Compton, a prolific British genre author, has dabbled in gothic and crime fiction (his first novel, published in 1962, bears the wonderfully tautological title Too Many Murderers.) But his best work uses tenable near-future technologies to explore why and how we want the things we’ve long wanted: dignity, happiness, and, most pressingly, the empathy and understanding of our fellow humans. The blurbs on Mortenhoe’s back cover suggest parallels with Margaret Atwood and Philip K. Dick, and it’s easy to see the connections. Compton shares those authors’ satirical edge, always keeping the present insistently in mind. Yet more than in most literary science fiction, Mortenhoe’s genre trappings feel incidental. The novel renders its imagined technologies with such deft understatement that they end up seeming as mundane as our own. This quality isn’t unique to Compton — in fact, it’s typical of the quietly countercultural, inward-looking SF of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Works like Silent Running, Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 film about the destruction of the Earth’s last plant life, and The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 novel set in a teeming, impoverished version of Portland, Oregon, anticipate the humble uncanniness of Mortenhoe’s not-quite-now. These fictional dystopias may be unassuming, but they are also far more plausible — and unsettling — than any vision of apocalypse.
Of course, as in most retro SF, there’s also a lot in Mortenhoe that’s dated. Computers are clunky boxes; phones have cords. Even the novel’s set-piece premises — a reality TV show about death and video cameras that can be implanted in the eye — seem, in their assumed novelty, slightly quaint. Yet, if you set contemporary analogues aside, Mortenhoe is both prescient and apt, not, as its premises might suggest, on the subject of reality programs (a genre almost as old as television itself), but on what identity means when it is shared through a public-facing, selectively edited medium.
Such compulsory authenticity has not gone without literary critique. Dave Egger’s 2013 novel The Circle skewers the tyrannical naïveté of Zuckerberg’s vision in its portrayal of young employee’s inculcation into a tech giant’s gospel of total disclosure. In a climatic scene, Bailey, the company’s charismatic leader, gives a TED talk–style presentation in which he distills his worldview into faux-deep aphorisms: “Secrets are lies. Sharing is caring. Privacy is theft.” Awed by Bailey’s vision, Mae, the employee, agrees to “go transparent” — to continually broadcast exactly what she sees while she narrates her thoughts to her viewers. Like Zuckerberg, Bailey frames transparency — part of his global project of “Clarification”— in moral terms. In his words, it “compel[s] us to be our best selves.”
In Mortenhoe, however, no one really believes that a media-enabled transparency makes us better people. Part of The Circle’s appeal is in the way it makes the reader feel both savvier and smarter than its characters — it’s a parable designed not to instruct but to confirm what we already sense. But, by showing the ways even knowing users of technology can find its effects unpredictable, Compton refuses to let us off the hook so easily. Focusing on the dissonance between who we are, what we see, and what we show to others, Mortenhoe portrays intimate, omnipresent media as a kind of art form — capable, like all art forms, of both alienating and elevating its audience.
Mortenhoe reveals its plot gradually, but its main points are easily condensed: in this future, medicine has nearly eradicated death from anything other than violent calamity or extreme old age. The rare debilitations that do occur are documented in nearly real time for a higher-brow reality TV program called Human Destiny, which caters to a “pain-starved public.” For the dying, participation in Human Destiny is a kind of civic duty. Roddie, a Human Destiny host who has recently become the first person to have his eyes turned into literal cameras, agrees to cover the dying of Katherine, a wry fortysomething editor of “Computabook” romance novels (in this future, pulp fiction is half imagination, half algorithm.) Defiant yet sensitive, Katherine has been diagnosed with a terminal disease brought on by her brain’s rebellion against an onslaught of sensory stimuli. Revolted by the sudden scrutiny of her every action, she refuses to sign with Human Destiny or accept her inept husband’s well-intentioned comfort. Disguising herself as a “fringie,” one of the masses of itinerant, off-the-grid nonconformists who protest the status quo by continually blocking highways and disrupting the power grid — Katherine goes into hiding to die in private, where she is tracked and befriended by Roddie, who broadcasts their growingly intimate relationship and her physical decline without her knowledge.
This is the novel’s outline, but its interests lie in neither its technologies nor the sensationalism suggested by its subject matter. Instead, alternating between a third-person narrator closely aligned with Katherine’s perspective and first-person reports from Roddie, Mortenhoe undoes the very notion of an authentic self even as it celebrates fiction and other media’s ability to produce a kind of self-coherence. The novel’s dual voices are key to this project: Roddie’s first-person narration is always a performance, swaggering and satirical when it’s not trying to sound deep: “Some people are fascinated by chance decisions […] Me they bore stiff.” With Katherine, however, we’re always eavesdropping. We are privy to her thoughts and sensations, unmediated by any self-conscious presentation. Yet despite our intimate access to Katherine’s mind, Roddie is the character we come to know best. Fictional omniscience, typically considered an ideal means of presenting characters’ rich interiority, here only underscores how poorly we know Katherine. This, for example, is her response to her husband’s desire for her to share her dying with the public: “Of course he was quite right. ‘Of course you’re quite right,’ she said. And suddenly saw that the only way for her to endure what remained was to be totally on her own.” This sequence of mechanical reaction, declaration, and abrupt decision feels persuasive yet disjointed, possessed of an instinctive logic beyond articulation. In such instances, the closer we get to Katherine, the less she seems to cohere. In contrast, the artifice of Roddie’s narration keeps us at arm’s length, but also gives us access to those aspects of his character he can’t or won’t share.
The difficulty of imagining oneself into another’s consciousness is amplified in the novel’s repeated depictions of brusque, careless violence. A reporter who trails Katherine long enough to merit a name — Mathiesson — is killed when a turbine truck rear-ends the taxi he is using to follow her. Later, as Roddie attempts to circumvent a human roadblock, he accidentally runs over two protesters, hearing them moan in agony beneath his car. Both scenes are played for detached, queasy humor — as Katherine observes Mathiesson’s broken neck and face “imprinted with crumbled lozenges of shatterproof glass,” she notes a bystander too enthralled in one of her own romance novels to pay attention to the horror in front of him. Roddie describes his own accident as a kind of darkly comic misadventure — “it was hardly surprising, almost inevitable, that I should run the big front wheels of my car over two of the marchers before I could stop.” Katherine and Roddie aren’t sadists; they treat the people close to them with compassion, but when faced with the immediate reality of a stranger’s suffering, they are unconcerned to the point of cruelty. No sooner do these deaths occur than the novel leaves them behind — they have no lasting effects on either character or plot.
Such abrupt callousness is particularly notable because Katherine herself is so frequently its object. When forced to directly confront her would-be viewers, she finds them threatening or pitilessly apathetic. “It was only face to face that they feared her,” she reflects, “interpolate a TV screen, a director’s sensibility, and these same people would experience veritable orgies of compassion.” Katherine’s surmise is bitter, but it’s neither wrong nor startling. Taken together with the novel’s many gory representations of empathy’s failure, her observation clarifies the novel’s discomfiting assertion: media like reality TV, like Facebook, portray other people with a depth, coherence, and humanity that is otherwise hard to see. But they don’t change anything about the way we interact in person — they don’t make us better. If anything, their content is so compelling that they turn our unmediated lives into grimy reflections of the virtual real thing. Like Zuckerberg’s Facebook, they lay claim not merely to our attention, but to our sense of self.
In his introduction to the NYRB’s Mortenhoe, celebrated SF novelist and critic Jeff VanderMeer, author of the fantastic Southern Reach trilogy, proposes that Compton’s novel succeeds and endures because it demonstrates “that interiority can trump the voyeuristic tendencies of the camera, the coarsening that would have otherwise leached away the private, the personal.” The “real real,” he adds, makes “the fake real” meaningless. VanderMeer builds on a long-standing and now intuitive notion: our realness, our authenticity, exists under the surface, away from public view. Fiction’s virtue, then, is that it gives voice to the otherwise inaccessible truth of interiority, it mimics what happens when we come to know and care for another person. In VanderMeer’s words, “there are images that cannot be captured on video or in a still photograph but exist fully only the moment of human interpretation.” When, for example, Roddie is forced to watch the footage he has collected — to, in other words, watch his very act of seeing — he is horrified by the version of Katherine it presents. When Roddie looks at Katherine in person, he sees a human being dignified by suffering; when he looks at the images his eyes have transmitted on a screen, he sees a pathetic, ungainly stranger in a failing body.
VandeerMeer makes Roddie’s realization a rejection of certain kinds of mediation — we can grasp others’ reality not through the documentary, but the imaginary. At the same time, however, his description of this process unintentionally demonstrates the pitfalls of privileging one version of “the real” over another. The “moment of human interpretation” he reads in Roddie’s face-to-face encounter with Katherine is just that — not the thing itself, but its perception, always and already mediated. In this sense, then, the eye is no different from the camera, and the camera’s work is no different from that of fiction — their “interpretations” don’t so much change reality as continually create and recreate it. In a nod to Mortenhoe’s title, Roddie says at one point that people are only true when they’re “continuous” — when, that is, they’re made up of things — names, desires, traits — that endure from one moment to the next. Roddie initially believes that these continuous qualities inhere in the person herself, but by Mortenhoe’s conclusion we are left with the feeling that they belong not to us but to others. They are the products of the ways we’re seen, the ways we’re documented. Compton’s novel is too smart to say if this is a good or bad thing, but it does suggest that if we want to attend to the ways we succeed or fail to understand others, we would be well served by untethering identity from notions of truth. Authenticity, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.