This is a hell of a pessimistic story. It is a story of haves and have-nots, of before the ecological collapse and after, and it argues relentlessly that without at least a bit of material prosperity, there is no such thing as human kindness or decency.
We don’t see the world of the “haves” in this story; these biochemically-manipulated and cyber-enhanced people are depicted in the novel A Calculated Life, which I haven’t read. In “The Enclave,” we only see them through the points of view of a boy who’s heard some second-hand snippets about them, and a woman who failed at being admitted among them (it’s easy to get excluded). Whether or not their lot is really enviable is not clear. It’s only certain that they carefully lock have-nots out of their spaces, consigning them to extra-urban enclaves and requiring a pass for travel to the cities.
Charnock is more concerned with depicting the before-and-after contrast in the life of her main character, twelve-year-old Caleb, who used to live in Spain before heat and drought sent everyone in that country fleeing north. Before, he had two parents, a school, friends, and friendly games. After, he had a missing father and an existence walking the road with his mother, unwelcome wherever they went. Although Caleb’s mother imagines that his papers, pedigree, and education will be sufficient to get him admitted to the cities, she disappears before finding out if that’s true, and Caleb is picked up by a child-trafficker and turned over to work in a recycling business in an enclave.
Caleb is bright and creative. And his childhood taught him to believe in friendship. He offers the gifts of his talents and his caring to the people in the enclave, and gets less than nothing in return. No one besides Caleb and his mother do a single act of generosity in the entirety of this story. The enclave and the surrounding countryside are a world where friendship doesn’t exist (there’s a scene where Caleb contrasts his games with old friends with the way the children in the enclave “play” by fighting and beating each other), where romance is sex and sex is a transaction, and where family is only a way of defining who belongs to your own gang, and you'd better obey the head of the family if you want to stay in. Not surprisingly, the story ends with Caleb’s moral ruin.
What does the author get out of depicting poverty as a world of absolute exploitation and dog-eat-dog? Is it just a cautionary tale to middle-class people, don’t lose your prosperity? I must say I didn’t find this setting entirely convincing. Nothing about it was original, the hinted-at technologically-enhanced society didn’t seem particularly plausible, and more importantly, the relentlessly negative interactions of the enclave residents didn’t add up to much more than a checklist of social evils. There were very few well-developed characters; even Caleb seemed more of a signifier than an individual, with his past amounting to a checklist of middle-class “normality.”
This isn’t a particularly bad story; it’s smoothly written and moves right along, with just the right amount of content for its length. But it isn’t outstanding in any way either.