While the benefits of disease eradication are oft desired, the ramifications of such a world are not hard to imagine: overpopulation, senescence, entropy. Speculative fiction has played with this trope for ages, resulting in stories that span from the optimistic to the apocalyptic to the zombie apocalyptic. Some might argue that it’s overdone, but that doesn’t stop writers from continuing the trend, because it’s something we all want, we don’t have, and we should fear what we don’t have because we might not ever have it or understand it, and also vaccinations might cause zombies.
But leave it to D. G. Compton to find a new angle on the whole brave new disease-free world trope. In The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (published in the U. S. as The Unsleeping Eye– my copy, and later as Death Watch, after the movie), D. G. Compton ignores those obvious consequences (although we get a slight flavor of societal decay in the background), and instead twists his tale to illuminate the effects of the absence of disease on a media-suffused, yet “pain-starved public” (p. 31).
Katherine Mortenhoe is a middle-aged computabook programmer. (The blurb on the back says she’s young and beautiful, but blurbs are usually stupid and this one is overdramatized and misleading.) She learns that she has four weeks to live, and NTV wants to film her last days for the popular Human Destinies reality TV show. Rod is hired to film her with his surgically-implanted TV camera eyes, “the world’s morbid curiosity made flesh” (p. 203), but Katherine would rather die in peace, and off-camera, and Rod would rather earn his big paycheck without betraying and humiliating the dying Katherine Mortenhoe. Instead, Rod befriends Katherine while she’s on the run from NTV, and they develop a strange, tense friendship based on her need for love and care, and his need to overcome the guilt of his duplicity.
This book was recommended to me by Joachim at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations, after I lamented that Bujold’s Paladin of Souls (2003) was rare for having a middle-aged female protagonist. SF likes its heroines to be young and beautiful, so it’s always refreshing to find a book that casts light on a more realistic, and wizened, female character. Going into The Unsleeping Eye, I was dubious, one, because it’s a book about a woman that’s written by a male (I’m a bit biased), and two, because Joachim likes his fiction moody, broody, meta, and twisted, which is the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night. But as far as recommendations go, he hasn’t failed me yet. This novel is also a Gollancz SF Masterwork, despite being ignored by both the Hugos and the Nebulas.
At first glance, the novel reads simple, maybe even shallow, as Compton’s background in crime fiction is apparent in the first few pages. The language is direct, cold, and sometimes unwieldy. “He’d been too evidently lonely. And too undevious,” (p. 13) is an example of some of the clunky phraseology that, thankfully, disappears as the story picks up. The stark language remains, as we learn quickly that Compton’s objective is not to create pretty prose, it’s to provide a strange exploration of perspective, exercised in the use of characters as strange camera angles, throwing shadows onto light and light onto the shadows of the human psyche.
Like a multi-camera TV show, Compton toys with these perspectives, switching from camera 1, a first-person Rod and his cyborg eyes, to camera 2, a third-person observation of Katherine and the people around her (including Rod). These transitions are always jarring, which only reminds us of how little we know about the dying Katherine Mortenhoe. We know her through Rod’s eyes, and we know her through the narrator’s observations as she interacts with other people, but Katherine is always a mystery, even to the people who claim to love her (and hate her). Maybe she’s even a mystery to herself, but I’m not so convinced of that.
Aside from jarring camera switches, Rod and Katherine exemplify drastically different philosophical perspectives, making those narrative switches all the more disruptive. Rod believes in continuity, “having long ago decided that people were only true when they were continuous” (p. 9). He sees his job as a reality TV director is to uncover the very real, very truthful, continuous person. Katherine, however, believes “that neither the peaks nor the valleys were necessarily “true”; there was no truth in human emotion, only differing degrees of chemical imbalance” (p. 20). Because of these differing viewpoints, their resulting friendship is tense and uncomfortable, despite the warmth they sometimes kindle. These two people who have very little in common, they withhold much, yet need each other. And the reader is left to decide if either Katherine or Rod are ever true to their own philosophies.
The world in which they live is a vague future Britain, plagued by vague unrest, in a vague future world where only four major languages have survived. It’s vague because Compton doesn’t take the time to world-build (thank you), so instead we catch glimpses of the environment through minor interactions with the scenery and its peripheral characters. Hippie communes of “Fringies” exist in the urban center, Dial-A-Church telelines are available for quick spiritual guidance, and eerily tranquil protests block traffic daily. It may feel as though Compton neglects the more serious implications of disease eradication, but we can surmise from these little glimpses that some of this unrest stems from a humanity unprepared for its advancements.
Dark as it may sound, the novel is full of funny moments, which lends a satirical quality to what could be an otherwise disturbing book. Most of these moments are inspired by Katherine, who often models her behavior off of various characters from her computer-generated romance novels. When she learns of her disease, she tells herself, “A Celia Wentworth heroine would believe things weren’t really real if they weren’t really talked about” (p. 30). When the Dial-a-Church preacher asks Katherine if she’s taken any drugs, she responds, “’I’ve taken umbrage’” (p. 42). Best of all, Compton’s simple prose is loaded with characterization. Somehow, the voicing comes alive, even for the supporting characters, and I’m still not sure how Compton does it.
The Unsleeping Eye is a well-written account about death and dying: from the perspective of a dying woman, her friends and family, and from the perspective of the decaying society at large. Compton’s portrayal of his female protagonist is complex, yet in some places, I still found it wanting. Katherine’s illness is due to some mumbo-jumbo about mental outrage, which hearkens back to the sexist outcries about “female outrage.” But overlook that, please, because we later forgive Compton as we discover more about the real nature of this disease. Still, where she finds herself at the end of her life is disappointing and stereotyped, a woman seeking approval from one man until her dying minute. Fortunately, Rod is no better off in this aspect, and maybe that’s Compton’s point: that we all just want to be loved, especially in the end.
Highly recommended for anyone.