Body Tourists by Jane Rogers
I should be reviewing the pile of books sitting beside me, but having finished this one yesterday, I just had to get my thoughts down straight away. The last book I read by Jane Rogers was her 2011 Booker longisted The Testament of Jessie Lamb (reviewed here). Although I loved the ideas in that book, I found it incredibly frustrating to read, mainly because we only got the teenaged protagonist’s limited point of view, but also because it was set in the ‘now’ with a scenario that involved a terrorist released virus which killed pregnant women – which because of being told through Jessie’s voice, wasn’t explained anywhere near enough for me. The rationalist in me couldn’t let disbelief take over the dodgy science, with it essentially being set in the present though. Had Rogers moved the action on at least, say, thirty years, I might have been able to appreciate it more, for she is evidently a writer with some great ideas.
Although I enjoyed Body Tourists, I had an initially similar, if less strong this time, reaction. Let me tell you about the novel.
It’s 2045, and digital memory transfer means that the cryogenically stored dead can have their memory installed into a ‘synth’ – but that’s leading to a legal minefield whether the status of such a creature is human or not human, and isn’t now permitted. Luke Butler has a solution – he has found a way to let a dead person’s stored memory take over an organic body for a short period of time, theoretically with no harm to the host. His very rich, very old aunt, who lives on her own tropical tax haven island will finance the trials – now he needs to recruit volunteers.
There is no shortage of potential hosts. More than ever before, Britain is divided into the haves and the have nots. The have nots live in huge estates and most of them never venture outside their own area. The poor are kept in their place by their poverty. Luke recruits the first two hosts from one of these estates – Paula and Ryan, a couple who are young and fit. They will be paid £10k each for the trial, in which they will go to sleep, and their minds will reawaken a fortnight later, after the memory capsule implanted into their armpit turns off. They will be transferred to Aunt Gudrun’s five star Paradise Island for the fortnight.
But, of course, Luke isn’t conducting a proper clinical trial. One of the first people he chooses to implant is his mentor, a formidable scientist called Octavia. He puts her into Ryan’s body, and she enjoys it so much (in so many ways!) she persuades Luke to let her out into the world rather than force her to go to the island for the fortnight. She will live her new short life to the full – and Ryan will never wake; Luke will lose her results but has to pay off Paula.
Rogers changes the point of view throughout the many, mostly short chapters. Sometimes we hear from Gudrun or Luke, but also the hosts, those implanted and their families. By giving us different experiences of this process from both sides, Rogers examines many of the possible scenarios – and they’re not all bad – but whatever the outcome, there are difficulties, regrets and consequences for all to come to terms with. An ageing rock-star gets his Jewish father, who died at the age he is now, revived and has to counter his hidden racism, when he discovers his father’s host is a handsome young black man who makes eyes at his wife. A teacher accused of abuse who died in tragic circumstances is brought back to right wrongs – this was a particularly powerful story. But, Paula’s ongoing story continues throughout the book, as Luke has paid for her to open a dance studio – a good source of host candidates.
The real baddie of the piece is Gudrun – I would have liked a little more Bond villainess from her. Luke as her henchman is weak and gullible, but he admits doing the human stuff is not his thing, he’s a scientist, “All intellect, no empathy,” according to his sister Hilary, who will come to play a large part later in the novel.
The science, in that a programmed capsule could be implanted in someone’s armpit to take over the host’s brain action, was ludicrous and we’re not given any more explanation about Luke’s research that led to his breakthrough – we’re forced to accept it, and I found this difficult. Also, the ease at which those implanted seemed to accept their new bodies seemed unrealistic – and then to discover they’ve only got a fortnight… well that’s bound to end in tears, isn’t it? Added to that, this is a rich person’s game.
Time setting wise, it also felt too soon for the many jobs that had been taken over by bots, the nurse bots needing a double-take to distinguish whether they were human or robot. Whereas, when I watched the excellent Russell T. Davies series for the BBC, Years and Years which followed one family from 2019 to 2035, I could just about cope with a dying character’s memories being uploaded to the cloud at the end, I still find that downloading memory from a cryogenically stored brain ten years later an impossible concept – give me Futurama’s cloned ‘Heads in Jars’ any day!
Rogers gradually won me over, however, with her powerful social message, so by the end of the novel I’d largely got over the lack of technology and was cheering on the hosts and those opposing the process. This is book of grand concepts that like Jessie Lamb, needed more exposition, but one that I came to enjoy a lot more. (7.5/10)
See also what Laura thought about this novel here.
Source: Library – the only book I’ve read from my small remaining pile of loaned books – my ‘library checkout‘ as hosted by Rebecca.