News stories these days often evoke a world reminding of a fictitious dystopia although the facts behind them are terribly real. Bloody wars are raging, refugees are being treated worse than wild beasts or lepers, states are tightening control over individuals making ever-stricter laws for the sake of public security. Are we fooling ourselves when we call our society free and imbued with the spirit of universal human rights? And where is humanity going? Many novels show us nightmarish scenarios of the future as it might become if we aren’t on our guard. A more recent one of them is The Method by Juli Zeh set in a world where the state keeps individual health under surveillance and prohibits as well as punishes every potentially harmful behaviour on the pretext of protecting the population from illness and pain. The protagonist feels the full rigour of the system when she lets herself go and begins to question the METHOD.
Juli Zeh was born in Bonn, Federal Republic of Germany, in June 1974. Already during her law studies at different German, European and American universities, she turned towards writing fiction professionally and published first short stories in literary magazines. In 2001 she made her debut as a novelist with award-winning Eagles and Angels (Adler und Engel: 2001) which was followed by the novels Spieltrieb (2004; Gaming Instinct), Dark Matter (Schilf: 2007; also published under the title In Free Fall) and The Method (Corpus Delicti: 2009). In addition, the prolific author produced travel logs, essay collections, children’s books, a play, and experimental works. Her latest published work available in English translation is the novel Decompression (Nullzeit: 2012). Juli Zeh lives in Barnewitz, Germany, with her husband and children.
Some time in a near future The Method is the sterile and strictly science-based rule of law in a German health dictatorship where everybody is presumed happy because nobody experiences illness and pain any more. Mia Holl is a friendless biologist in her mid-thirties and convinced that the established system of control is the perfect as well as sole way to assure society’s and her own best, but then her brother Moritz Holl is found guilty of rape and murder because his DNA was found on the victim. For Mia a world breaks down because the METHOD that she always believed to be just and infallible results in a judgement that is completely at odds with her knowledge of her brother’s character. In fact, he keeps protesting his innocence and, despite the clear evidence against him, Mia never doubts him. When all hope is lost, she helps him to make a final effort to act according to his own free will: Moritz hangs himself with a cord that Mia smuggled into prison. In return for the favour he “gave” her his Ideal Beloved, an imaginary woman whose views and values are his. In her grief and confusion, which the Ideal Beloved constantly spurs, Mia lets herself go neglecting her duties as a citizen. She fails to submit her sleep and nutrition reports and she stops doing the obligatory sports. Before soon the authorities notice this minor offence and she is cautioned. However, Mia isn’t yet over her loss, nor ready to take up her old life as if nothing had happened. Moreover, she begins to question the METHOD and to rebel passively against it visiting forbidden places where she used to go with her brother and smoking cigarettes. But only when the chief-ideologist Heinrich Kramer recognises her as a worthy opponent, Mia gets into serious trouble with the law…
At first sight, the world of The Method is one solely based on reason and as such clearly rooted in the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The reasonable (and obviously effective) measures of the state to keep the population in good physical and mental health make people subject to a rule of law that no longer respects individual freedom. Amazingly, in the novel only few seem to mind the state’s constant control and meddling into even most private affairs like the choice of partner which puts it in a line with a dystopian novel by Swedish author Ninni Holmqvist (»»» read my review of The Unit). But why is this? As it seems, a comfortable and safe life lulls us into a trusting and thoughtless stupor from which we are not easily roused. It suffices to look at the aftermaths of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For the sake of public security we not only put up with, but actually approve of quite a lot of restrictions of individual freedom and privacy! Politicians worldwide call for even more purposely exaggerating the danger and spreading more fear than the terrorists themselves. Unfortunately, such a strongly regulated system often gives way to modern witch-hunts like the one in the centre of the dystopian novel. The context of a witch-hunt becomes obvious too through the names of protagonist and antagonist that the author borrowed from existing historical figures. Mia Holl is inspired by Maria Holl, a woman accused of witchcraft in sixteenth-century Germany, and Heinrich Kramer clearly refers to his namesake, the author of the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) from 1487. Also other topics touched upon in the novel – like the often blind trust in DNA tests or the craving for unshakable health – are highly up-to-date and require closer attention. Juli Zeh skilfully weaved her social criticism into a captivating as well as disturbing story that bears comparison with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Thanks to the author’s very clear and precise language the read is a great pleasure as well.
As you can see, I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Method by Juli Zeh although in my life I’ve never been much of a science fiction fan and although I didn’t particularly like a collection of early essays by the young German author. Maybe this dystopian novel delighted me because it’s thought-provoking and only two or three steps ahead of our time, thus a very concrete warning. Writing this review I couldn’t get a New Year’s Eve poem of Erich Kästner out of my mind:
“Will it be better? Will it be worse? one wonders every year.Indeed, we can’t and shouldn’t let ourselves be guided by fear and call for more control which necessarily implies a curtailment of fundamental rights. This book hauntingly shows where it can lead. A highly recommended read!
Let’s face it: Living is always life-threatening.”