Incompetence by Rob Grant

A review of the satirical dystopian science-fiction novel Incompetence by Rob Grant.

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Cast your mind to the turn of the 21st century, back to when the EU Referendum remained a Eurosceptic’s distant dream, and long before the phrase ‘Brexit’ was even coined. The United Kingdom remained a member of the European Union at this time, but the people of Britain, naturally, were moaning about it. It was into this climate that Rob Grant, former co-writer of the sci-fi TV sitcom Red Dwarf, released his hilarious dystopian novel Incompetence in 2003.

If you remember, in the early 2000s the column inches of the Daily Mail were bursting at the seams with fear-mongering about the looming threat of a ‘United States of Europe.’ Day by day, tabloid journalists blew the paranoid conspiracist’s favourite dog whistle by proselytising about Eurocrats staging a government coup with every turn of yesterday’s chip paper. It’s easy to see why Rob Grant saw this is a viable satirical target in the afterglow of the new millennium.

Not only this, but at the time an ideological war was also being declared on the very notion of political correctness, with the xenophobic rags decrying each EU law as creeping fascism and jumping upon any little insanity to foam at the mouth. Rob Grant’s Incompetence held up a mirror to this absurdity with surrealist gusto, envisioning a future European superstate unlikely to ever happen now (or so we’d hope) with Brexit on the horizon.

Set in the not-too-distant future in an aforementioned United States of Europe, Incompetence depicts a world where, thanks to the European Union’s human rights legislation, it is illegal to discriminate against anyone for being incompetent. This is crazier than it sounds—nothing works effectively (which people must begrudgingly accept), employees cannot do their jobs properly (and cannot be sacked for it) and nothing ever goes to plan. The novel’s opening line says it all:

The flight was uneventful enough, except the pilot accidentally touched down at a slightly wrong airport and forgot to lower the landing gear, so we left the plane by way of the emergency chute, and I lost my shoes.

Incompetence by Rob Grant

The narrator, we discover, is a detective going by the pseudonym of Harry Salt who has to contend with this lunacy almost immediately. We soon realise, however, that the only person in Incompetence with an ounce of competency is a serial killer who is busy leaving a trail of bodies across the continent. Needless to say, the endless parade of lazy and stupid people Harry has to contend with doesn’t make solving the case any easier.

In this by-the-numbers murder mystery, Rob Grant is at times an exceptionally funny writer and Incompetence contains many moments of extremely witty jokes and razor-sharp repartee, though it is cursed with a weak second half, which is slightly disappointing after such a strong beginning. Having said that, despite the story being rigidly formulaic, it’s rare to find books as gut-bustingly funny as this often is, even if the satire is a little too clear-cut for its own good.

As satirical dystopias go, Incompetence is not a classic, by any means, but as a product of its time it has a strange charm rendered all the more curious in the wake of the Leave/Remain debate of this past decade. The political correctness angle and its take on human rights legislation may irk some readers, but when the humour is this acute, it’s really hard not to laugh at the sheer madness of it all. Only time will tell, however, if Incompetence is showing us a future Britain has managed to avoid, or whether we’re doomed to create our own little dystopia all on our own.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and aspiring novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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    I hadn’t heard of this novel, but I love the idea of the ‘incompetent’ being the ultimate in who we must not discriminate against. I’m sure we’ve all met or been that person at work and fortunately the day is often saved by the competent…

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