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Book Review: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton

September 28, 2021 2 comments
Image of a digital book cover. A phot of a videocamera goes from grayed out to properly saturated to fully blacked out from the top left corner to the bottom right corner. the title fo the book and the author are in a reddish box in the center with pink and yellow font.

Summary:
Katherine Mortenhoe’s world looks very similar to our own, except that in this near future medical science has found the cure for death—or eliminated nearly every cause for it other than old age. So when Katherine is diagnosed with a terminal brain disease caused by an inability to process an ever-increasing volume of sensory input, she immediately becomes a celebrity to the “pain-starved public.” But Katherine will not agree to be the star of the reality TV show Human Destiny, her last days will not be recorded by any cameras. She doesn’t realize that from the moment of her diagnosis, she’s been watched, not only by television producers but by a new kind of reporter, one with no visible camera, who is always recording behind his never-blinking eye. 

Review:
This book was first published in 1973 under the title The Unsleeping Eye. It was then published in the UK in 1974 under this title. It was made as a film in 1980 under the title Death Watch with the books published after that under that title. Then in 2016 it was republished as The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe along with a new introduction by Jeff Vandermeer. All of which is to say, although you may see it listed as published in 2016, this is actually a 1970s vision of the future. This makes its take on reality tv all the more impressive to me.

The story is told in two perspectives from Katherine’s and from the reporter’s. They both live in the near future UK. Katherine is in her 40s on her second husband, childfree (there is no discussion of fertility issues or a desire for children), and works for Computabook’s romance department. Computabook appears to be essentially an AI largely writing Harlequin style romance novels. The consensus seems to be that she could write a great novel and is wasting her time at Computabook. She goes to the doctor quite a bit, which is presented as odd for a time when most illnesses are cured. The gentle opinion seems to be that she has a mental problem skewing toward perhaps hypochondria. But then she gets a terminal diagnosis. The reality tv show Human Destiny is so sure that they will get her to sign on to live out her last days filmed that they secretly film her receiving the diagnosis news, figuring they will get her permission via contract later.

The reporter has just consented to have tv cameras implanted in his eyes, allowing them to film without the presence of any cameras, only him. He cannot be in full darkness for a period of time after the surgery and takes pills to stay awake. He has an ex-wife and son. The ex-wife very much dislikes his work for the producer who does Human Destiny. She does not like this producer.

There are a lot of ex-spouses in this society because they do 5 year handfastings, essentially, and at that point they decide whether or not to recommit for another 5 years. It’s supposed to not be a big deal if folks don’t recommit, but it’s clear from both the reporter’s relationships and Katherine’s that it actually is to the folks involved. While not a focus of the book, I found this interesting.

The book then ultimately explores the ethics of why Katherine might or might not sign on for the show, whether or not the reality tv show is in and of itself ethical, and what the limits of cameras in a person’s eyes are to truly telling the truth. I would also say it explores the impact of your job on your life and your sense of fulfillment. Another theme is how different people’s lives look depending on how much they have “bought in” to the way of life depicted to them as the main choice by the government. There’s also a question of what’s a good death and who gets to choose what that means.

I most enjoyed the exploration of the alternative societies outside of the mainstream. I also found the depiction of near future reality tv very well-imagined. I am happy to report that there is no rape or sexual violence in this 1970s scifi book. There is an instance where it seems a possibility, but it does not ultimately happen. There is medical trauma and some minor violence seen in robberies.

This book ultimately left me pondering if it was trying to say something larger about the male gaze or if that was coincidental. Regardless, it left me thinking about women and our lives and how others view them. A valuable issue to ponder. Plus it was fun to explore this imagined future society.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 264 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Purchased

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

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