‘Happiness can be caught if you don’t make waves.’
This is one of the many ‘encouragements’ of PharmaCare, the company behind a pioneering drug, Leata, a pill to ensure people will never be unhappy again. Schools and parks are sponsored by Leata. Everywhere, people on Leata look better, feel better. With fewer cases of depression, even mental hospitals are closing, So wouldn’t you take the drug?
Sixteen-year-old Hope has been for the past five years. Her father works for PharmaCare and, like most parents, Hope’s want her to behave and be happy. And as Leata’s slogan says, ‘life's short. Enjoy it.’ Hope’s high-profile blog, livelifewithhope, spouts Leata’s persuasive encouragements, making her one of the most popular, and outwardly happy, teenagers around. So why is she not as happy as she likes to make out on her blog?
Tom, Hope’s next-door neighbour and one time best friend, is the opposite. Never having taken Leata, he is now reeling after the alleged suicide of his journalist father. Drinking heavily and overwhelmed by grief, Tom is the perfect ‘hopeless’ candidate for Hope to enforce her ‘don’t look back, look forward’ philosophy. After all, according to Leata, ‘sadness is a scourge’. But Tom has other ideas, and a dangerous mission of his own: to prove his dad didn’t take his own life but was embroiled in a news story involving the powerful Leata company, possibly to his death.
Throughout Cloud 9, Alex Campbell makes strong references to the dominance of social media and the way some people’s lives revolve around it. The desire for an online presence, for followers, likes, retweets and that vacuous need to be told you’re ‘beautiful’ by people you’ve never met, is what drives Hope - until she’s confronted by the contrariness of followers and ‘friends’ who can quickly become trolls. Hope finally questions whether it’s, ‘possible to have happiness… without unhappiness?’
Full of suspense, and a lack of certainty on who to trust, Cloud 9 is a thriller of a read. It asks questions, not only about social media, but about the desire to be ‘happy’ and how much power government-backed pharmaceutical companies can potentially wield to this end. It also confronts censorship – classic novels like The Bell Jar are off school reading lists for being too depressing. I particularly enjoyed the idea of the lies we tell each other, including the ones we end up believing ourselves, that weave through the book. If I smile enough, you’ll believe I’m happy, right?
Cloud 9 is Alex Campbell’s second novel, following on from the hugely successful Land. As Leata tell us, ‘the only way is forward’. Alex Campbell should believe that one.