Future Fiction, 46 pages
Review: Iain Maloney
Tendai Huchu, author of The Hairdresser of Harare and The Maestro, The Magistrate and the Mathematician, has moved into science fiction with this fabulous short collection from Future Fiction.
The title story, ‘HostBods’, imagines a world where consciousness can be downloaded into human bodies, allowing people with debilitating illnesses or physical disabilities – and deep pockets – the opportunity of experiences otherwise denied them, illustrated initially by an elderly grandfather joining his family on the beach.
The body in question belongs to Simon. His younger brother has Westhuizen’s Syndrome and the cost of his treatment has led to Simon renting his body – in essence placing himself in indentured servitude – for five years. The process carries huge risks, with few HostBods making it beyond four years without suffering some kind of breakdown. Simon is already showing signs of wear and tear, not least retaining memories when his occupiers have left. The story hinges on Simon’s final job – a single client, Stubbs, who buys out the remaining months of his contract.
What started out as an enjoyable exploration of concept shifts gear to a high-tension thriller when the glitch in the programme – Simon’s access to his client’s thoughts after transfer – lets him in on Stubbs’s nefarious intentions.
‘HostBods’ is perfect science fiction. The technology is key to enabling the story but isn’t the focus of it. Rather the author uses the situation to explore human consciousness and society, pushing the reader to imagine what they would do in that situation. From Simon’s self-sacrifice in the face of chronic disease to Stubbs’s intense fear of death, future technology may provide answers to these conundrums, but the reactions to and uses of that technology will always be human and flawed.
The second story is ‘Reading the Clouds’, a re-examination of Christian theology through the prism of computer simulations and fractal theory. George is the father, overseeing a nascent civilisation through a computer interface, a hands-on deity nudging humanity away from bad behaviour with miracles and commandments from the clouds. Jesse is the son, self-confident and petulant the way only a 17-year-old male can be, convinced that his father’s continual meddling removes free will from humanity, making them slaves in a prison. Together they built the virtual universe, and this insider knowledge allows Jesse to hack it, altering the code and locking George out. Without George’s guidance, humanity quickly descends into barbarism necessitating Jesse’s transference into the virtual world to try and sort it all out.
While many of these ideas are familiar SF tropes, Huchu adds his own unique spin to them. His humour makes the re-tasking of the Christ story playful rather than mocking, succeeding where works like Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha failed. His use of virtual simulations and stacked levels of reality also introduces a new and potentially limitless path of exploration: in the event of climate change making this world uninhabitable, escape into space is no longer our only option. As with ‘HostBods’, if our consciousness can be downloaded, then the survival of humanity becomes a much more fascinating philosophical question.