Alexandra Pierce Reviews The Measure by Nikki Erlick
The Measure, Nikki Erlick (William Morrow and Co 978-0-06320-420-1, $28.99, 368pp, hc) June 2022. Cover by Elsie Lyons.
By the middle of 2020 I was wondering what novels could possibly look like in the future. Would they all be set in 2019? Would they all be alternate history? What sort of themes would be prevalent? John Scalzi’s The Kaiju Preservation Society (2022) was probably the first novel written entirely during COVID that I came across, and pointed to a way COVID could be reflected in fiction. In a very different way, Nikki Erlick’s debut also seems to reflect these times. COVID doesn’t exist, but it’s definitely a novel that reflects on the issues thrown up by the pandemic and those highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Imagine if, one morning, everyone over the age of 22 woke to discover a small box in front of their door (or equivalent, for the unhoused or those out camping). These boxes are all identical save for two things: the name of the person inscribed on it, and the length of the contents. For inside is a piece of string, the length of which varies from person to person. It is eventually recognized that the string’s length appears to correlate with the length of time each person will live, which seems to agree with the inscription on each box: The measure of your life lies within. This is the central conceit of The Measure, and Erlick traces some consequences of the boxes and strings through the lives of several Americans, over a period of 12 months. From the start the boxes have an impact – not least because their provenance is completely unknown (and remains so: a strength of the novel) – as flights are grounded, accusations are thrown, hysteria and panic develop. Then, relatively quickly, life returns to a “new normal,” as people adjust to the new knowledge (or refuse to look, and deal with that deliberate uncertainty). While the source is very different, this progression is one of the aspects that strongly reminded me of the early responses to COVID. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but it’s one that’s impossible not to see.
Erlick does a good job of exploring some of the consequences of short and long strings at a society level: for instance, should being a “short-stringer” prevent someone from holding office, or being in the military? Should the government have the right to know the length of a citizen’s string? The suggested answers reflect the ways prejudice and scapegoating already manifest, with politicians and ordinary citizens discussing how such things can be justified, and implemented, and also fought against. The speed at which “A short string drove them crazy!” becomes an appropriate excuse, or a convenient explanation, for acts of violence is both terrifying and completely believable.
While the big questions are important, it’s the individual stories that I found most compelling. The novel’s epigraph – “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day,” gives a sense of what Erlick is grappling with. Do you want to know that your life will be short, and therefore strive to make the most of it? If you will have a long life, do you take wild risks (knowing that a long string doesn’t guarantee free of pain, injury, or disease)? Nina and Maura have strings of very different lengths: what should, or could, that mean for their relationship? Nina’s sister Amie refuses to look at hers; is she being wilfully ignorant, or making an appropriate choice? And as a teacher, does she have the right to discuss such issues with her students? (As a teacher myself, this one struck particularly hard.) Ben’s option to choose is taken away, and is confronted with a short string: what does this mean for eventually starting a family? The novel follows each of these characters (and a few more) as they navigate a world that’s still the same world – it’s not like the strings change the length of their lives – but is clearly a very different place to live.
The Measure is set entirely in the USA, which necessarily impacts on the stories that can be told; and even within the context of the United States, it’s a relatively narrow set of perspectives that are presented. In Australia, for instance, our universal healthcare system would make that a very different issue from what it is in the USA; countries with different histories regarding issues of privacy, or attitudes towards familial structure, would likely respond differently. (This difference is touched on briefly, for example with North Korea requiring all boxes to be turned over to the government.) Even with this caveat, though, The Measure tells a powerful story – and one that should spark conversations about both individual and collective priorities.
Alexandra Pierce reads, writes, podcasts, cooks and knits; she’s Australian and a feminist. She was a host of the Hugo Award winning podcast Galactic Suburbia for a decade; her new podcast is all about indie bookshops and is called Paper Defiance. Alex has edited two award-winning non-fiction anthologies, Letters to Tiptree and Luminscent Threads: Connections to Octavia E Butler. She reviews a wide range of books at www.randomalex.net.
This review and more like it in the January 2023 issue of Locus.
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