Almost halfway through Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction Month and I am finally well enough to talk about my first vintage SF read The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton (published in 1974), after being a big pile of snotty, coughy germs for the last few days. Blergh.
I had never heard of D.G. Compton before I picked up this book. Looking online I see that he’s written a good dozen or so books, and I haven’t heard of any of them before either. I feel like I should have though because Katherine Mortenhoe was a really interesting, thought-provoking read, and Compton depicts his 44-year-old female protagonist – in a 70s Sci-Fi novel! Is anyone else impressed by this?! – sensitively, realistically, and not in the slightest bit sexist-ly. That’s brownie points right off the bat.
This is one of those books that stands up to scrutiny pretty well. Compton didn’t over-decorate his future with tech that now looks ridiculous, and his central idea that in a world where people have got it easy voyeuristic reality shows will be big business is bang on the money. And then the story itself is so much about Katherine and Roddie and what’s going on in their heads, about mortality and human connection and empathy, that the setting hardly matters. There’s enough sketched in that I was curious to know more about this future world, but most of my questions went unanswered. In the background to Katherine and Roddie’s journey there are protest marches on the roads, talk of bombs and riots on the news, motorcycle gangs that pull over and rob motorists, a corrupt police force, ramped-up Privacy Laws, and ‘fringie’ communities that reject money and technology and build their homes out of rubbish. It provides enough of a picture of unrest and unease, symptoms, I guess, of this “pain starved” world where people don’t die of much except extreme old age, (and Compton shows us some of the oldest members of society too, in the ‘Retirement Wing’, but they’re all drugged up to the hilts and happy in their own little worlds – no pain to be had).
Possibly the most Sci-Fi thing about the whole book is Roddie, “the man with the TV eyes”. He’s the first of a new kind of reporter-and-cameraman-in-one, recording everything he sees, and as such he is virtually owned by NTV, which paid for the very expensive operation that he’s undergone. Appropriately, he is the only character written in first-person in the story – while the ever-watched Katherine remains enigmatic in third-person – although as the novel progresses it becomes clear that he has lost as much privacy as Katherine has, for while everything she does is seen, everything he sees is seen, and there’s not much to choose between the two. The whole book positively reverberates with images of seeing and being seen, with mirrors, and reflections of reflections, with expectations and projections. And amidst it all is very little of the truth that Roddie claims to be after.
Because Katherine is a brilliant puzzle of a character. She is utterly normal: a working woman, on her second marriage, without children, she hasn’t achieved anything much, and hasn’t failed at anything much either. Her only claim to fame is that she is going to die soon. But she is so wonderfully written – nervous and inclined towards hysteria in the doctor’s office; brittle and prickly with few friends at work; going through the motions of a not-quite-satisfying marriage with Harry; intelligent and determined when making a break for it; vulnerable and afraid as the symptoms of her disorder manifest; and always unapologetically herself – she’s not easy to sympathise with and she’s awkward to get a handle on, but she feels very, very real. Which makes her struggle to come to terms with her own mortality that much more moving … and not a little uncomfortable. In a book where the public, the audience, is depicted as a baying, bloodthirsty crowd with no capacity for empathy it’s hard to read about Katherine and not feel that you too are invading her personal space.
In that way D.G. Compton was way ahead of his time. He foresaw the current (and ever-escalating) fascination with ourselves and others. Reality shows abound, the more ludicrous the better, social media is used to inform the world of what we are doing every minute of the day, and to check up on what others are doing – we are more connected than we have ever been, and yet often so much less so. The people Katherine comes into contact with when she has one of her first attacks of tremors in a public space don’t offer sympathy or help, they ask “who does she think she is?” and complain that she “couldn’t have something ordinary, not like the rest of us”. We watch actors and actresses protest at their lack of privacy and argue back that they’ve brought it on themselves, as if by putting ourselves on display we somehow forfeit our right to respect and understanding. And as if by watching those on display we somehow forfeit our capacity for compassion and care; (in some of my own personal darkest moments I worry that we’ve stopped seeing other people as people at all).
“Television did that for you, took your mind off things.”
So, this all sounds really bleak doesn’t it? Well, it mostly is. There’s a whole big reveal about two-thirds of the way through that makes the whole thing even more upsetting (or did for me at least), and I’m sure it could be argued that Compton wasn’t big on faith in humanity. And yet … And yet I don’t think it’s a story entirely without hope or, as Roddie puts it, “the possibility of joy”. Roddie and Katherine parallel each other in a number of ways, and so, while she doesn’t get the time to understand everything that went wrong with her first marriage and maybe mend it, it looks like Roddie will. And while Roddie had seemingly sold his soul to NTV, his connection with Katherine, the love and compassion he comes to feel for her in all her odd and awkward glory, empowers him to make another decision, and maybe get back what he lost. It’s tentative, but it is hope.