Thursday, September 26, 2013

Love Minus Eighty

Rating: 3 stars
Length: On the long side (403 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: June 11, 2013 from Orbit Books
Premise: In the year 2133, people are connected to each other constantly via systems that bring them all the information they could ever want and then some. They also flee the fear of death by buying cryonic insurance, which ensures that their corpses will be frozen and others will have the option to revive them in the future. It's a narrow chance, but some women are offered an uncomfortable and different way out.
Warnings: implied sexual coercion, coerced marriage as indentured servitude
Recommendation: The interpersonal relationships are all over the map, but no one gets either a perfectly happy ending or a simple helping of just desserts. I suspect that the novella was better, but this was an intriguing read.

Spoilers for about the first fifty pages of the book, but the point I'm discussing tends to make it into any detailed summary text. 

What gives this one cold fear and warmer connections:

The narrative opens on a woman named Mira being temporarily revived to go on a "date" with a man she's never seen before. He explains that she's been chosen for Cryogen's "bridesicle" program. She had insurance and got into an accident, but she was also beautiful, and that makes her a good prospect for revival. Some wealthy men are willing to pay the millions necessary to have a woman revived and locked into a lifetime marriage contract, so they go on short but expensive "dates" with women who can only be returned to life if these men agree to it. Cryogen has been shifty (or careless, rather) about obtaining consent from these women, and the segments from Mira's point of view richly illustrate how terrifying it is. The women here have only seconds to think before they're badgered, and at any time their visitors can simply end the session and send them back to being dead, with no thoughts in that numb in-between state. They start to want to stay alive at any cost, and the sorts of men who come for dates want essentially a trapped personal prostitute, so they coax or coerce the women into dirty talk and promising sexual favors. It's humiliating at best and cruel at worst; the women know that they'll be going into a living hell if they sign marriage contracts, but at least they'll be out in the world again instead of locked in cold drawers where they can only move their faces and never see the sun. Will McIntosh really digs into the fear, and that helps anchor the narrative.

Three different characters carry the point of view at different times: Mira gets a few chapters here and there while she's awake, but the bulk of the action is carried by Rob and Veronika. I'll address Veronika later, but Rob carries a story arc that ought to be overdone and trite but miraculously isn't. After a dramatic breakup with the attention-seeking Lorelei, Rob has a few drinks and then gets behind the wheel to drive anywhere, just away. He hits Winter, a woman who was out jogging, and kills her instantly. She is, however, just beautiful enough to be pulled into the bridesicle program even without insurance. Rob feels that he has to visit her and pay his respects, so he saves up and takes out loans for a "date." She is naturally terrified of going back to being dead, so she asks Rob to promise to come by and just talk to her when he can. He could feel guilty, and does-- she could hate him, and sometimes does. But over the course of their visits, they end up finding a meeting of minds. They can't touch while she's frozen and won't be able to touch even if she's revived and forced into a marriage contract, so their conversations tend to come back to life, simple happiness, and whatever connection they can find. It's moving even when it's cheesy, and almost impossible not to sympathize with both of them for being so very flawed and earnest about their mistakes and dreams. The way other characters occasionally call Rob a saint can be grating, but he very nearly lives up to the label.

Rob's quest to find enough money to keep also ends up illuminating quite a bit about this society as a whole. Class systems are part of almost every society, but here it's more overt: the wealthy live in High Town, where they are safe and have access to plentiful resources. Those who can't afford that live in Low Town, which is more cramped and literally overshadowed by the soaring architecture of High Town, or out in the suburbs. Moving farther from the hubs of wealth also means losing some edge of technology. Those who can afford to do so are plugged into the feeds of others, watching other lives, and carrying on several conversations at once via subvocalization. At times it's hard to believe that so many conversations are going on, given how hard to can be just to conduct a phone conversation while someone in the room is trying to get your attention, but for the most part the split attention is quite realistic. When a simple toll can get you a direct view of the pyramids or the surface of the moon through your screen, why fixate on the mundane tasks necessary to your own life? McIntosh avoids any platforms about how people need to give up technology to be happy, or about how social connection undermines real bonds: instead, he shows how it can save lives or destroy them, inject joy or misery as people struggle to find happiness in a world that seems to offer it everywhere, and the world feels more realistic as a result.

The red pen:

The interpersonal relationships at the heart of the novel often work quite well, but the larger worldbuilding is shaky in a way that might not have been as obvious in the more compact novella. The bridesicle program itself may be the biggest sticking point-- while the fear on the inside is truly compelling, the framework is less so. It makes sense that CryoGen might want to make money from some its more beautiful frozen people, but no company with this much money should be this bad at planning. Most obviously, the women are called bridesicles and don't seem to have a more respectful official name for marketing spin. One character mentions that the rates on date-visits are kept deliberately high so that relatives and people who can't afford full revival are less likely to show up, but why not make money on the micro-transactions of people paying a few thousand once every month or so to see their dead friends or spouses? If the rates are artificially high, why hasn't Cryogen given most of the women even the most rudimentary orientation about what to expect from their visitors? Reviving them for a few minutes of talking makes good sense, and the scenes only seem to be set up this way to provide smooth exposition for the reader? Why aren't there groomsicles or more female clients? The characters address this for all of a page and mention that women are just less drawn to the weird power play inherent in bridesicles and there aren't many lesbians, but this is a frustratingly pat answer that can be countered with "bisexual people exist." Are there really no wealthy women who want trapped male or female lovers, no wealthy men who happen to be gay or bisexual? If security is supposedly so tight, how does one character smuggle in communication and recording devices on multiple occasions? Cryogen does a decent job of filling the role of big evil corporation, but it's not competent enough to register as an actual threat for more than a few chapters at a time-- it exists in a way that's convenient to the plot and no more.

Mira makes for an incredibly compelling character because she's so emotionally alive while unable to so much as turn her head to the side, but the characters out in the real world don't always live up to her example. Veronika, a dating coach who specializes in teaching people how to present themselves to find the best possible match, straddles the line between interesting and flat. When she's talking about her field, she glows: she knows how to work the numbers and how to predict how a relationship will go on a more human level, and yet she's in love with the best friend who seems to have no interest in her. It's an old trope that those best at giving romantic advice are the worst at taking it themselves, but for Veronika it works because she's self-aware enough to reach for analysis instead of just moping. The problems arise when she changes, sadly enough: she's been furious for years because her last lover left her and married her sister, and she's been in a sort of stasis. Her attempts to change and seek adventure seem as though she's forcing herself to be charming and quirky; she refers to herself as sarcastic and a touch bitchy, but her words and action only rarely bear that out. She's more likely to come across as nervous and fussy, a bizarre mixture of lonely lady with romance novels, successful businesswoman, and teenager with a journal. Nathan, the best friend in question, is flashy and handsome and ultimately shallow, adding a few connections between characters without having any real dimension himself, and that can make some of Veronika's chapters tiresome to read. 

Lorelei, Rob's ex-girlfriend and later the nexus for many character connections necessary to plot development, is a mixed bag. She's a rising celebrity who lives her life under the constant eye of her people, who seem to clump around her at least several hundred at a time, and that means that she has to create drama to keep her viewers coming back for more. Sometimes this works really well, like when she pulls back to realize that she didn't know what she was doing in a passionate moment that played well with her viewers, or in the rare moments when she admits that the line between what's real and what's cleverly staged has blurred for her. In other places, she's too much of a trope, the beautiful woman who can snag all the men and attention she wants but feels somewhat hollow inside as she's cruel to the people who care about her. She could have been excellent in her role as the embodiment of connection and split attention, but her potential for genuine emotion is barely present, which is bothersome when everyone else in the story seems so open with emotion. All the half-pieces of connection seem to make people more desperate for something real, so they come off as almost childlike in their trembling optimism while Lorelei floats on in a cloud of media attention. Giving her more depth or presenting her attention-heavy life as a more fulfilling decision could have rounded out this cast of characters, but she's just....not quite as intelligent, not quite as present, and that underlines the pervasive goal of finding a love interest in a way that's detrimental to the story.

The verdict: Love Minus Eighty weaves the characters together so tightly that it's easy to see how connected by technology this world is, but it ultimately doesn't leave the impression that it could. The characters spend too much time focused on romance-- even when they point out explicitly that romance is only one part of life or try to reach for comfort with friends and family, a compelling enough emotional moment has them dropping all that to pine over their desired partners. It makes the tone of the novel slightly fluffier than the subject matter warrants in places, but I'd certainly try more books from the same author.

Prospects: This reads as solid on its own, but one of the ideas from the novella that was scrapped here was developed into a novel called Hitchers.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Syne Mitchell's Technogenesis doesn't deal with the cryonic element, but it does address reliance on technology and what a meaningful connection is from a different and intriguing angle.

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