Since Interzone 249 is now out, I thought I’d reprint my review from the last issue, Interzone 248 (September-October 2013). Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh is one of those novels a lot of people seem to like; I beg to differ.
Soft Apocalypse was, to my mind, one of the under-appreciated novels of 2011. So I was intrigued to see his new novel. Unfortunately, as soon as I began reading I realized that the seed of the novel was a short story called ‘Bridesicle’, and I knew I was going to have problems with the book. Because the situation at the heart of both the novel and the story does not make economic sense, it doesn’t make social sense, and in terms of gender politics it is, shall we say, unfortunate.
In the middle years of the next century society has become, literally, stratified. The super rich live high above New York in the High Town; everyone else lives below them in the Low Town, except for the super poor who seem to live lower still or outside in the ‘burbs’. Everything is determined by wealth; throughout the novel there is a lot of what we might consider political action, but there is not a single mention of any form of government. But though these extreme economic divisions are the most interesting part of the book, they are not at its core.
In this future they have learned how to bring the dead back to life. But in a world where there is a price on everything, only the super wealthy or a few favoured others can enjoy this benefit. The favoured others are, basically, women who conform to an absolute and universally agreed calibration of beauty. They are cryogenically preserved until a rich man takes a fancy to them and pays the exorbitant cost of their regeneration, after which they become his wife under terms that are actually a form of sex slavery. There is a passing mention that preserving men as husbands for rich women hadn’t worked, but in fact of the two men we see brought back to life, one has inherited vast wealth, the other is economically important to his employers, women are apparently regenerated or not purely on account of their physical attributes. There are more things wrong with this set up than I could possibly enumerate in the space of this review. To do him justice, McIntosh is clearly aware of this, but when the situation is driving the entire plot, he can’t do much more than mitigate the wrongness.
Our central character, Rob, is a poor man from the burbs who, distracted by the break-up of his relationship with a rich woman from High Town, accidentally runs into and kills Winter. Winter turns out to be pretty enough to be cryogenically preserved and Rob, racked by guilt, manages to scrape together enough cash to revive her for a few minutes. The two find themselves falling in love, and Rob gets a mind-numbing factory job in order to get the cash to see her every few months. But, pretty as she is, Winter isn’t pretty enough to attract other suitors, at least not rich enough to warrant her continued preservation, and Rob learns that her cryogenic tank is to be turned off in the next few days. He launches a desperate plan to maintain Winter’s suspended animation, a plot that involves his former lover, Winter’s former boyfriend, Veronika, perhaps the most interesting character in the book, who makes a living advising others on their relationships while being unable to sustain one of her own.
McIntosh is a good writer. The relationship between Rob and Winter is tender and affecting, and most of the main characters are vividly and interestingly drawn. But McIntosh is at his best, as he showed in Soft Apocalypse, when it comes to putting these characters in the context of their economic circumstances. Here, by comparison with that earlier novel, the stratification between rich and poor is almost cartoonish, and the satirical take on social media in which celebrities are followed by hundreds of virtual windows wherever they go through which passive consumers watch their every move is, to be honest, a little crude. When we see the grim reality of Rob’s repetitive job, the good sense and humour of his father, the fear when the rich find themselves confronting the poor, the novel comes alive. But too much is caught up in the idea of the ‘Bridesicles’ (and don’t you just know that awful coinage came before the story), and this nonsensical invention gets in the way of the solid, humane and fascinating examination of life under these economic realities that keeps trying to break out of the novel.