In this future, illness and disease is all but eliminated, and a rare few become sick. The last days of these few incurables are broadcast on network television before a pain-starved public, with network companies like NTV raking in viewers by courting death. Katherine Mortenhoe is dying; she’s only 44, but her case is terminal, an illness with no sure treatment and less than four weeks left to live. But when NTV approaches her with promises of fame and fortune, she rejects them, refusing to monetize her illness and live out her last painful days as their puppet, hoping to pull a fast one on the network by going into hiding.
In response, NTV sends their best reporter to shadow her: Roddie, a young up-and-comer who’s had his eyes surgically replaced with cameras. NTV figures that Roddie, something of a bleeding heart whose marriage collapsed due to his eye surgery, can capture the empathy of Katherine’s last days to drive up ratings. But as he begins to follow Katherine, he realizes what he’s filming is much more than the death of a middle-aged woman.
Published in the US as The Unsleeping Eye, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is a cerebral work, eschewing action and thrills in favor of slow, precise pacing. That should be a given, considering its themes: it’s an exploration of relationships and dying, the morality of mortality as it were. The relationship between Katherine, her past and future husbands, her estranged father, her coworkers, all reveal a multifaceted woman more isolated now than ever. How and with whom do you choose to spend your final days? Where and how do you find meaning in your own imminent demise? And is the generous sum of £300,000 offered by the network worth its cost, whoring the decay of your body and mind before the masses?
Compton’s soft touch and innate ability to capture the quintessence of his characters is remarkable; his writing is rife in nuance and subtlety, and he handles the psychological elements, the thoughts and feelings of his characters, with acuity and deft care. That’s evident from things as minor as the use of perspective. The Roddie sections are done in first-person, diving deep into his mind; his analytical descriptions make it feel as though we are watching on our own TV sets, seeing through his eyes and hearing his internal monologue as a voice-over. Katherine’s sections, by contrast, are in third-person omniscient; there is a distance between her and the reader, a gulf which is never fully crossed even as we explore her darkest fears and deepest secrets.
I’ve said before that SF is often best at evoking its own era, and this novel evokes a very 1970s future: the technology is clunky, large, and antiseptic; dissatisfied and homeless hippie-protesters wander the streets in mobs, observed by members of an implied police state; you can imagine the blocky Brutalist architecture looming above just as the NTV corporation hovers over the protagonists. But despite the book’s age it still feels relevant to our world saturated with reality television, the 24-hour news cycle, and a voyeuristic social media presence where every celebrity’s childbirth and weight-gain is recorded, discussed, retweeted, Liked, +1’d, and thrown through Instagram filters in real-time. It’s not hard to imagine slapping a new coat of paint on the book to make it into next year’s hit dystopic film—after all, those fears that Google Glass users would use their cyber-eyewear to secretly record others isn’t that far away from Roddie secretly broadcasting raw footage from his eyes.
As a deep, humane, and philosophical thinker, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe caters to a very specific kind of SF reader. It’s a psychological drama that exists as much in the characters’ minds as on the page, that takes an unflinching look at uncomfortable situations and gives you plenty to ponder. And the way that it does that is just breathtaking, an examination of media voyeurism, mortality, and humanity that asks open-ended but thought-provoking questions. Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe was re-released as an NYRB Classic in the middle of 2016 with a new introduction by Jeff Vandermeer; the novel was long-due for rediscovery, its commentary just as relevant and meaningful today as it was forty-four years ago. It earns my high recommendation to readers of ’70s/New Wave SF, and those who prefer deeply philosophical and contemplative novels.
Title: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe
Variant Title: The Unsleeping Eye
Author: D.G. Compton
First Published: 1974
What I Read: NYRB ebook
Price I Paid: $9.99
MSRP: $15.95 tpb / $9.99 ebook
ISBN: 1590179714 / B016GRL40U