Strange Bodies is science fiction. But it is the kind of science fiction that is a springboard for larger conceits. In this way, it is similar to the novels of Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing in that it is much more interested in philosophical examination than future speculation. The author Marcel Theroux has written a novel about identity and the state of reality. That put him in the company of a definitive sci-fi author, Philip K. Dick. Yet Theroux throws another philosophical log on the fire. What is authenticity? If your conscience can be duplicated and placed into someone else, is that person you? Is he every bit as authentic in his emotions and meaning as you?
A man, simply called Q, is living in a mental asylum. His identity is unknown to the doctors but he states he is Dr. Nicholas Slopen. This is impossible since the death of Dr. Slopen is well documented and the patient looks nothing like him. Through Q's chronicles and pasted psychiatric notes the mystery unfolds. We discover that Dr Slopen was asked to authenticate some letters by 18th century British writer Samuel Johnson. The letters appear authentic in the sense of subject and writing but are clearly not, due to the kind of paper used which was not in existence during Johnson's time. We are then introduced to savant Jack Telauga who can perfectly enact the writer's style. Yet there is more to this than imitation and this is where we go into sci-fi territory. Could the conscience of James Johnson, or anyone else, be transferred to a body? What does this mean for the rest of society. Would that make one immortal?
These are just some of the questions Theroux tackles. This is a somewhat complex and dense novel. Yet it is a compelling read because Theroux has created some complex and compelling characters. Slopen is not very likable at first, being stuffy and full of himself. Yet as the plot develops he is brought along by the intricacies of the plot and we see him developed into a fuller protagonist. Jack is both fascinating and pitiful, while the other characters are alive in their motives which we find out eventually. The most poignant parts of the novel for me is when Slopen ruminates on his past life as the physical Slopen, dwells on his mistakes which he can never correct. It is a emotional novel drenched in what-ifs and why-nots. But we are always brought back to identity and the idea that we are real...or are we?
Identity and the fragility of reality seems to be an occurring theme this year. I recently finished E. L. Doctorow's new book, Andrew's Brain in which the author tackles many of the same questions in a totally different way. But I found Theroux's more elegantly structured tale to be much more enlightening in this area. even if it may bring up more questions than answers.