In the future, society is ruled by a dictatorial government called the Authority, which enforces a hierarchical system based on ability. Those who have the means and lineage to take exams for specific proficiencies (academic areas including math, language, history, etc.) and score within the top two “stats” (higher than 94 per cent) are afforded the best lifestyle, including like-ability “matches” (spouses), increased food rations, better housing, and the option to apply for reproduction permits.
Having grown up together (their parents are best friends), 22-year-old Hessa and her match, Toan, have always been a duo, supporting each other through tough times and competing academically. Both Quantifiers (adept at math), Hessa and Toan are living a life many would envy. But despite their longstanding partnership and apparent compatibility, their relationship begins to suffer when Toan, given a work placement within the top-secret research program for the Municipal Department of Education, begins spending less time with Hessa, who has been assigned a job in the same building, teaching high-school math.
When Hessa meets Aubin – a handsome, charismatic writing instructor – in the staff lunchroom, her beliefs and adherence to the rules are thrown into question. As a Quantifier, Hessa can read and write onscreen, but has never learned to read cursive or write by hand. Aubin, a Creative, is similarly lacking in even basic math skills. The pair defy convention by associating with each other, rather than sticking to their like-abilitied peers, with Aubin teaching Hessa how to write and encouraging her to keep a journal, activities that are more than frowned upon for a Quantifier. If discovered, Hessa could be charged with the offence of wasting time, a crime that comes with fines, the loss of her job and social privilege, or even imprisonment. It’s not the secret development of her language skills that lands Hessa in jail, however – it’s a murder charge for her alleged role in Aubin’s death.
If all this sounds convoluted and over the top, Aptitude is probably not your kind of book. If, rather than rolling your eyes, you clapped your hands and thought, “Oh, goody,” you will not come away disappointed.
Sampson’s world building is complex, combining familiar, plausible elements (tablets and public transit – albeit hover craft rather than bus – and biometric security scanning) with (hopefully) less realistic sci-fi tropes such as the authoritarian, Big Brother–type government, restrictions on reproduction, and an imposed classification system for citizens.
There are also surprising and delightful twists, including Aubin’s love of ancient and obsolete languages. Sampson laces her narrative with words that will have readers searching for their meanings, but the storytelling doesn’t suffer for the lack of complete understanding. Rather, the language adds lustre and warmth to what could otherwise be a cold tale of oppression and love gone wrong.
The central trio of characters, especially narrator Hessa, are vividly painted, though sometimes only in broad strokes. Toan suffers most from oversimplification, a standard portrait of an overworked, underappreciated husband who is blindsided by his wife’s infidelity, but is saved from caricature by some unexpected behaviour and realistic emotion. Aubin represents everything Hessa longs for but is afraid to admit to. Sampson does not allow their relationships and narrative arcs to fall completely into cliché, though her writing does show a bit of tonal unevenness and lack of polish. It’s amazing, for instance, how often Hessa almost vomits or has a tight, sore throat, and for someone who apparently spends an hour a day reading as part of her mandated “arts compulsory,” she has an unrealistic inability to decipher the obvious meaning of Aubin’s poetry.
Still, there is much here to enjoy. Sampson’s dystopian tale is a multi-layered and thought-provoking examination of the concepts of free will, duty, and what it means to truly love someone.