Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Christina Dalcher certainly isn’t content with tackling small and meaningless topics, with her second novel Master Class examining potential extreme our society might yet reach one day. The story takes place in a society where the worth of individuals is determined by their quotient score (Q), and follows a mother’s efforts to save her daughter who gets transferred to a state boarding school hundreds of miles away after failing a monthly test.
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Christina Dalcher Imagines the Practical Future
The evolution of our civilization has been largely marked by technological advancements and the development of various systems of government, allowing us to have larger and better-equipped nations across the centuries. We are consistently trying to develop ourselves further, to come up with newer and better ways of managing ourselves, in hopes of making everyone’s lives better.
While it’s a noble cause, the reality is there are many philosophies as to what exactly would make life better for everyone, and in Master Class by Christina Dalcher we get to see the numerically-based, practical approach taken to an extreme.
The story begins by presenting us with a society where the worth of people is determined by their quotient score (Q), which starts being calculated more or less as soon as they’re able to take tests. The kids with high scores get sent to the top schools in the country with virtually limitless prospects for their future places in society, while the ones who fail go to state boarding schools with very limited career options. On the surface, it seems like a perfect system: education costs are dropping, the deserving students get the focus they need, and the hopeless ones are still given a role to play.
Enter the Fairchild family, where the husband, Malcolm, is a government worker heavily involved in the management and development of the education system, and his wife, Elena, a teacher in a high-ranking school. They have two daughters, but one of them, Freddie, has her Q score teetering on the edge of the abyss. When she fails a monthly test and sees her score plummet, she gets sent to a boarding school hundreds of miles away. Though Elena thought she understood and agreed with the system, the journey she must undertake to find her daughter again will shake her beliefs and foundations to their very core.
The Curious Dystopia of Master Class
With the year we’ve been having, I think it’s only a matter of time until dystopian fiction starts catching people’s interest, at least to a greater extent than before. I think we can all agree the world is changing, and if we try and look into the deep future we come to the realization there are too many possibilities to really consider. Some are out there, but others have a greater base in reality, and the one presented in Master Class is certainly of this kind.
Presenting us with a quotient score used to determine an individual’s worth and rights in life, it’s not too far off from what we’re seeing in China with their use of social credit system. The book certainly takes the concept and cranks it up to an extreme, but not one we couldn’t logically see coming.
In other words, despite this being a work of fiction, I believe it holds some true merit and value as a potential glimpse into where at least some countries on Earth might be heading. This is the sort of depiction which will resonate with some people much more than others, depending on where you’re from, but I truly believe there are some elements to take away for everyone.
I was quite happy to see Dalcher spend a good deal of time describing the society, how it works, how the people perceive it, and how they find themselves affected by it. She doesn’t take a black-and-white approach to the matter, instead doing her best to explore all sides of the equation to give us as objective a view of the situation as she can manage.
While I expected the pace of the story to take a hit from this approach I was surprised to see it didn’t, with Dalcher always finding ways of moving the plot along while exploring the world through the eyes of a character who is mirroring us in the sense she is seeing everything for the first time again after having her illusions shattered.
As much as Master Class is a captivating study of a dystopian society, it never loses sight of the plot which keeps on advancing at a regular pace from start to finish. I can confidently say I don’t recall any noticeable stretches of tedium or boredom, with even the tamest passages still having something curious capable of catching your attention.
While it certainly isn’t jam-packed with action or anything of the sort, it stays mostly true to its thriller roots. There are plenty enough twists, turns and unexpected appearances to stop you from settling into the world too comfortably.
I found the story itself, of Elena Fairchild’s journey to rediscover the world and find her daughter, to have been captivating, moving and thought-provoking all at once. We become intimately familiar with the immense internal struggle she is going through, attempting to reconcile a life spent believing in the system with the idea it has now let her down and destroyed her life. We are privy to the suffering she experiences every moment being away from her daughter, and we often feel it ourselves.
Most importantly perhaps, we come to understand her mentality and how it was possible in the first place for someone educated and intelligent to believe in something which to us seems cruel and inhumane.
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We bear witness to her thought process changing and evolving over the course of her journey, with her character arc being long, complex and fraught with peril. I have to say out of all the books I’ve read so far this year, Elena’s character distinctively stands as one of the more memorable ones.
The Final Verdict
Master Class by Christina Dalcher is an excellent piece of dystopian thriller fiction, captivating, thought-provoking, and frighteningly close to some peoples’ daily reality. If you enjoy the kinds of dystopian thrillers which know how to make you think beyond the confines of the story itself as well as deliver an exciting story, then you’ll certainly find this book to be right up your alley.
Christina Dalcher is an author, teacher, and linguist based in Norfolk, Virginia who earned her doctorate in theoretical linguistics from Georgetown University. At first she saw her short stories published in various journals, and in 2018 she came out with her debut novel titled Vox.
She was the recipient of the first prize in the February 2019 Bath Flash Fiction Award, and she also holds nominations for The Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, as well as Best Small Fictions. Her second novel came out in April, 2020, titled Master Class.