I had such mixed feelings about Richard K. Morgan’s novel-turned-Netflix-series, Altered Carbon! The premise is great; set in the future, people can now separate their consciousness from their physical bodies, so death isn’t necessarily permanent – although this technology is much more accessible if you’re wealthy. ‘Stacks’, containing your essential selfhood, are implanted in ‘sleeves’, or bodies – often synthetic – and those who can afford it back-up their minds in the cloud, so even if their stack is destroyed, they’ll continue to exist. ‘Real Death’, or the obliteration of your consciousness, becomes much more significant, while ‘resleeving’ in a different physical form is disorientating but not devastating. However, I was frustrated that Morgan’s excellent worldbuilding often took second place to a convoluted thriller plot that I found difficult to follow; there are so many questions raised by this set-up. The protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, finds himself resurrected from virtual storage in somebody else’s ‘sleeve’ – he struggles with a craving for cigarettes and certain sexual partners, as well as missing his original racial identity. Nevertheless, the book never really gets into what the swapping of sleeves does to societal ideas about race, gender and sexuality – although, interestingly, race seems to be more easily sloughed off than gender in Morgan’s world. Perhaps this is because most people still spend their lives in their original bodies, but wouldn’t that make things even stranger for those who swap? And despite the plottiness of the novel, it felt achingly slow until about the two-thirds mark.
I’ve never forgotten Jane Rogers’ deeply disturbing The Testament of Jessie Lamb (indeed, it haunted me so thoroughly that I reviewed it twice), so it’s not surprising to see her returning to questions of bodily autonomy in her latest novel, Body Tourists. The premise is reminiscent of Altered Carbon, but a few centuries earlier in the development of the technology: again, selfhood can now be stored digitally and transferred to another body, even after your own death. In Rogers’ world, the twist is that there are no synthetic bodies, so you need a healthy volunteer to allow the wealthy dead to live their lives again – someone who’s willing to put their own lives on hold for two weeks and take the risk of letting somebody else walk around in their body. And given the extensive poverty and inequality on the British housing estates in this not-so-distant future, there are no shortage of volunteers hoping to earn ten grand for taking this gamble.
Body Tourists unfolds through the stories of several people connected with the technology; some only narrate for a chapter or so, while others form a continuing thread throughout the novel. Octavia, one of the first to benefit from the technology, is overjoyed by the experience of being in a young body, and Rogers captures the visceral reality of this very well. Paula and Ryan see no alternative other than to volunteer for the experiment. Elsa’s partner Lindy is swept up in a witch-hunt and killed before they can reconcile; what wouldn’t Elsa give for more time with her? Finally, ageing rock star Richard K is tempted to bring back his dead father, but soon begins to regret it.
These human stories are all compelling, but spending her time on so many threads holds Rogers back from exploring the implications of this technology as thoroughly as I’d hoped she would. I can see the advantage of these multiple voices – as in Helen Sedgwick’s wonderful The Growing Season, these different narrators stop body tourism from being pigeonholed as either good or bad. However, the simplistic villainy behind the scheme lets the novel down; the character who drives the misuse of the technology is unbelievable and simplistic, and this stops Rogers asking the more interesting kind of moral questions that she raised in The Testament of Jessie Lamb. This is an addictive read, and more thoughtful than much recent high-concept speculative fiction, but I still wanted a little more depth.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on November 14th.