This isn’t strictly a book review but I feel compelled to about this book, SmartYellow by J. A. Christy. [contains mild spoilers]
This book has been haunting me since I finished reading it over a month ago. Book hangovers aren’t uncommon but the extent to which this has got in to my brain is something different and I feel compelled to explore this further. As much as this explores the book this post is a commentary on the current welfare state in the UK.
I’m not unaccustomed to enjoying books that can best be described as “a bit grim”: dystopian AUs and contemporary noir are my jam. SmartYellow definitely fits in to that category.
A brief synopsis: SmartYellow is set in a recognisable Britain, the part of Britain that never really makes it in to books or on TV. SmartYellow is primarily set in a council estate. It follows the life and struggles of a single mother who find herself far out of her middle class comfort zone and struggling to survive on a notorious estate. When an Olive branch is offered to her she takes it and does her best to make the best out of what is increasingly clear to be and terrible situation. Getting to grips with government surveillance and finding out that her tasks are part of something far deeper and more sinister than she first thought.
The science of SmartYellow is subtle and not described in great detail only alluded to in layman’s terms. The source and real power of the technology isn’t explored in depth rather focussing on the impact of how it is used in the real world. It isn’t a lot but it is just enough to push SmartYellow in to the realms of sci-fi and an uncanny valley alternative universe where control of “undesirables” is far more insidious than we would like to believe.
This is a book about choices. It is about hard decisions and what you do when you are caught between a rock and hard place. It’s about Us and Them, our prejudices, our boundaries and how far we will go to save ourselves. And it is brutal.
Perhaps you are starting to get an inkling of why this book affected me so deeply. To start with the setting is meticulously describes and painfully familiar to many of us. An ordinary unassuming town it has its posh bits, its comfortable middle class suburbs, a bustling centre, some working class streets and then, pushed to one side, the council estates. Run down clusters of maisonettes and blocks of flats segregated from the rest of the city. The people who live there are marked as different. They are outcasts from the town. They are considered by everybody off the estates to have failed in some way, to be lesser, to be beyond help and in some cases deserving of all that they have to suffer.
J. A. Christy’s descriptions are raw, clear and without shame. You feel every ounce of the grey and pastel prison that surrounds you. You feel the fear and desperation. What Christy has done is make us face head on and eye to eye the reality of these estates and how some people are cut off from society. It’s a difficult lesson if you’ve never been forced to think about it and for those who have had to think about it, have experienced it or come close its painful reminder.
Outside of the book this country has a problem with poverty and with the working poor. Though we have a benefit system it is clear to almost everybody that it is brutally unfair and often sets people up to fail. You have to be able to apply in the first place, you have to be able to jump through hoops of bureaucracy to even be accepted and in many cases you then have to continue with these circus trips to attend meeting, fill our form after form and behave in a way which is defined by an anonymous body. This would be difficult for people even in ideal circumstances, but in reality most of the people who have to apply are far from in ideal circumstances. They are already poor, already struggling. They often have substance abuse to deal with. Many come from abusive and broken homes and do not have a support network around them. Some of us are ill and disabled. Others have young children or family members who need care. Often there is a lack of education or literacy that holds people back. But there is no support. All are expected to jump through the hoops and perform the arcane rights necessary to get enough money that they can eat but that keeps them firmly under the poverty line.
Some of us are lucky, we find ourselves in these situations after we have had a chance to thrive. I cannot work and apply for PIP but I am “lucky” in that I have a support network of good people around me who can and will help. I am “lucky” in that I have a middleclass-ish background and have that to draw from. I am “lucky” in that I had the time and means to go to school, do my A-levels and go to university. It makes it easier. Not so easy that I don’t end up in tears and have panic attacks having to deal with the DWP. Not so easy that I can live comfortably and don’t have to worry about money. Not so easy that there haven’t been periods where I would eat less and less so my money would stretch further, that I would lower the thermostat to 14.5 degrees in the winter and just pile on sweaters and scarves to keep warm to save precious energy. But I am still, relatively speaking lucky.
One such element of my “luck” is that I have never had to apply for social housing. Because with that instantly comes stigma. It shouldn’t do. So many people find themselves in a situation where finding a house to rent with their budget is impossible as private landlords buy up home after home and inflate prices. As old buildings are refurbished into “luxury apartments” that house only a few but charge more than many can afford. As inflation and house prices push more and more people into previously undesirable neighbourhoods and who can afford to rent and buy when the people who already live there can’t and have to move out. Social housing is important. It helps people: people who are working full time on minimum wage; families with dependants who struggle to make ends meet; single parent families; disabled adults. They all need somewhere they can call home and they can live safely without fear of becoming homeless or anything else bad happening to them.
However, instead of seeing council housing and council estates as good places for people who need them, in our society council estates and other social housing is maligned. They are treated as the place where the lesser dregs of society are swept off to fester. The stigma is such that even ex-council estates, those which have been bought up in the right-to-buy rush of the 80s and early 90s and are now largely privately owned or privately rented, are scorned, have less market value, are avoided, treated as trouble spots, and bad areas. Sometimes of course they are. I can’t deny that places like The Noctorum estate on the Wirral were violent and rife with crime. When I said I was moving to the satellite town I now live in people sucked in their breath and warned me away from an estate that had a history of crime ranging from gang fights to burglary. There is often the question though of do these places have these problems because the residents are in need of social housing, or do these things happen because of how broader society treats the people who live there.
Perhaps it’s a bit of both. The language used is telling and difficult. Them versus us. Them and not me. They are other. These are the struggles and difficulties that Christy picks up on wonderfully in SmartYellow and she uses the language of They and Us to great effect putting up barriers both metaphorical and more sinister between the in group, the safe space of The Town, and the out group, the squalor and fear of the estate. This is the first way that this book grips you and gets under your skin: the uncomfortable notion that quite probably you can’t help yourself from thinking in terms of us and them; that try as you might you have placed yourself in “us” and talked about “them”. Even if your words have been compassionate there is always the barrier. The realisation or recognition that we are a part of this horrible dystopia that we are reading about is sickening but difficult to pull away from, because now you aren’t reading a story, you are reading something that is achingly familiar and a part of your own world.
This dichotomy between “us” and “them” is a repeated motif throughout the book and something you can’t escape from. It forces you to examine your own prejudice and your own feelings on the subject again and again from every perspective asking yourself “who am I?” and “where do I draw my line?”. It is a brutal test of your own ethics and morality.
I had a further struggle reading this, a struggle that is far more personal and that not every reader may come up against. I am on benefits. I am on (well sort of I’m in the middle of the appeals process) PIP. Previously I was on DSL and ESA[i] and in receipt of housing benefit. I was with a private landlord but my housing was supported by local government. I was one of them. I am one of them. As I described above, I have felt many of the associated struggled. Furthermore I can’t work due to disability. At least not any sort of regular work that is valued and recognised as employment by our government or vast swathes of our country. I am not seen to contribute value. I am not productive. I am a dead weight who does not contribute. I am a burden on society. This is a rhetoric I can barely escape as it appears in new stories, parliamentary debates, TV chat shows and overheard snippets of general conversation on a nearly daily basis. The paperwork I endure to be allowed a meagre sum that amounts to £3.03 a day is full of questions and statements meant to remind me and test that I really deserve. I have literally been judged, and judged negatively I may add, for being “well presented”. I must perform a pantomime that shows that I am in desperate need but also that I am grateful and trying hard enough. I must be perky happy and wanting, but also in difficulties to the point of no basic hygiene. I am supposed to stay within an ill-fitting cage that I may be rewarded with my £3 a day. Do too well and your money is stopped. Save up a little, just enough to feel safe, and your money is stopped. Manage to find a few hours irregular work, far from a manner able to support yourself and your money is stopped. Fail to attend a meeting because you are sick, starving or, god-forbid have a job interview and your support is taken away.
My situation may be more comfortable than the life of the central characters of SmartYellow but I am far, far too conscious of the constant scrutiny from those who have control. So a world that is crafted to have even more control, more surveillance, to subtly infiltrate your lives and not only make sure you are playing by the rules that allow you to eat but also making sure you never stray from your allotted place is all to easy to believe.
The advanced technology of SmartYellow may not exist (probably) but that does not mean we can’t imagine more mundane methods for creating Zones and ensuring that people stay in their place. We already know that it is more difficult for people with a social housing address to get a job, for those who are out of work for long periods to find employment. We know that people with prison records, no credit and disrupted housing continue to struggle for employment, housing and even healthcare as people judge and weigh the elements of a person’s past. It’s not so hard to imagine that there may be a list of blacklisted addresses and postcodes hanging in an HR office or letting agency. It’s not hard to imagine that police respond differently to calls made in certain areas. It’s not out of the realms of possibly that on some desk in some forgotten about council office there are a series of maps with lurid yellow lines traced around the boundaries of the areas where They live. We can’t pretend, also that eugenics has never been discussed and researched[ii][iii], even carried out in places as a method of population control for those deemed undesirable[iv].
I finished reading the book with a sense of acute paranoia. I knew intellectually that the scenario created by Christy was, though based in reality, fiction. I knew it was speculation and not fact. And yet, the very real sense of always being judged by some governing body or other was inflamed and made a magnitude worse. If they are treating us like this now, think what else they can do if the technology and opportunity ever arises? What of failed experiments and pilot schemes? Would we ever actually be told about them? What if the eugenicists never went away? What if things really are getting worse. Will I be able to satisfy the criteria that keep me from being labelled an “undesirable”? Really do I want to be on that side of the divide? How do I see myself, who am I and how do they see me?
So many questions and so few answers, at last none that I was satisfied with.
The real thing that left me shaken and melancholy from reading SmartYellow was a real, deep and darkly certain feeling not that this could happen, but that it already is happening.
Christy created world where choice is everything, where lack of choice and desperation is what sets us apart. A world where we can shut up and accept the status quo, fight for the scraps we have and be satisfied or push against them and risk losing it all. Is that not the world we live in?
I desperately want to recommend this book to people but it comes with a warning: it might leave you feeling like shit.
[i] PIP (Personal Independence Payment), DSA (Disability Support Allowance) and ESA (Employment Support Allowance) are all UK benefits/social security. PIP is being introduced to replace DSA. It is administered by the DWP – The Department of Work and Pensions, which is a department of the UK Government.
[ii] For example Lee Kwan Yeu in the 1960s http://www.blynkt.com/issue-1/eugenics-in-postcolonial-singapore,
[iii] Exceprt from Richard Dawkins http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12760676.From_the_Afterword/
[iv] Short article detailing some of the forced sterilisation and euthanasia of “undesirables” in the USAnhttp://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/Eugenics-and-the-Nazis-the-California-2549771.php