The idea at the heart of Gregory Scott Katsoulis’ dystopia in All Rights Reserved is a horrifying one. All citizens age 15 and over must pay for every single word and gesture they use to communicate.
Katsoulis explores the implications of this system with all the bleak panache of an episode of “Black Mirror.” His young protagonist is named Speth Jime because those sounds are cheaper than more conventional names. She has to cut her hair in a certain way so that it stays in the public domain and doesn’t grow into a copyrighted style. Lawsuits over the illegal use of copyrighted words are rampant, and families risk going into crippling debt for generations if they run afoul of the draconian rules that govern their society. If they say a word they can’t afford, their eyes are shocked by corneal implants.
Speth has grown up in this system, and her rebellion against it is not a calculated protest. After witnessing a classmate kill himself rather than spend his entire life working to pay off what his family owes, Speth refuses to speak beginning on her 15th birthday and upholds a vow of silence throughout most of the novel. A decision prompted by anger but also fear due to her family’s already precarious economic situation, Speth’s silence begins to spawn similar protests, and she finds herself the center of a growing controversy.
Katsoulis remains deeply invested in his protagonist’s emotional journey throughout All Rights Reserved. Speth is not a natural revolutionary, and her reactions to her imitators range from pleased confusion to embarrassed horror. Her primary focus is to protect and help provide for her family—a brother and sister at home, and parents sent away to work off the family’s debt. When she stumbles into an opportunity with the mysterious Product Placers—the rarely-seen figures who leave targeted gifts in citizens’ homes—Speth begins to make a living perpetuating the very system she’s rebelling against. The push and pull between Speth’s resistance and conformity, while at times frustrating, is nonetheless emotionally realistic given that she has lived her entire life under this repressive system.
It’s a bit disappointing when the story bends itself back into the rebellion template, rather than just following Speth as she does her best to survive in this Dickensian dystopia, where abject poverty is only one wrong move away. But with his excellent establishment of the world of All Rights Reserved, hopefully Katsoulis will give himself the freedom do so in the sequel.