Master Class by Christina Dalcher
Publication date: April 21, 2020
Genres: Dystopian, Fiction, Science Fiction, Suspense
Christina Dalcher’s debut novel, Vox, established her as one of those writers who can layer present events onto the future and make it grim, but plausible. In the novel, separation of church and state disappear and one of the first acts of the new government is to restrict the number of words a woman can speak each day. Yeah. Now, she’s back and she sets Master Class in a similar vein, with the same kind of government only now it’s all about children and education. Nothing familiar about that, right?
It’s an unspecified time in the future and there’s a new number every American of a certain age needs to know. It’s their Q number, it’s determined by regular testing and impacts every aspect of your life at every age— where you go to school, your career choices, even which checkout lane you get to use at the supermarket. If it’s below 9 all of the above are going to be problematic. This is Elena’s world and thankfully, she, her husband Malcolm, and their two daughters, Anne and Freddie, all rank above 9. She’s a teacher at one of the best middle schools and Malcolm works at the Department of Education. He’s a true believer in the Q score as a way to get all children the education they need with reduced costs. Elena is largely on-board until 9-year-old Freddie tests below 9 and is slated to be sent to a state-run boarding school.
Of course, Elena doesn’t want this to happen, but there is no getting around it so she botches her next round of testing and goes from a teacher at a high-ranking school to one at Freddie’s school. Now, the dystopia boils over because, surprise, nothing is as the government’s told them.
There is so much to unpack in Master Class and Dalcher wants to get it all on the page. Unfortunately, this means the novel becomes very heavy handed—even to someone like me who is astounded at the corruption and personal agenda of our current Secretary of Education. There’s no gray in the novel and we quickly learn that Malcom is the enemy. No spoiler there, there are enemies everywhere. What lost me was Dalcher’s crossing the lane from education into something much darker and more insidious. There is plenty of room to write a dystopian novel based on realities in the educational system, but Master Class becomes about something else entirely. Something terrifying and not impossible, but much less realistic.
While I appreciate her ardor in using fiction to extrapolate where corporate and religious overreach can lead a country, Dalcher’s efforts to rein the novel back in aren’t enough. She has to go further to wraps things up neatly and it feels forced. It was all too much for me, but if you’re looking for fast, over-the-top reading that confirms your worst fears about America’s future than Master Class is the ticket.
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