone. Sweet Harmony is a tale of making peace with who you are and making it work for you, but don’t be misled into thinking it’s in any way feel-good or wholesome. In some ways (no: in a quite specific way) it reminds me of Swimming with Sharks:

“This is not one of those stories.”

Swimming with Sharks / The Buddy Factor

The difference is that Swimming with Sharks is centred on a young man who is almost puppy-ish in his well-meaning naïveté, fresh blood for the Hollywood sharks. The film is a blackly comic tragedy that takes us on a journey to the defining moment that forces him to examine what he really wants and what he’s prepared to sacrifice to achieve it. You’re with Guy until the very end. Harmony Meads has none of Guy’s sweetness or innocence, and her journey – whilst still tragic – is more like a car crash from opening meltdown to final, character-defining choice.

If I’m kind, Harmony is an insecure girl driven to ill-advised decisions by her fear of rejection, desperate to escape the limited horizons of her small-town rut. If I’m judgemental, she’s a selfish girl who makes stupid decisions driven by her commitment to a shallow culture of unrealistic beauty standards and rapid gratification. She wants the good job, the stylish flat, the perfect boyfriend. The upgrades are shortcuts pushed by media and manufacturers: the only sensible choice for the modern professional. Harmony is happy because she is ticking boxes that she knows should make her happy; she doesn’t have the time – or honesty – to question whether she is happy any more than she has the money to do more than pay the minimum on her credit cards each month.

We meet her as debt tears down her house of cards and deposits her at rock bottom; but I found it hard to find a great deal of empathy for her (at least until we meet her controlling, abusive ex-boyfriend). The novella is largely told through flashbacks, revealing how Harmony got herself into this position, giving context to her choices. It’s a hell of a character study if you have the stomach to spend the time with a character who is easier to pity than to like; and who (oh, the irony) celebrates her freedom to make choices by consistently choosing to conform.

Sweet Harmony is really well-executed across the board. It has the sort of world-building I long to call satirical but which looks entirely too likely; and is relentless in plumbing its own depths. The supporting cast are well-drawn and provide perspectives Harmony just can’t grasp from her pit of self-hatred and despair.

If you’re looking for dark, cynical tales of tomorrow, this could be one for you. If you’re looking for a ray of hope to keep your flickering faith in humanity alive, best steer clear.