The Offset by Calder Szewczak: Review

The Offset is a new book that will really make you think about the world and then brings you back to reality with a unhealthy dose of realism that is as equally fun as it is a revelation.

Some information about this book:

  • Release date: September 14th 2021
  • Published by: Angry Robot
  • Pages: 280
  • Genre: Scifi/Dystopian
  • Series: Standalone

Blurb:

It is your eighteenth birthday and one of your parents must die. You are the one who decides. Whom do you pick?

In a dying world, the Offset ceremony has been introduced to counteract and discourage procreation. It is a rule that is simultaneously accepted, celebrated and abhorred. But in this world, survival demands sacrifice so for every birth, there must be a death.

Professor Jac Boltanski is leading Project Salix, a ground-breaking new mission to save the world by replanting radioactive Greenland with genetically-modified willow trees. But things aren’t working out and there are discrepancies in the data. Has someone intervened to sabotage her life’s work?

In the meantime, her daughter Miri, an anti-natalist, has run away from home. Days before their Offset ceremony where one of her mothers must be sentenced to death, she is brought back against her will following a run-in with the law. Which parent will Miri pick to die: the one she loves, or the one she hates who is working to save the world?

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The Offset is written by Calder Szewczak who is actually two separate people – Natasha C. Calder and Emma Szewczak, who met while studying at Cambridge University.

The Offset is actually the name of a forced ceremony if you like, a choice you have to make on your 18th birthday. Which parent do you want to die? It’s become normal for children in Calder Szewczak’s story to go through this when they reach adulthood as there are, simply put, too many humans on Earth now and sacrifice of one means survival for all.

Breed fewer. Breed better.

I was really excited when Angry Robot gave me this book because one thing I love is dystopian stories. They really get your head thinking in ways that other books in the SFF genre don’t. This particular story follows 17 year old Miri who is days away from her own 18th birthday and her Offset. She has not been in contact with her parents, Jac Boltanski and Alix Ford, both female, for a couple of years and knows that she is going to have to head back home and make a decision.

You see there is a whole dynamic around the Offset. If one parent dies before the Offset, then the survivor is pardoned for their crime of procreation. This means that if one parent decides to kill the other one they can survive so there is almost this battle between the parents the nearer it gets to their child’s eighteenth birthday. There are examples of this in the story that open questions in your mind – one man suspects his wife fell pregnant and tries to cut out her womb. I really liked the dynamic of it in this world, as scary as it is, because humans really aren’t that far away from a bleak future like this and this story, which inadvertently highlights it, makes you think.

To light a candle is to cast a shadow.

Her Mum, Jac, is essentially the saviour of the human race. She is the great mind behind Project Salix which is based in Inbhir Nis (Inverness) and from it trees have been planted in the frozen tundras of the Arctic to help produce more oxygen and restore the planet’s atmosphere. There was an accident previously that turned the Arctic into a nuclear wasteland but the project has helped create trees that can grow on that large piece of untouched land thus helping to balance out the planet. Her other Mum, Alix, used to be a medical doctor in a London hospital but retired a few years ago and generally stays at home in their four floor house in London.

It’s important to note here that Jac and Alix have crafted a good life and this is a life of privilege that Miri has been created into. Miri sees that the rest of the population are sprawling among one another looking for food, medicine and just trying to survive as her story with us begins. Places in London have been recycled such as The London Eye which is now referred to as The Eye and is a prison. Those large glass pods filled with prisoners waiting for their trial, execution or deportation. Rickshaws replace cars and normal life as we know it has gone. It’s pretty grim compared to how London is now.

“And it will happen sooner rather than later. Maybe only a few years from now. We’ll burn up in the heat and suffocate on the carbon.”

The story is split into chapters that are either focused on Miri or Jac primarily. Personally I found Miri the more interesting character until the last 20% of the book when I wanted to know much more about what Jac was up to. Miri starts our story by witnessing someone else’s Offset. This immediately pulls you into this world like through a portal. She is trying to use that to desensitize herself to what she has coming in a matter of days, imagining that her mum, Jac, is the one dying so that her preferred parent Alix can survive. Miri herself is a young woman who doesn’t know what she wants. She is confused and has to weigh up her options before her decision but the only people she can ask for help want her to choose differently. Her story quickly sees her reunited with mum Alix but it is a frosty reception that Alix receives from her wayward daughter who she hasn’t seen in two years.

Jac’s chapters are more science based and fans of The Martian will absolutely love her. She is meticulous, calculating, ruthless with decisions, intelligent and the saviour of the human race. She sees that there is a problem with Project Salix and a day before her daughter’s Offset she has to travel to Inbhir Nis to try and rectify the issue. Something has gone wrong and the atmosphere is changing. She doesn’t know why but if she can’t fix it this could spell out the end for the human race and her girls.

“It’s always the way. The mother takes the punishment, even though the crime is not of her making alone.”

The character development in this story is very grey. What I mean by that is that the three main characters are brought to life but everything around them is not. This has been done on purpose. For example, there are robotic guards called Pigsuits. No-one is inside them as far as we can tell but they are menacing. Not quite as large or terrifying as a Big Daddy from Bioshock (computer game) but they have the same effect. Panic. Fear. Worry. There are some supporting characters in the book too but it’s clever – we don’t get their names. On purpose too. The Archivist, The Engineer, The Thief. They have these titles which I think stops you getting so attached to them and really keeps the focus on Miri and her impending choice.

For an absurd moment she feels like a helium balloon limply grasped in a child’s hand, ready to slip loose and float away on the breeze.

Flashbacks occur in the story and normally I prefer to stay in the present but I found these flashbacks useful as they gave us little nuggets on information, emotion and context into what was a very jagged story. They helped me to understand how relationships and opinions had been formed, or altered, by previous encounters and situations.

Rating – 4/5 You see the whole time you read this book, the question in the back of your head is who is Miri going to choose. I won’t spoil it for you but honestly when I got to the end I legitimately said aloud “Ah, f*ck”. It’s so much more than an ending, it’s a punch to the gut. I would say that this is a Science Fiction Dystopian novel. I have seen some reviews saying there is too much science but for me I didn’t think that. I found it enough for me to try and understand the seriousness of the situation and the weight behind Miri’s choice. I loved the dynamic and found it as scary as it was refreshing. A really well thought out idea crafted with the intention of making you think. This is a must read for fans of The Martian and anyone who has enjoyed any dystopian stories.

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