A story exploring the brutality of perfectionism that manages to be pretty close to perfect.
Our bodies are flawed prisons. We’re stuck with skin that could be clearer, brains that could work faster, and smiles that could be brighter. And some of us go to great lengths to try to improve our bodily prisons so its tolerable. Great sums of money are spent to improve our aesthetics and mentality, but that want can never be satiated. And in a world like Sweet Harmony’s in which people can use nanotechnology to purge flaws, that want becomes heightened. Because what keeps us leveled is knowing that we share flaws. Stories, for example, are better when we identify and feel less alone by characters’ weaknesses. But when less people have weaknesses and tower over us with imposing beauty, our insecurities tornado into something worse and our venture to become better can turn into an impossible pursuit to perfectionism.
Sweet Harmony follows Harmony, a young woman living in a world in which nanotechnology (nanos) can not only improve your health, but your libido, mentality, and physicality. Harmony’s surrounded by people obsessed with superficiality, and the more she is deemed unworthy by them, the more insecure she becomes. She becomes beholden to nanos, with almost all of her expenditures dedicated to keeping her esteemed beauty. But that obsession comes with a price.
This novella tackles domestic abuse, unattainable beauty standards, familial conflict, selfishness warring with selflessness, and vocational biases. Not one of those themes is undercooked or scattered. The secret is that Claire North uses the nanotechnology as an underpinning to all these themes. The story spotlights Harmony’s experience and growing dependency on the nanos and touches all the themes along the way, never losing focus because as it moves from idea to idea, it’s always grounded in a center.
The nanos also work so well in the story because Claire North uses it as a powerful vessel for the worst of humanity to come out. Humanity’s universal want to be better becomes heightened and distorts people into base, perfectionistic, selfish monsters. Mentality and physicality may improve, but morality is something that’s left unchecked. Money becomes even less of something we use to satisfy our needs and transforms into something that satisfies our wants. Our perspective becomes skewed, our health becomes impaired, and a world of materialism and superficiality festers until a healthy smile is prioritized over a healthy heart.
The way these themes are communicated is done in a wholly fluid, impactful way. None of the characters are underdeveloped—they’re distinctly drawn. Nor does the limited word count dilute the story’s potency. Every word matters and the novella concludes in a satisfying way that didn’t leave me wanting. It’s wordsmithery and economy of language of the highest order.
By exploring the pursuit of flawlessness, Sweet Harmony illuminates so many of our flaws. It doesn’t arrive at any easy answers, but how can it? Insecurities are intractable, and every human will always be a different gradation of flawed. One weakness many of us have is never coming to terms with that. But Sweet Harmony prods its reader to try to get out of that rut. It pushes you to see yourself in the mirror or observe your imperfect work, and let you to be the best you can be, while shrugging off the fact that you’re not perfect. The key is to work to be better, but understanding you’re not the best. Sweet Harmony puts you through the ringer. It doesn’t arrive at a bursting light at the end of the tunnel, but there is a faint glimmer. Even though the light may not be perfectly iridescent, or even mildly stunning, it asks its readers to follow it, and is well worth the effort.
Baseline Score: 8/10
Bonuses: +1 For never wasting a word or story beat.
Nerd Coefficient: 9/10
POSTED BY: Sean Dowie - Screenwriter, stand-up comedian, lover of all books that make him nod his head and say, "Neat!
North, Claire. Sweet Harmony [Orbit, 2020]