2019, 240 p.
I don’t read a lot of science fiction, and when I do I prefer that it is ‘human’ science fiction. It was the blurbs on the front of the book from Hilary Mantel and Helen Garner – two writers who do ‘human’ so well – that attracted me to this book, as well as a positive review that I read somewhere.
It is set in 2045, which seems a little too close (or at least, I hope that it’s a little too close: I could well still be alive in 2045, albeit as an old, old woman). Following the Margaret Atwood dictum in writing The Handmaid’s Tale that her dystopias only include policies and events that had been carried out somewhere in the world at some time, there is much in this 2045 world that is recognizable. Video phones are completely unremarkable; electric cars are likewise; virtual reality headsets become an addictive past-time; universal basic income has been introduced but its recipients exiled to large high-rise housing estates. At the same time, there are echoes of other science fiction programs, like the omnipresent deployment of ‘synths’, the same term and function as in the excellent BBC series ‘Humans‘, with one of them even called Gemma (which evoked memories of actress Gemma Chan, who played Anita/Mia).
The jump ahead comes in the scientific experiment of ‘body tourism’. Funded by wealthy benefactor Gudrun this experimental procedure implants the digitally stored memories of people who have been cryogenically frozen immediately on death into young ‘hosts’ who are paid $10,000 to ‘go to sleep’ and vacate their bodies for a fortnight. During that fortnight, the ‘dead’ people can inhabit that body, and revisit their life that has gone on without them. Fortunately, Jane Rogers doesn’t go into too much detail about how this actually works, because her interest is more in the experience of the people who undertake the experiment, either as ‘body’ or ‘tourist’, rather than the technicalities of the scenario.
The book has chapters told from a range of characters: Paula, who lives on one of the estates and is paid as a ‘body’ along with her boyfriend Ryan; Richard K., an aging rock star who decides to bring his father back; Lindy and Elsa, whose relationship is shattered by an accusation of criminal activity prior to the death; Mary, a highly-religious Ugandan immigrant whose son agrees to ‘loan’ his body. The narrative voice of each character is different enough that they are instantly recognizable: the indifferently-educated voice of Paul from the estates; the ‘Even me’ phrase of Ugandan Mary; the entitled and world weary voice of Richard K. and the educated voice of Elsa, a school principal. Each of the scenarios throws up its own quandaries; perhaps a few too many for a small book.
This is a grim world, where the rich are able to transcend the dreary lives of the many. Food is manufactured; children are taught by bots who monitor them and provide screen-based information as required; synths take over the mundane jobs. Virtual reality is an inane, addictive escape. Given all this grittiness, the resolution of the book was too neat for me.
This book started off as a radio play on the BBC Dangerous Visions program, which looks quite interesting. With its rotating chapter structure, it would lend itself well to a radio series, and perhaps the need to ‘finish it off’ prompted what was for me an overly optimistic, unsatisfactory ending.
It was only when I looked at the author’s other works that I remembered that I had read and enjoyed Jane Rogers’ Mr Wroe’s Virgins, before I started this blog. The two books, separated by 28 years (!) are quite similar, in that there is a rotating narrative that is shared between people who are victims in an exploitative scheme. However, where Mr Wroe’s Virgins was based on a real-life historical event, Body Tourists takes us into a future that is rather too recognizable and, fortunately, in the realm of a science-fiction dystopia- for now.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.