Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Don't Cross the Streams

I've been reading books that tweak reality a bit, and the overlap can be confusing when you can't keep your head on straight. Like, is this the guy who needs to be careful not to touch anybody, or is this the guy who needs to get shot in the head in case of emergency? It led to moments of weirdness where I was nervous about all the wrong things.

Like, in Claire North's Touch, in which the narrator is a "ghost" who takes over people's bodies, moving from person to person by touch, there's all this tension around exposed skin and physical contact.  The terrified, violent people who are tracking down these ghosts wear body suits and gloves, or hazmat suits. Every time a ghost touches someone, even when there's no jump, there's a moment of tension.

I've liked the last two books I've read by North very much; I think I liked The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August best.  Touch actually felt very much like The Sudden Appearance of Hope, to the extent that the similarity was a bit of a drag.  In all three, you learn about a person whose life is strange because of an impossible affliction--reliving history, being instantly forgotten, moving from body to body.  In each there is an opposition--those are very different, thankfully--whose work is made possible by some vague, generic, hand-wavy science-like goal or quest or tools, and our protagonist explores the moral significance of his/her life in the context of that adventure.

In Touch, the moral part is particularly interesting--the narrator can only live by stealing bodies. He steals time and resources, lies to loved ones.  It's not a choice; even to die, he (a pronoun I choose arbitrarily) would have to use someone else's body.  Sometimes he strikes a deal with someone down on their luck or in need of certain services.  Sometimes he uses an "estate agent" to find a suitable body. Sometimes he flits in and out of people for such a brief moment that they never know he was there.

There is, of course, a paranoid agency trying to destroy these ghosts, and also an evil ghost who is prone to mass murder, so there's a lot of traveling, quick sketches of train trips through Eastern European countries.  Again, if you read The Sudden Appearance of Hope, you know what this looks like.  It's good, but I think I liked Hope better, both as a person and as a book.  Or maybe I just read it first.

But periodically during the tense moments here, I would think, "well, why don't you just let him shoot you? Then everything would be all right."  That's not because I thought suicide was the answer; it's because of the audiobook I was listening to, John Scalzi's The Dispatcher.

In this world, anyone who's been murdered comes back to life.  Doesn't happen if you die by accident, or natural causes, or suicide--only if you were actively murdered by someone.  You disappear from the murder site and reappear at home in your bedroom, body back the way it was a few hours ago (so no pesky bullet holes or broken bones from that fall off the roof). 

This is a new development, something that's only been true for a few years, and there are no explanations. But there's a new system of people called dispatchers who are authorized to take people who are near death and ensure that those deaths will be murders and that, therefore, the person will live. Presumably because the whole weirdness is so new, a lot of people find it hinky.  And apparently there is a lot of grey- or even black-market use for dispatchers.  So when a coworker goes missing, our narrator Tony helps the police track him down.

This is a novella, and it's available only on audiobook, with an acceptable performance by Zachary Quinto, who did a good job with the characters, but whose first person narration was pretty emotionless.  Still, I got used to it, and I'd highly recommend the book--the mystery is good, the worldbuilding is good, and hey, if anything goes wrong, Tony can just shoot you in the head and you get to reset back to zero.

Except that the whole time I was listening to it, any time anyone made physical contact, I'd get really anxious.  Till I realized that I was expecting them to get taken over by a serial killer ghost.

Like I said, too much worldbuilding can get confusing!

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