Meritropolis by Joel Ohman

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April 8, 2015 by McDowski

“He couldn’t change the past, and he couldn’t control the future. But he would beat the present into submission.”

MeritropolisIn a dystopian world, thousands live inside a walled-off community that runs on “the System,” where every individual, young or old, is assigned a score judging their worth to society. The lucky handful of High Scores enjoy a safe, privileged, and learned life, while Low Scores are shunned, struggling to eke out a living in the slums. But even they are luckier than the unfortunate few who are judged to have such low merit that they are exiled from the city, thrown outside the doors to the inhospitable wilderness. A wilderness full of dangerous hybrid creatures, creatures for whom humans are little more than prey. But Charley doesn’t think it’s right to place a number on the value of human life, and as he’s finally coming of age, it’s time someone did something about the powers-that-be.

I actually didn’t realise when I bought Meritropolis that it was the first in a (planned) series; I was under the impression it was a standalone. But the ending makes it clear there will be future entries to the story.

While nothing to write home about, Meritropolis makes for a simple, quick and adequate read. The writing is pretty simplistic; not that the author is a ‘bad’ writer, per se, but he’s no Patrick Rothfuss, whose prose seems to seamlessly meld from word to word.

The premise is of a walled-off town, some time in the future in the year 12 A.E., or After the Event. The city ranks its citizens on their ‘merits,’ hence the name. While we are never explicitly told the factors that affect the scores, we can surmise that intelligence, strength, quickness, good looks, etc. will all allow one to have a higher score, and the scores are regularly updated (weekly, it seems). High Scores – those with a merit score of above 100 – generally have a more privileged life, better food and housing, access to education and such, while Low Scores live in the town’s equivalent of slums. Anyone with a score lower than 50 is “zeroed,” which means they are cast outside the gates, where they will certainly die on their own.

Predictably, our protagonist, Charley,  is a bit of a prodigy with a very high score for a teenager, but hates the System because his Down’s afflicted brother was zeroed when they were kids. Now he spends his days dreaming of coming up with a way to take the System down.

I felt the author missed some opportunities which would have made the novel more interesting. For example, it is never clarified how, exactly, the scores are derived. How do they go about measuring individuals? What is the basis for the scores? Is intelligence more or less valuable than strength? Not only would this have been informative, and helped flesh out the world that these characters live in, it would also open the door to interesting subplots. We could, for instance, have a subplot involving citizens competing and scheming against each other to increase their scores.

There was also very little in the way of characterization. Sure, we know Charley is angry because of his brother, but that is really all we know about him. Other than the fact that he is way too god at everything he does. During the course of the novel, he quickly climbs up the High Score list and by the end has the highest score in the city. Too bad it happens right when everything is falling apart and the city is already on the verge of destruction.

I also didn’t think enough thought was put behind the name of the city. Meritropolis sounds perfectly logical at first, but not so much when you realise that there are other, similar cities around which work on the same System. (Don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler. It’s pretty obvious from page 1 that Meritropolis is not alone.) What are they called then? Do they have innocuous names like Sacramento? Do they have variations of this name, like Meritville, Meritburg, Meritstan? Or are they just sequentially numbered like Meritropolis 1, Meritropolis 2, and so on? This seems like a petty complaint, I know, but these kind of oversights are, I feel, a hallmark of YA fiction. That’s one reason why I might find the occasional YA novel entertaining, but never quite as immersive as an adult fantasy novel.

Ultimately, this book is just adequate. You probably won’t remember the book a few weeks after you read it, and you certainly won’t remember the characters. In fact, I actually had to look up the protagonists name as I was writing this. It seems in the month or so since I read the novel, it had slipped my mind.

I’m in a good mood, so I’ll give the book a 3 / 5.

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