The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen
Bloomsbury, 2 June 2016
E-book, 355 pages
*My copy supplied by the publisher via Netgalley.
At nineteen Katherine North is the oldest Phenomenaut at Shencorp, the world's leading Consciousness Projection provider. Recruited at the tender age of twelve she has spent much of the last seven years hooked up to life support in a lab while her mind inhabits the bodies of other animals. In that time she has contributed enormously to scientific research on endangered species - her specialism - bringing back data and the lived experience of being an animal into the human world. She is paired with Buckley, a retired Phenomenaut himself - considered too old to jump at 25 - who monitors her out in the field and tethers her back to her Original Body. During long jobs his is the only voice she hears for weeks at a time, reminding her of who and what she really is.
When we first meet Katherine (Kit for short) she is a fox, working on a long study of territory in the urban environment. She has a den - the space underneath a garden shed - and has adopted a young orphaned cub she calls Tomoko; her days are spent in sleep, her nights in scavenging and hunting. Her fox-body isn't a 'real' fox; her consciousness hasn't usurped some fox-consciousness. It's a ResExtenda - Ressy for short - a biologically complete and living model made at the Shencorp labs. The bones, flesh, organs, everything are constructed using a technology best described as God's own 3D printer. Observed mid-print the bodies are fascinating and horrifying:
"Lying in the wet gel is something that looks a little like the cross-sections found in biology textbooks. It's animal, that much is clear - it has stubs of what must be limbs and the fleshiness of an organic - but it's only half finished. The red plane of flesh is stippled with creamy blots like pepperoni; the half-finished organs look like ruptured sores. The skull is an empty bowl of bone. My skin prickles in pointless sympathy, even though there is no one, no hurt, to be sorry for. I never get used to this."
Each Ressy comes complete with a nervous system and instincts true to it's species but when not in use it is empty of self, a blank slate. Having no desires or impulses of their own Ressies both are and are not animals; they inhabit an ethically liminal territory between living beings and inanimate objects.
They can die though, if subjected to sufficient trauma or not adequately cared for by their Phenomenauts. One night, while chasing Tomoko in play, Kit is hit by a car and her Ressy is killed, thrusting her consciousness violently and traumatically back into her Original Body. The psychological toll of the shock is enormous, not least because of the loss of Tomoko. Projection is difficult at the best of times: the disorientation of the first hours in a new body, the adaptation to impaired or enhanced senses, followed by the wrenching shock of coming home again.
"Phenomenautism leaves you - what? Exhausted? Confused? No, it's more a sense of...slipping, of being stretched...like a snake trying to ingest a crocodile."
The cycle of dislocation and exploration, punctuated by periodic returns to human life is both addictive and disorienting, each Phenomenaut experiencing "innumerable incremental deaths." Teenagers - the younger the better - are best suited to it, the plasticity of their brains able to adapt best to being a spider one day and a blue whale the next.
After seven years and innumerable jumps Kit is nearing the end of her career and an unknown future that she finds hard to bear. If she isn't a Phenomenaut, if she is just an ordinary person without access to a myriad of different worlds and ways of being, then who is she? The intensity of her animal experiences have begun to erode her sense of self, alienating her from her Original Body.
"This Ressy isn't just an object, but a way of being me. This snout is mine - I am willing it - the sensation of scales imprints into my mind - I am those scales - the pressure of snout tracing along my length. Flesh and me."
She struggles with her human form, finding it safer and easier not to engage with its physicality. Her work means a shaved head, a pasty fleshy body, permanent canulas for her body support and catheter. Her personnel file blandly records that she exhibits signs of 'sexual retardation' and hasn't properly started her periods. Looking in the mirror, seeing her reflection, reminds Kit that each jump is a relief: "...thanks to Phenomenautism, I don't have to be either of those girls." She feels sure that other people must look and know that she's an imposter, that she isn't really human. "Can't they see through the thinness of skin?" she asks.
After the accident Kit's latest plasticity test results come back in the low range and she is thrown into despair. She is called to see Mr Hughe's Shencorp's CEO, sure she is about to be retired. Instead he offers her a once in a lifetime opportunity. Her long career and prestigious achievements have made her the prime candidate to be the face of Shencorp's latest venture: Tourism. They are about to launch the world's first commercial phenomenautical packages, offering the rich and adventurous the opportunity to become the animal of their choice. And animals are only the start. Once the time is right and the PR teams have massaged public opinion, the first human ResExtendas will be released onto the market. Kit is sceptical about the practicalities. How will tourists cope with the disorientation? Who will look after them in the wild? She is also horrified by the idea of using Ressies for entertainment. It offends both her professionalism and her morality. "A Ressy isn't a consumable," she protests. "Phenomenautism is meant to consume you." But if she wants to keep jumping, if she wants to preserve her own sense of self, what choice does she have but to play along?
Emma Geen's debut novel lives and dies with the conceit of Phenomenautism and the strength of Kit as her protagonist. The former is the lock, the latter the key. When both are working smoothly together they open a rich thematic storehouse. Inside are questions about the basis of self, the individuality of conscious animals (including humans) and the subjectivities that shape our perceptions of the world.
The experience of projection challenges Kit to reevaluate all the tropes and assumptions of human/non-human perception, beginning with anthropomorphism. Face to face with a fellow octopus during a particularly disorienting jump she thinks: "However many times I come eye to eye with something so other, I am never prepared. B-moves make it seem so simple - kill them before they kill us. If peaceful, a simple 'take me to your leader' will suffice; after all most aliens are just blue space ladies beneath the tentacles. But octopuses have no language; no leader to be taken to if they had. And yet the octopus's eyes are studying me as intently as I am it." While she can never truly be an animal, she has seen and experienced enough to see through the unthinking human-centric world she returns to.
"The humans here always strike me as improbably perpendicular, every chin thrust out with the confidence of a silverback. What is it that gives them such assurance? As if they're all alphas. A suited man jostles past and I bare my teeth at his glare."
Set against the backdrop of a near-future where climate change has impacted the habitat of innumerable species and placed many on the verge of extinction, the continued arrogance of humans infuriates and saddens her. She recognises that a company like ShenCorp, ostensibly supporting research that will help to protect species in the future, has little interest in non-humans for their own sakes.
"For the longest time that's what I thought zoologists did - loved. It was a shock when I started at Shencorp and realised that some people were more interested in animals in the abstract. That the environment was The Environment, a creature the authority of its Latin name, sightings to collect like butterflies pinned to blotting paper, collecting a second fur of dust."
Kit was motivated to become a Phenomenaut by a love of nature instilled in her by her mother who, she remembers, always saw "creatures in their individuality."
The Many Selves of Katherine North is about what happens when this individuality is eroded. Shencorp and it's shift in focus from Research to Tourism, from animal ResExtenda to human dopplegangers, is a lesson about the "bottomless stomach that will consume anything." While Kit might fervently believe that "other subjectivities aren't a consumer item" the limitless ambition of consumerism on display in the company boardroom would suggest other perspectives.
These are big topics and especially meaningful to me at the moment, coming up to my one year anniversary of being vegan. The subjectivities of non-human animals and what I think should be the limits of the commercial transaction are at the basis of my decision to reduce my involvement in animal-based industries as much as possible. For me though Geen doesn't always take full advantage of the possibilities of the world she has created, to delve more fully into the moral problem of the ResExtenda and into the repercussions for a society in which life is created, bought and sold. While Kit is a fascinating narrator the intensely personal nature of the story means that there is less room to explore the significant ramifications of a broader future. As the novel ended I found myself feeling nonplussed at the neatness of the denouement, looking around for something more than an end to her story.
In the acknowledgements Geen draws a line between the psychological experience of phenomenautism and "the magic of fiction, which invites the reader not only to slip into the lived experiences of other people but also to share, for a while, the cares and joys of their narrative journeying." The book is, she says, less about science and the future and more "a fantastical wardrobe of skins". It is most certainly a powerful provoking journey, beautifully written, well crafted and recommended, but when the final skin is shucked off and shed, what are we left with?