Occupied by Joss Sheldon is a lengthy examination of a stratified society in which levels cooperate when it is in the perceived interests of rulers and where levels brutalize and destroy each other when it is in the interests of those same rulers. Since the common denominator is “rulers” the novel examines who they are, how they got there, and what the effect is on everyone and everything subject to their control. The writing is done with cynicism, sarcasm, and clever wordplay where institutions and countries familiar to us in today’s world are renamed but still recognizable. (I watched the conflict between Pizza Home and Pizza House play out in Cambodia several years ago). There are puns. There are connecting devices that appear in rhythmic regularity. (Watch out for the madwoman, she is everywhere, giving advice on everything). There is also am an omnipresent ladybug.
The novel has three sections: Childhood, Adolescence, and Adulthood. Each one has its own theme expressed through the point of view of characters. Each section has areas of humor and horror.
Overall, Childhood is a “familiar” read. Countries are not named, but we know what they are. Situations are historically familiar. Tamsin is a young girl living in a village where everything was done according to tradition. They lived in a country that had a 5% population of “Holies”, missionaries, but they had guns. Tamsin has to run from her open countryside home to a neighboring town, Natale, for protection where she will live in refugee camps supported by the UNHCR (a real agency name). There she and her family will also come into conflict with the original residents of Natale. Refugee labor begins to replace indigenous labor; resentments develop. Help comes as the same group who forced Tamsin to flee would attack Natale. Population homogenization through force and strict controls would calm resentments. The conflict was “The Seven Days War.” Protokia won and created a new state. Settlers returned from distant places to help build a new state. The returned settlers were “Holies” and were not to mix with the local “Godlies.” They had different beliefs and languages. Once these schisms and their followers have been identified, section Childhood is finished.
Adolescence describes societal ills. There is the growing influence of advertising. The main purpose is to encourage consumerism whether the consumer can afford it or not. Another purpose is to encourage the purchase of whatever is produced. If it is not needed, the necessity of having it must be produced. Another issue is the displacement of small businesses by large corporations and multinationals. Burger Prince and Burger Queen replace street eating stalls, Window Mart replaces neighborhood home managed convenience marts. People have Samesong and Fokia mobile phones. Not only traditional businesses are displaced, but by extension, traditional products are dismissed. Older neighborhoods are bulldozed to make way for modern roads. They are not needed, yet. Then the need for cars will be promoted. Characters discuss genetically modified foods. As colonized people (from Childhood) and the settler population, the returned people, begin to express discontent, governmental controls are introduced. Settlers are worried that external Godly countries might want to invade, put settlers in striped uniforms, and send them to gas ovens. Governmental and military control of the population is needed and is the theme of Adolescence. This is the section where a lot of violence is very graphically described.
Part three, Adulthood, extends control to the highest levels of absurdity possible; a level that results in death. Part three is the most disturbing, the most creative, and the most horrible part of the novel. It focuses on technology gone wild. The human factor is taken out of decision making; computers decide. Glitches and inconsistencies become normal as technological systems don’t mesh. Control of society is not controlled by the military or the government. Both have been bought and co-opted by The Bank. The supreme being was the banker Morgan Rockchild. Production was not important, consumption was. Society had robots for production, but only humans could consume. Arun had ended up at the Department of Bullshit Jobs but was found deficient. He was finally sent to the Department of Life, which had many sub-camps. That area had a sign above its entry “Work will set you free.” Profit criminals, those who had failed to generate profit for The Bank, were sent to this department. They wore uniforms and entered chambers to be sprayed with Zyklon B, a poison. Arun was made “Head of Withdrawals.” He was to identify retirees, non-profit makers, thus profit criminals and get rid of them.
So where is hope? There has to be hope in any novel so dark. The hope is something called the portal. People at all levels disaffected with their place in society have heard about a mysterious portal. If they pass through it, they will arrive at an alternative society that follows traditional values of the past. Many people, the characters we have followed throughout this novel, begin to disappear from Protokia; it is assumed they have gone to seek the Portal.
They did. They found it. And with it, we have the surprise ending.