Book review - The Method

Set in the mid-21st century, this novel by German Juli Zeh presents a chilling vision of a dystopian future that plays on our current obsession with health and mass surveillance. Mia Holl, a scientist, lives in a monitored house where the air quality is repeatedly checked, household waste and sewage tested, and public areas regularly disinfected. In return, she and other residents are entitled to cut-price power and water. It is all part of the Method, a system designed to ensure "a happy and healthy life, a life free from suffering and pain".

Stepping outside the regime's norms is considered subversive. The use of coffee, cigarettes or alcohol results in a fine. Citizens have mandatory testing and falling in love with someone "immunologically incompatible" is a capital offence. The biggest threat is to be accused of membership of the terrorist group People's Right to Illness (PRI), for which one can expect to be deep-frozen for an unlimited term.

Mia is grieving for her brother, singled out for his seditious views and wrongfully convicted of a crime. In a final subversive act he had exercised his free will and committed suicide. Now Heinrich Kramer, a journalist and her brother's chief persecutor, comes to visit Mia.

Part science fiction, part political thriller, Zeh's novel (translated by Sally-Ann Spencer) gives an impressively plausible account of a conformist society disguised as a utopia. However, the dialogues between Kramer and Mia are less successful. It becomes a battle of ideals – Kramer argues for "the perfect alignment of public and private good", while Mia defends notions of individualism and liberty.

Some of the most powerful writing comes when Mia finally makes her stand against the regime. Kramer defends the state's authoritarianism by suggesting that "data collection is essential for protecting individuals from false allegations. The more detailed the information about a person, the more fairly we can judge." His is the sort of rhetoric espoused by any number of today's governments to justify mass surveillance. But Zeh demonstrates the gap between reality and rhetoric in the final pages, when Kramer reverts to "medieval methods".

Originally published in the Independent 30 May 2012