Books, science fiction

“Nobility Sounds Wonderful As A Concept”: Drew Magary’s “The End Specialist”

"Climate Change. Boy, I don't know."

Every Clarke Award shortlist has a slot for the outsider, the mainstream science fiction novel, or the slipstreamy not-quite-anything piece. This year, that slot is filled, one would assume at first glance, by Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb, a refugee from the Booker longlist which has made a longer run of it in the genre award stakes. I’ve yet to get to that volume, but having read Drew Magary’s The End Specialist, which is conversely sold in the science fiction sections of the bookshops and has been reviewed by a slew of genre bloggers (though apparently no one else), I feel like I’ve found this year’s true naïf.

Published in the USA under the title of The Postmortal, Magary’s debut novel does exactly what it says on its American tin: in 2019, a cure for death becomes widely available, first on the black market and then, following riots demanding its legalisation, through the healthcare system. Following a short prologue set in 2093, which makes clear that the world (and for the world, we must read ‘the USA’) survives the cure in only the loosest sense, we join our narrator, John Farrell, in his journey through the forty-or-so years of his immortality. Like the police in Rule 34, Farrell uses a LifeRecorder to document his life, and this provides us an archive of ‘blog posts’, grouped into sections often separated by a decade or more, through which we can read his future history.

Farrell is a passive kind of protagonist, to whom things happen – he is given access to the cure through a friend and doesn’t really think through his choice to take it, and later he suffers bereavements and career changes largely it seems by accident. Magary’s choice to skip whole swathes of his protagonist’s story leaves so many gaps in not just his history but his characterisation that the only justified conclusion we can draw about Farrell is that he is intensely solipsistic. Perhaps this is the point – the doctor who undertakes the procedure with Farrell remarks that it is vanity that powers every individual to opt for immortality, and later in the novel we are introduced to the Church of Man, which opts to worhsip not a deity but humankind itself. So curious an alignment of self-absorption with passivity, however, conspires to produce a strangely featureless narrator.

In his acknowledgements, Magary cites his agent as the figure responsible for turning a ‘masturbatory idea dump’ into a novel, and in this crude fashioning of his protagonist – and, so cursory are his writerly glances at anyone else, his only real character – there appears to be the remnant of Magary’s rougher, poorer draft. Indeed, the editing appears only to have provided a stronger through-line in the episodic second half of the novel, which piles scene upon scene to no great effect. One of the greatest weaknesses of The End Specialist is that its plot is insufficiently muscular: this is a novel written and structured like an airport thriller, like a Hollywood blockbuster, and yet it lacks the thundering engine of story that kind of work requires. The closest thing Farrell’s disjointed jaunt through the deleterious effects of immortality has to a plot comes in the shape of a woman, a uniquely beautiful blonde he first sees at his cure doctor’s offices; Farrell makes some considerable hullabullaloo about this individual in the first third of the novel, but she disappears for the middle third before returning in its final straight. We learn that her name is Solara Beck and that, far from being the driver of a novel’s hidden events – which, with her connections to several bombings and her uncanny ability to disappear, we may have hoped her to be – she turns out to be a damsel in distress who provides Farrell, within a few pages of rapid conversion from nihilist to knight, his chance at redemption.

This is clumsy, ill-paced stuff, and Magary’s treatment of Beck is of a piece with his treatment of anyone in his novel who isn’t male and American. Women either die or get divorced; other nations, in particular China and Russia, are depicted as dark, barbaric places, governable only through dictatorship and devilry. The End Specialist is a dark book because it posits that the openness and faith in humanity professed by the reasonable American president who legalises the cure in the face of mass protest is ill-suited to a world of depleting resources and human venality. It’s hard not to read the book as an allegory for climate change – which is nevertheless conspicuous in its absence from Magary’s 2059, suffering from over-population but not rising sea levels or intolerable summers. Our earth, too, is having trouble keeping up with the “epidemic of living” [pg. 226], and, in depicting a savage future governed solely by human want, Magary provides a circumlocutory riposte to the shock-jock talkshow hosts of his own world: “See, this […] is liberal thinking at its absolute worst. […] Humans are bad. ‘Oh, you can’t live forever! You’ll emit too much carbon! You’ll throw away too much garbage! An owl will die!” [pg. 33]  The implications of his riposte, however, are not thought through: if not liberal democracy, and if not unjustifiable brutality, then what?

This is a pity, because otherwise the principal achievement of The End Specialist is the detail with which it extrapolates from its central conceit. The cure itself is surely a nonsense scientifically: “what this involves is me taking a sample of your DNA,” says John’s doctor, “then finding and altering – or, more precisely, deactivating – a specific gene in your DNA, and then reintroducing it to your body” [pg. 6]. Given that little absurdity, however, The End Specialist exhaustively explores a world in which death has been abolished. Indeed, and especially early on, the novel at times takes on rather too Socratic an air, with characters talking to each other about complex ethical issues. Likewise, Magary recalls a less economical John Brunner, pouring in endless quotes from ‘newsfeeds’ and ‘streams’, interviews and videos, which paint in yet further detail. The occassional cartoonish of this detail – the baby-branding Chinese (“what else do you expect from a country that tattoos newborns?” [pg. 320]) and the unconscionable rationalism of the Russians (“dictatorship was not an option, but a necessity” [pg. 277]) –  doesn’t help Magary’s case, but at the same time he can nail human nature with some pith: “I’m guessing there will be a point where [the cure is] legal and everyone has it and I feel obligated to get it too,” grumbles Farrell’s sister. “I was like that with cell phones.” [pg. 63]

Unfortunately, Magary’s structure creaks under the weight of all these discursive detours – tellingly, in an interview with the AV Club he seems to persist in understanding the first and second halves of the novels as separate entities. Furthermore, beyond this illusion of detail, and the witticisms and wisecracks which are his strength, his material is undeniably thin. There’s a moment when Farrell is selecting his ‘grail’ – there comes a fashion for all postmortals to own a little cup like Christ’s – when Magary inserts Indiana Jones into his text. Much of The End Specialist feels received in this way, as if Jonathan Swift made all the salient points about immortality in 1726 and Magary’s job is merely to insert smartphones into the milieu. For all his invention – the eponymous job title belongs to government-sanctioned euthanisers, for instance, and their opposite numbers come to be the fanatical ‘Greenies’, internet trolls made flesh who seek to spoil postmortality with violence and torture – there remains in the air between these pages a certain staleness: “cheap suits flooded the hallway and skittered around like vermin, [pg. 370]”, for example, is a clause powered purely by cliché.

In that AV Club interview, Magary confesses that he discovered only once he had completed his novel that Kurt Vonnegut had written a short story about precisely the same concept (one assumes he means ‘2 B R o 2B’). It’s this ignorance of its forebears, of course, which leads The End Specialist, despite its accumulated variety of incident and its comedic deftness, ultimately to read thinly and clumsily. I can see why those former qualities were deemed by the Clarke judges as reason enough to honour the book with a spot on the shortlist; I struggle, however, to understand how they trumped the similar qualities of other books which did not exhibit the latter demerits to quite so pronounced a degree.

Books, science fiction

SF and Experimentalism

SF makes this man cry.

A piece in the Observer’s New Review last weekend looked at an alleged decline in experimental fiction in English. “Avant garde fiction,” argued the writer, William Skidelsky, “at least in Britain and America, isn’t flourishing.” Skidelsky seemed to be defining experimentalism as a formal phenomenon – that is, one of style and structure rather than subject or theme. He opened his argument by recalling an NYRB review from Zadie Smith, in which she wrote that, “A breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.”

I’m not sure that analogy quite works on any level, but my first thought was the exclusion of genre fiction from the discussion: there are many exits from this highway on which Smith can perceive only one type of car (told you it didn’t quite work), but they lead off to ghettoes and undergrowth. Surely science fiction, that literature of ideas, is a redoubt of expertimentalism? It can’t be by accident that one of Skidelsky’s cited experimenters – David Mitchell – brings to his work a science fictional perspective, or that any number of other literary adventurists (Simon Ings, Scarlett Thomas) also know the genre. On further thought, though, I couldn’t say hand on heart that science fiction at its core was any more expeimental in the terms set by Skidelsky.

Take China Miéville, who, despite what I perceive to be recent mis-steps, remains one of SF’s most exciting and inventive writers. Formally, his novels are standard narratives: expansive, discursive and roccoco narratives, but straight-forward all the same. You might not be able to use Smith’s term ‘lyrical realism’ to describe his novels’ content, but their style is not so far removed. For every Philip K Dick, who (at times only) wrote novels which approached a Joyceian sensibility, science fiction has a John Brunner, whose Stand on Zanzibar is only experimental in so far as it echoes a standard form established by Dos Passos; or an Ian McDonald, a writer whom, for all his flair and multiple perspectives, tells a straight story straightly. McDonald’s Brasyl is an example of how SF can use the fluidity of time to add grain to its structures in a way that literary and mainstream fiction often cannot – but Woolf did Time Passes in 1927. Temporal hi-jinx is not in and of itself so very daring.

Film has used science fiction more experimentally, perhaps – from La Jetée or Solaris to Primer and 2046 – and one wonders if the way in which science fiction has become a dominant aesthetic of film gives directors a courage that their literary counterparts, still fighting a losing battle against their own field’s dominant mode, might lack. There are, of course, always writers at the edges – John Burnside in Glister, or Jeff VanderMeer in City of Saints and Madmen – who ask questions of the dominant mode. SF is certainly no less experimental than mainstream or literary fiction – the New Wave largely saw to that. But is it, despite all its potential for mind-bending pyrotechnics, for the most part cruising in a similar gear?