Reward System, Jem Calder's debut, is a collection of a half-dozen interlocking stories built loosely around the title's reference to dopamine pleasure responses, the neurological reward so easily manipulated by social media. But Calder's stories are no anti-tech polemic; instead, they are intensely focused observations on ordinary things: a meeting that could have been an e-mail; the need to reverse the autocorrected "we'll" to the intended "*well" in a text; the way memory can hijack the present. Each moment is a specimen under the microscope, the magnification rendering it intimately recognizable, while also shedding light on its detachment from reality.
Calder's stories feature Nick and Julia--20-somethings who used to date--and their faltering steps in career, love and self-knowledge. Through them, Calder tackles the things humans do to feel loved and seen. In the story "Distraction from Sadness Is Not the Same Thing as Happiness," the main characters aren't even named, noted only as "the female user" and "the male user" of an unnamed, algorithm-based dating app. Calder captures the ambiguity of such social interactions, while meditating on time and space in our technologically mediated culture: "Sometimes the female user felt like everything that happened inside a device, in screen time, occurred in something like the present, while everything that happened outside of one, in real time, occurred in something like the past." Reward System rarely confronts readers directly, choosing instead to hold up countless small mirrors, uncanny iterations of self that demand thoughtful reflection on human desires and needs. --Sara Beth West, freelance reviewer and librarian