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HellSans coverEver Dundas’s debut novel Goblin (2017, winner of the Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award in that year and longlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2018) absolutely swept me away. Written in a captivating style and utilising a magical worldview to perfectly communicate its young, somewhat genderfluid heroine’s difficult coming-of-age story through and out of trauma, it was a goosebump-inducing, heartbreaking, and empowering story set in the aftermath of the Blitz and the so-called Pet Massacre, which I had never even heard of when I picked up the book. It left me gasping for more. So naturally, I’ve been impatiently waiting for Dundas’s second novel, HellSans, to come out. It’s an interesting mix of (body) horror and science fiction, and she calls it her “Hollywood action thriller by way of David Cronenberg.” As it turns out, this description is spot-on.

The novel’s epigraph establishes the theme or general atmosphere using these two quotations:

“I ate civilisation. It poisoned me.” Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

“Man, you shall repent of the injuries you inflict.” Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Its first two parts, “Jane” and “Icho,” can be read in any order—resulting in two different books (and two different experiences of the story and its characters). My mission—randomly assigned to me by the copy I wound up with—was to start with “Part One: Icho.”

Disoriented and uninformed, I was dropped straight into the action in the most visceral way. Conveyed in a first-person narrative in the present tense, it starts in the middle of some kind of fight at some kind of building, and I was reeling to make sense of it all. Who are the HSA? What does HSA stand for? Who is shooting them, and why? Our narrator seems to be part of this institution, ready to end her own life in order to guard some records. What records? And who are the good guys here? In fact, who is everyone?

Luckily, after this abrupt intro, we go back in time to the previous evening to get a better introduction to what’s happening. And by then I definitely wanted to know everything.

*

My first protagonist is Icho, actually Dr. Ichorel Smith, a scientist, and already quite accomplished at twenty-four. She lives and works in “the city,” which is never named. This is definitely our world, though: among other pop-culture references, I notice that bands like Suede (p. 31) and Hole (p. 239) exist here. Clive Barker exists (p. 64); Arthur C. Clarke exists (p. 240), as do Dirk Bogarde (p. 251), John Carpenter (p. 292), and other obvious favourites of the author.

Still, there are differences. Inhabitants of the city have Inexes, eight-inch-tall personal AI assistants that can be linked to their brains and thus monitor all their health stats, communicate with them “internally,” and also report any illegal actions directly to state organisations. Inexes, larger and simpler household Inos, and the more specialised MedExes are all manufactured and programmed by The Company. I found it quite interesting that, as in Goblin, we are presented with a bizarre doll-like companion of the narrator who can give commentary on their thoughts and actions. In this case, though, the Inex slogan “HELPING YOU BE THE BEST YOU” (p. 10) immediately sounds like a threat and is definitely about control. Inexes might seem like adorable extensions of mobile phones, but (just like those less advanced devices), below the superficial user-friendliness, they are instruments of mass surveillance. Their inventor (and founder of The Company) is Jane Ward, who is introduced as somebody that Icho idolises and to whom she also feels attracted (p. 13).

The other thing that is omnipresent in this world is HellSans, a typescript that induces bliss (p. 12)—but not for everyone. At a posh party, Icho is introduced to Jane as the scientist who is working on “a cure for the HellSans Allergic” (p. 13), which finally puts at least the setting of the introductory scene firmly in place: the next day, Icho’s lab is going to be attacked; HSAs—HellSans Allergics, to whom exposure to HellSans causes actual wounds (p. 23)—are going to be executed; and somebody is going to try and steal Icho’s research data. At this point, the novel is definitely being established as an action thriller.

There are several more big players in this hunt for a “cure”—or at least a treatment. There’s a group called the Seraphs, presented by mass media as an HSA terror group (p. 19), “who want to eradicate HellSans, who want to take away our bliss and destroy our way of life” (p. 20). The Seraphs “don’t believe in a cure—they say society is sick, not them” (p. 45). And there’s the prime minister, Caddick, and his party, also never referred to by name (so basically, and ominously, always just “the party,” which makes them smell like fascists before you ever hear more about them), who want a recipe for an HSA cure just as badly as the opposition—but for them it’s more about securing additional votes and establishing more control by supposedly giving “bliss” to the previously “unblissed.”

Every “blissed” member of society is indoctrinated to such a degree that in everyday language, the word “bliss” has taken the place of the sacred, such as in “for bliss sake” (p. 9). This society doesn’t need religion; the drug they worship is HellSans. As an obvious consequence, people who suffer physical and mental distress when exposed to HellSans are demonised. HSAs, the HellSans Allergic, are referred to as “deviants,” forced to live in ghettos, and, according to Caddick, should be prevented from voting because they are of “unsound mind” (p. 19).

From the beginning, I liked having Icho as a protagonist, and I was ready to trust her. She’s not a bad sort, but she seems to be too indoctrinated (and too starstruck by Jane Ward) to be anything but naive. As a scientist, she must be on the side of facts rather than propaganda, I thought, and the more I learned about her as a person, the more I realised how compassionate she is. It’s true that most of her professional life has been spent in Company-related and Party-sponsored research projects, and she is used to seeing HSAs not just as people but also as test subjects. [1] Even so, Icho mostly acts on a basis of her own understanding of a situation and is ready to modify her views and behaviour according to new experiences and newly acquired knowledge. Even early on, I found Icho’s insecurities and anxiety relatable and disarming and was ready to trust her as a narrator because of that. [2]

Icho’s lab contains five HSA test subjects. They are referred to by numbers, but Icho calls them by their first names (for example, “Four” is Kim, p. 22). We also learn that Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are overridden/overwritten here: higher models of Inexes are programmed to not recognise HSAs as humans, “allowing those models to harm them—usually by means of a mild electric shock—if they posed a threat to humans or their Inexes.” (p. 23) Caddick doesn’t see HSAs as human either, or at the very least he sees them as disposable, since he finds it very easy to order their execution (p. 29). In fact, it seems pretty obvious that Caddick is a psychopath because he seems to enjoy torturing people himself, declining to delegate the responsibility (p. 34).

So what happens to cause that attack of the novel’s opening pages? At the party, Icho’s Inex records a secret meeting between the prime minister and a scientist who previously worked on Icho’s project, suggesting that Caddick is being blackmailed over something called the Daedalus project. He is told to remove Icho from her post, get rid of her, and give her research project back to the guy who started it (p. 16). And so we connect the threads.

Icho is tortured for information: knowing her way around systems, she has made her own personal data archive unreadable to Caddick and his spies. [3] Her untethered Inex, though, is running to Milligan, the leader of the opposition which supports the development of an HSA cure, carrying the research files Caddick and his blackmailer so desperately need. But the Inex is intercepted by one of Caddick’s men, and Icho’s formula is stolen.

Dundas does not write “action” scenes without repercussion for heroines; she writes scenes of senseless violence that leave the victim traumatised, shaken, jumping at shadows, struggling to cope with a world that doesn’t fit in with the previous order. Thus, following her release, Icho suffers from panic attacks and recurring nightmares. While watching the news while hiding from Caddick’s henchmen, she learns about the attack on Milligan in which her Inex was taken—and that Jane Ward was a witness. Jane appears on television herself later, giving a statement to counter some rumours about her and Milligan, and Icho remotely diagnoses her as having HSA. She realises that they need each other: she needs Jane and her tech-savviness, power, and influence to get her formula and her life back, and Jane needs her because she has actually developed a treatment for HSA.

Plot précis of this sort cuts a very long story short by necessity, but this is all so worth reading in detail. Still, Icho has to get a fake ID (by swapping Inexes with an HSA beggar) and walk to the HSA ghetto (since HSAs don’t have access to cars and other luxuries). She needs to find Jane, who has been automatically reported as HSA and taken away, and on the way she receives unlikely help from so-called deviants’ family members. After discovering a stash of guns hidden in a basement storage space, she realises what people are being driven to do by the current laws and regulations—and still they risk going to prison for treason by deciding to help her. Here is one of my favourite passages of her journey:

[Icho:] “Why are you helping me?”

[Café owner’s son:] “Caddick’s a wanker.”

[...]

“I’m unblissed. When you’re unblissed, spotting wankers is like a superpower.” (p. 54)

Dundas chooses a difficult path here, one that makes for rather interesting storytelling: while Icho is our protagonist, sharing our perspective, that doesn’t mean that she’s always right. It’s obvious that she grew up quite sheltered and never fully realised how much privilege she’s actually always had—until she has to navigate the city with the ID of a “deviant,” being turned away from most shops and cafés. These things are actually luxuries, not a given. When she remarks to a homeless HSA how sad and grimy legal HSA “hostels” are (and yet many still can’t afford them), she quickly gets put in her place:

“This really is a shithole.”

“Only if you’re a pampered blisster.”

[Icho:] “[…] Company employees aren’t all rich."

[HSA beggar:] “Rich to me.” (pp. 61-2)

Travelling to the “ghetto” on foot with an HSA ID, Icho learns what it’s like to be a social outcast, to have your human rights taken away from you, to never be safe anywhere. In contrast to a lot of (post-apocalypse) SFF, Dundas actually pays attention to her character’s needs every step of the way, such as when Icho’s low-tech replacement Inex only warns her four hours before her period is due; she hasn’t brought any supplies, has to make due with a clean sock until she can get to a shop. Later, when she has a menstrual cup, the narration never fails to mention when she needs to empty, clean, and reinsert it. There is no taboo, no false modesty or shame.

When Icho finally reaches the “ghetto” (whose structure and lack of appropriate medical and hygiene facilities reveal it as being more like a prison camp), a “raid” is on the verge of taking place there. This turns out to be another euphemism: hundreds of rich kids without Inexes (and thus not “carrying ID,” as well as not being recorded) have turned up armed with all sorts of weapons to attack the HSAs, ostensibly because of Seraph terrorism but in reality because they intend a senseless massacre, a pogrom. Icho’s replacement Inex overhears a conversation: this is all a setup in order to send somebody in to assassinate “Jane Doe,” obviously a codename for Jane Ward (p. 89). Icho has to pose as one of the nazis to get inside, tries to warn the HSAs, then gets picked up by Seraphs and has to fight her way through a mess of violence and murder in order to find Jane, which seems increasingly impossible.

Again, violence is neither aestheticised nor glorified:

The unreality of watching people get killed, almost abstract: It didn’t feel real; their heads spurted, they fell. (p. 96) [4]

When Icho finally finds Jane, entirely by accident, Jane is in more than bad shape. Icho injects her with the formula she brought, but cannot find a pulse. In another bold storytelling choice, “Part One: Icho” ends with the sentence “Jane was dead” (p. 99). In case you haven’t noticed, Dundas is definitely not creating an easy, straightforward heroine’s journey.

*

Now begins my copy of the novel’s second section, “Part Two: Jane.” This might be the first part of your copy, and this will affect your reading of HellSans significantly. It, too, is a first-person narrative in the present tense. In my order of reading, I was forcibly slipped into the perspective of a character I had already learned to dislike—but informed with all of the worldbuilding elements (technology, social structures, who is who) I learned through Icho’s eyes. This feels strange but easy at the same time.

When I enter Jane’s narrative, she is at the exit of her building, Ambrosia healing gel on her face, and her Inex is on the floor, torn to shreds. This must be after the attack on Milligan. Jane is in shock, but we can still tell how protected her existence has been up to this point: to her, a disaster is when her schedule is ruined.

This time we’re being taken back to the morning after the party where she met Icho. To Icho, the party was a big thing: she met her heroine, and her Inex found out about Caddick’s being blackmailed and caught the words “Project Daedalus.” To Jane, the party was just another scheduled event. Nothing major happened, you would think. Yet, even though she waits until the morning to do so, Jane also reviews her Inex’s recording of the party, and she also skips to her meeting Icho. And yes, she is attracted to her as well (p. 105). There is a lot of gay potential in this “girl meets girl” story!

HSA scars, we learn in Jane’s section, are Ambrosia-resistant (p. 105). “Deviants” are permanently scarred and thus also bear visible stigma. Jane seems to have a lot of queasiness around “deviants.”  She seems concerned about coming across as condescending but actually is quite condescending. Her assessment of Icho while reviewing the party video is analytical but also especially bitchy:

Her figure was larger that I’d usually like; her Inex really should have kept her in line with normative body weight. The sheer audacity of her—the self-applied makeup, the messy hair, her size, the scarring—both unnerved and impressed me. It couldn’t be that she didn’t realise, as her Inex would make sure of that. It was more likely she didn’t have time to care—Caddick had told me she’s a workaholic. (p. 106)

Jane doesn’t even consider that appearance could be a matter of choice. Still, all of this horrible, detailed, and prolonged judging of Icho doesn’t stop her from masturbating over her. Even this early into her narrative, I really disliked this character. Even her masturbatory visualisations are of fragments of HellSans text rather than images of human body parts or even romantic fantasies. And this made me wonder: how much is this HS-induced “bliss” controlling people and their actions? Are only the HSA really sane? I’m still torn on this question, because I believe in positive potential. But Milligan (on the news) is the closest thing to a decent person in this narrative so far. Our two main protagonists are largely shits when it comes to how they treat other people. Sure, maybe the system produces shits; but the system is people. They just need their eyes opened, like the café owner with the HSA daughter.

Here’s Jane Ward’s reaction to Milligan’s TV statement that HSAs should have the right to vote (and more): “That man makes me sick. End it, Inex. I can’t tolerate his socialist bullshit” (p. 108). When she feels insecure, she imagines the trigger statement transformed into HellSans, and “bask[s] in the delight that is [her] own name” until she feels better (p. 109). Jane isn’t only self-centred, but also reliant on the escapism provided by HS. At this point I was still hoping that Jane proved to be an HS junkie (p. 109).

Because, diving deeper into Jane’s narrative, it became apparent that in the novel’s world it’s possible to display basically any content on a billboard, piece of paper, or product and transform even the most extreme hate messages into “bliss” by having them spelled out in HellSans. Only HSAs are unaffected by this; they can actually read the original message without being brainwashed. This is why they represent a threat to the system—whose only foundation seems to be HS—and have to be locked away in ghettos (at the very best).

Thus, the Seraphs add graffitied serifs to HS in order to deweaponise it, turn it into just another typeface without extra effects: “the graffiti […] immediately threw off my bliss” (p. 109). In this way they have actual power; this is why they are presented as “terrorists,” hunted and killed. The indoctrinated (like Jane) turn away from graffitied HS; they feel that it makes them sick, but they don’t investigate why it makes them sick (or at least the majority of them do not, or the very posh do not).

Jane, then, is more than just a stressed executive. There is definite emotional dissonance at play here (that is, displayed emotion according to social rules vs. experienced emotion), but Jane’s displayed emotion is so internalised that her anger is never consciously experienced. It remains subliminal, under the surface. At one point, for example, she feels a sudden urge to “smash everything in the room” (p. 113) during a VR meeting—which would have no real-life repercussions, apart from having broken social rules, having behaved in a scandalous way. Still the mask stays on. There is potential here; I felt that Jane could use a breakthrough experience to bring these emotions to the surface, become aware of them to consciously experience them. She needed catharsis.

Most of the time, though, Jane is just an entitled (and thoughtless) bitch. She eats at elite restaurants that serve real meat, “club members only, which [keeps] out animal rights activists” (p. 133). She fires people with ongoing health problems in order to get rid of anything that doesn’t make The Company look its best. At the same time, she recruits criminals who pose a potential threat to The Company, because it’s easier to control one’s enemies when they are on the payroll (p. 115). Granted, she is under a lot of pressure, professionally speaking. But that’s not really an excuse to be so inhumane and cold-blooded.

Jane is always protecting her and her friends’ privileges and affectations (farm meat, hunting, fishing, experimentation on animals in the name of scientific research) without considering the moral costs or consequences. There is even a straightforward implication that if animal rights activists got their hands on the (deliberately buried) relevant data about animals’ cognitive capacities and emotions, all of those so-called privileges would be at stake (p. 118). Protected by her position, Jane uses outright criminal methods to protect her reputation: “I hacked [a whistleblower’s] Inex, found some exploitable aspect of her past, and threw a few rumours to the press” (p. 118).

But now that she was a witness, from the vantage point of her window, to the same attack on Milligan in which Icho’s data was taken—even though she cannot make heads or tails of what she saw (p. 120)—she is being targeted by the media. At the same time, and in addition, she is suffering lasting trauma from the attack on her Inex, which contains bioware and has organs and blood: she was connected to it when it was killed; she felt it die (p. 334). Reluctant to connect to another Inex, she is finding out how difficult life is without one, since it is more than a smartphone and personal assistant—it is your ID, it gives you access to all the conveniences you are used to.

And here is where the Cronenberg factor kicks in.

*

Fidgeting in a meeting, Jane’s fingernail comes off (p. 141). I’m absolutely thrown; she plays it off as if it’s nothing. Then, while looking at a poster behind her desk (“another of Caddick’s party slogans: ‘WORK MAKES YOU FREE’ in bold, capitalised, italicised HellSans” [p. 142, silent “WTF?!!!!” from me]), she notices that HellSans has stopped soothing her. She keeps feeling nauseous. She keeps scratching at her skin, which keeps coming off (p. 144); ambrosia ointment isn’t working (p. 145). She keeps trying to work and exercise as usual (which is an excruciating routine for the healthiest of us), but HS keeps making her worse (p. 147). She doesn’t (want to) realise this, is craving for her usual fix of bliss, tells her temp Inex to project HS across her body, which is obviously a bad idea (p. 148). Her skin blisters, she experiences cramping and diarrhoea, but still she keeps acting more and more crazily, clinging to her fantasy that HS will get her better, to the point where she actually eats a torn-off letter from a poster (p. 148). WTF, Jane. I’ve never seen such extreme avoidance behaviour.

Out of some misguided impulse, Jane decides to go see Caddick (of all people) without telling anyone (p. 151). We don’t know what’s between them, but he is controlling and condescending, he sexually harasses her, oversteps more than one boundary, licks spilled whisky off her hand (p. 153), all while she is plainly uncomfortable and yet never once tells him to stop. There is a very weird power dynamic here, then, and it’s frightening and keeps getting worse: Caddick actually tells Jane he’s got her dead Inex’s Mnemosyne core (p. 154), complete with all her personal history. She starts to feel paranoid around him (rightfully so, I’d say) and flees back to the city.

The body horror increases as Jane’s teeth start to come loose. It’s easy to shrink back from this (like Jane gets queasy about seeing other people’s scars); but at the same time it creates compassion for the afflicted. Added serifs ease Jane’s nausea, but she still seems to be in denial, even when her doctor tells her to her face that she’s HSA, and it is not reversible. In fact, internalised HS is killing her: the doctor reiterates my earlier point (and Foucault’s, and incidentally the Seraphs’) when he tells Jane, “Society is killing you” (p. 161). He tells Jane to go into the ghetto—it’s the only place free of HS, the only place that is comparatively safe for her. And of course, as a medical professional, he has to report her to the authorities. At first, Jane flaunts her privilege: she can’t go to the ghetto, she is a celebrity. Spoiler: this doesn’t help her.

Even once she is in the ghetto, Jane keeps telling medical staff that she isn’t HSA (p. 165). She refuses to be “like them” (p. 166)—that is, a deviant, a subhuman. She even dreams in HS, so she’s immediately sick when she wakes up. Her symptoms are like extreme withdrawal symptoms. She has to learn coping strategies. Eleven (a Seraph with a day job in the ghetto’s limited medical quarters) tells her: “[Y]ou’re HSA. [...A]ccording to Jane Ward, you’re not human.”

”I could set fire to you and no one would care,” she said. “Isn’t that what they do in the city? Isn’t that how city kids get their kicks?”

She also gets told by another HSA medic, “These is no cure, you know that? Nor should there be. HS allergy is a blessing.”

“It wakes you up. You’re no longer a blissed-out zombie.” (pp. 169-70)

But Jane’s perspective makes it clear that she can’t shake her prejudice and see the HSAs as anything other than subhuman: “I walked out into the ghetto. It was intolerable. HSAs were everywhere, like roaches. The sun was high in the sky, beating down, exacerbating the stench of the swarming deviants” (p. 171). Equating HSAs with pests recalls H. P. Lovecraft’s hallucinatory levels of racism. Jane refuses to see that she is the same, that she shares a factor of humanity with these “deviants.” This is what hits me worse than the body horror: I’ve seen blood, I’ve smelled vomit. Hell, I’ve seen quite graphic and gory websites in my time, all based on life. But to refuse to see that people who surround you and who share most of your traits are human beings who are suffering and who have human rights … this is beyond me, and it’s sickening.

On some level, Jane knows this, too. Here she is remembering the night of the attack: “and then Driscoll’s—the first time I was excluded from the world I owned and ruled and dictated to; abject, collapsed on the department store floor, an invisible knife in my chest” (p. 172). But for her, this is the nightmare: that this can be real, that this is happening to her. It only exists on a personal level. She has no empathy. In the ghetto, she could make friends, find allies. Still, all she wants is her privileged life back, and in the attempt to run back to it without so much as her ID, she suddenly discovers that she can’t order police around; they refer to her as “it” and “scum” (p. 174), act as if HSA is contagious or at least dirty and disgusting. Anything expensive she’s carrying is considered stolen property. She is the victim of police violence—sanctioned, of course, because she is registered as “nonhuman.”

Still, Jane is given work in the ghetto’s Inex repair workshop, where she learns that, at The Company, the workers call her “Führer Ward” behind her back (p. 187). Hearing about Jane’s plans to escape, the guy who runs the Inex repair workshop warns her: “You don’t know if you’ll get through or if you’ll end up dead in front of the council building” (p. 190)—which is, of course, exactly how “Part One: Icho” ended.

And then the attack on the ghetto starts. Jane briefly feels compassion for a Seraph who is being killed by a posh raider boy, yet she doesn’t understand this alien feeling: “I glanced up at the boy, not understanding why I wanted to hurt him so badly, why I cared about that Seraph” (p. 195). This has been happening to her from the beginning, maybe forever, on an unconscious level. It’s what made her want to smash everything in that VR business meeting. Even after all that she’s said and done, I still have a glimpse of hope for her.

This is also when Jane suffers a severe HSA attack. She catches a glimpse of Icho, not quite certain whether she’s even real. And then she dies.

Having read “Icho” first, however, I have a feeling that this is not the end. I’m wildly confident entering “HellSans: Part Three”—which is where, with both protagonists finally having met up, the narrative switches to third person. You’d think that this is where Jane and Icho, Icho and Jane, work together to bring about the Revolution—but just wait to see how it all spirals out of control.

*

Inexes have a defibrillator function (I’m not surprised, having learned about the electric shocks for HSAs in “Part One: Icho”—and I think that this is another canny foreshadowing of future developments), and Icho is giving Jane mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Jane is revived. Icho then reveals to her that the injection, the formula of which was stolen by Caddick’s guy, is “not exactly a cure. It keeps symptoms under control for a few hours” (p. 204). As Jane and Icho are having their injuries treated, meanwhile, the media blame the raid on the Seraphs: “We cannot tolerate the Seraphs any longer. They’re animals, pure and simple, and they should be treated like animals” (p. 207). HSAs are portrayed as lying, the city teens as “volunteers who’d gone in to help” (p. 208). Jane, of course, is still acting unmoved—as if HSA politics doesn’t concern her, as if she doesn’t have any feelings or reactions whatsoever when it comes to HSAs. Icho seems to be shocked by this.

Seeing them together helps us compare and contrast the characters in a new way: Jane is always the egoist (capitalist, privileged), Icho—at least inside her limited horizon—always altruistic, possibly slightly left-wing. This is perfectly illustrated by the “piss-bucket” scene in the ghetto: Jane uses the bucket and walks away; Icho has to queue for an hour to empty it, then returns to berate Jane for her behaviour. Much later, at Jane’s friend James’s place, which is teeming with half-repaired and modified Inexes, Jane crushes them while walking; Icho carefully manoeuvres around them. The crucial difference between these two characters is empathy.

They steal a  Seraph-hacked car and return to the city. “Because cars are programmed to bar HSAs, no one thought to pay them any attention” (p. 209). At Jane’s apartment they realise that Jane has been replaced with a lookalike, probably a puppet of the prime minister. Jane acts nonchalantly, but after a moment of paranoia—during which she goes as far as to check her humanity by pushing tweezers into a fresh HSA wound on her arm (p. 219)—she confesses to Icho that The Company has been (illegally) producing human cyborgs and “tested [them] in the field” (p. 224). They have replaced people, given the cyborgs their histories and their records. “That’s the aim—avoid the uncanny valley, avoid any unease” (p. 225). In the end, everyone will be on Caddick’s side, with all dissenters swapped out for cyborg doppels.

They have twenty-four hours to act—at most—because Icho has run out of formula, and at some point Jane will relapse. Icho suggests they get Milligan’s help, but Jane refuses to rely on “that communist prick” (p. 228). This is where your usual run-of-the-mill action thriller would speed up and possibly include a fast preparatory montage scene, but no, we’re getting some drama!

Icho tells Jane that, with the remedy, she can look at HS and it won’t have any effect. Jane takes a while to understand. “No effect whatsoever?” she splutters. “I’m unblissed? You turn people unblissed? What fucking good is that, Icho?” (p. 231) It might be a “cure” that the Seraphs will accept. Icho argues that it’s not so bad, being unblissed: “you just have to learn to fake it” (p. 234). Icho finally reveals her secret, which helped her develop the formula—she is naturally immune to HS. Caddick, of course, doesn’t know that the formula makes people unblissed. He would not have approved it otherwise. In turn, Jane makes a revelation of her own: recent Inex models have a built-in kill function. It only needs to be activated, and over five billion people will die (p. 254). “You built into Inexes a way to kill their owners? […] You’re serious?” Icho gasps. “It was just a bit of fun, in the early days,” Jane shrugs. Only Jane can access this function, and it would be incredibly difficult, even more so if the target was a single specified person. But now Icho is burdened with the knowledge.

They decide to connect up their Inexes to engage in a more comprehensive version of Jane’s book project—an autobiography that Jane’s Inex writes for her based on recordings—so that they now both have access to each other’s files. Jane learns about Icho’s (indirect) involvement in the attack on Milligan. Instead of showing compassion (as I’ve said, she’s incapable of empathy), she blames Icho for what happened to her. Her reaction is that of an angry child. The Inexes suggest that this fight is “good for the narrative,” which almost facilitates a meta moment, but Icho hates it: “‘Good for the—’ she said, incredulous. ‘Just … don’t talk to me. Don’t talk’.” (p. 244)

For her part, Jane questions a bit of the “narrative” that the Inexes have written based on their recordings. It’s a section about self-perception and the Inex’s analysis of Jane’s reaction to and assessment of Icho. I went back to compare the original passage in the novel to the Inex’s retelling, and, even though Icho doubts it, it’s verbatim. The Inex agrees that the scene is based on Icho’s thought processes rather than a real conversation, but that it’s realistic and “better for the narrative” (p. 257). Which means that, so far, I’ve been reading the Inex-constructed memoirs rather than a “real” story. [5] This narration is unreliable.

Indeed, the Inexes are explicit that their narrative is predetermined: “We have a narrative arc that requires a happy ending,” they inform their protagonists. Happily for the Inexes, Jane and Icho have finally, while hiding out and having a bit of down time, been able to actually deal with their mutual attraction, and we, their readers, have finally got our lesbian sex scene. “Double connected” via their Inexes, the couple experience each other’s sensations in addition to their own, as well as what’s going on in each other’s minds. Here, the text dissolves into a semi-abstract visual poetry of bodies and sensation, very reminiscent of the most experimental moments in Alfred Bester’s novels (but sexy, and queer).

But Jane never asked for Icho’s consent to the double connect. And there is also one key image that Icho sees in Jane’s mind when they are double-connected that she has not seen in the Inex narrative: Jane having sex with an HSA. When questioned, the Inex says that she was “a receptionist from The Company.” In the unedited version demanded by Icho, however, Jane tells her assistant to “get rid of” this receptionist based on her appearance and state of health. Then, like on second thought, she tells him to send the young woman to her place “and wait there for [her]” (p. 258), like she’s a sex worker rather than a receptionist. She will be used and then discarded. In further outtakes from Jane’s flat, Jane behaves just like a man who is about to date-rape an intimidated girl. She forces the receptionist to focus on a HellSans poster and read it to her, forcing an attack. This is deliberate torture. She gets off on the woman’s pain. I think what she does to her qualifies as rape. Icho makes the Inex stop the narrative.

Having “decided this is a love story” the Inexes had resolved that leaving this scene in “might bias [Icho] against Jane” (p. 259). Too late. And there is more: Jane murdered a wounded Seraph in the basement of the council building. (On first reading, I did think this scene read weirdly, the Seraph recovering her energy somewhat and then suddenly dying. Well, turns out Jane “helped.”) Icho, of course, cannot leave things like this. She can’t just gloss over violence and murder. This is also about the HSA woman she swapped IDs with while on the run: “We all know what ‘died in custody’ means” (p. 261). Icho believes that everyone who lets these things happen is complicit.

But early on, a dangerous co-dependency was established between the two protagionists. How much will Icho put up with without confronting Jane? She’s always returning to care for her, calm her down, inject her with the antidote, and so on. Jane on the other hand still insists that she is better than the HSAs. Icho contradicts her: “They are you” (p. 275). During a fight (which only arises out of Icho’s combined fears of being abandoned and of something happening to Jane), Jane plays the power card, saying that she owns Icho (p. 275).

Here, everything that has been precariously teetering for a while finally spins out of control. Jane and Icho have a big fight, Jane goes out to kill her double but returns early because she is being followed—to find that the fake Jane has preceded her and killed Icho (p. 280). This is the unedited truth, since the narrative switches again to exclude Icho’s perspective:

“This is not the ending we plotted,” said my Inex.

“Delete it. Erase it.”

“We cannot delete or erase what has happened.” (p. 281)

 

*

Nothing in this book goes “right” or according to genre “recipe.” Where you’d expect a love story, one of the central pair keeps behaving like she doesn’t care; where you’d expect a revolution, one of them gets killed (and way too easily, too). I find myself thinking: maybe it will work as a revenge story?

No. Instead of a revenge story, we get an even more twisted version of Heathcliff’s sick social experiment at the end of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), in which he forces the next generation to act out the mistakes of the past to see what happens: James prepares a cyborg of Icho for Jane, using all her recorded memories from her Inex. But “thin, with light, feathery hair,” and no scars (p. 299). Even after her experiences in the HSA ghetto—where, when you’re ill, suddenly “fashionably thin” is “too thin,” worrying health workers (p. 179)—Jane still sees these things as improvements, even though she is startled by the changes. She tells the Icho cyborg that Icho was killed by Seraphs and she brought her back. “I saved you like you saved me” (p. 300).

The cyborg’s response to her new, “improved” looks? “What have you done to me? [...] This isn’t me” (p. 301). We already know from Icho’s narrative that she could have altered her appearance if she chose to, but she preferred being her natural self. Jane wasn’t joking when, during the big fight, she said she owned Icho. When the “new” Icho gets angry at her for changing her “to spec,” she sedates her to shut her up. But Icho knows she is a cyborg, and she is very unhappy about it. “You had no right,” she tells Jane (p. 302):

“I’m trying to make you understand what you’ve done. How can you not understand? My body isn’t some accessory; it’s not a plaything. My scars were part of me, Jane. My history. They were part of what made me me.” (p. 303)

But Jane has always seen and treated other people as her playthings. (Apart from Caddick. She denies it, but she is afraid of Caddick.)

I refuse, then, to see a protagonist like Jane as a heroine. I refuse her perspective as our narrative. I wish I still had (the “real”) Icho, but for Icho’s sake. She didn’t deserve any of this.

Instead of bringing the cure to Milligan, instead of exposing Caddick, instead even of any kind of revenge plot, Jane chooses to cater to her own … not even needs, but wants. Desires. She doesn’t need to fix the world, she doesn’t want to help the HSAs in the ghetto, she doesn’t want to eradicate HellSans. Why would she? All she wants is her former status back, her privilege, her wealth. For this, posing as her cyborg double, she even wears Caddick’s engagement ring, and who knows what else she does. She focuses on having her things back, her sheltered life, free from pain, and on synthesising her lost lover. Selfish. Incapable of empathy. She never learned, not one iota, not even from her own experiences in the ghetto. She only wanted this new life gone and to resume her boring one—which, underneath it all, she has nevertheless always felt a wish to shatter (remember that VR meeting in the beginning). She isn’t happy, she can’t be. Is she even aware of this? Is she really a sociopath? (They do make good CEOs. There are studies.)

Icho can’t even leave. Jane acts like it’s for her own good. But, eventually, Icho reads the unedited version of her death. She gives Jane a chance to tell her the truth; Jane still won’t (p. 309). After a stint of self-harm, the android Icho turns to show-and-tell: she puts on lingerie, tells Jane directly that she’s seducing her, gives the Inexes the double-connect command, without asking for consent (which is how we know that this isn’t well-meant), and the double connect turns into visions of horror, rent bodies and HS text intermingling. Torture and sickness. Jane is stricken:

“How could you do that to me?”

Icho narrowed her eyes and smiled. “How,” said Icho, “could you do this to me?”

Jane looked up at her. “What happened to you?”

“You happened to me.” (p. 313)

Icho finds what’s left of the android Jane. It’s brain-damaged and rotted, but she drags the thing out of the cupboard in which it was hidden. They are the same.

“I don’t know,” said Icho [to Jane as she returns home that night], staring at Jane as her expression turned to horror, “how I expect you to treat me well if this is how you treat yourself.” (p. 316)

She wants to rebuild the half-dead android, mirroring what Jane is doing to her without her permission. Jane tells Icho she’s making her a new body. Icho doesn’t want one.

“It’s too late,” she said, her attention still on her work. “And I want out of our story.”

“You want out?”

“I don’t want to be connected to you,” she said, turning to look at Jane. (p. 318)

After the connection is severed, the narration—Jane’s story—switches back to “I.”

Caddick enters Jane’s flat. He thinks she’s the android, his android.

After all this time of Jane and Icho arguing about whether or not she’d have sex with Caddick—and Jane always denying it—Caddick admits that he changed something in the fake Jane. “I ironed out the queer kinks,” he says (p. 324). He made her straight. He made her attracted to him. This whole hierarchy of torture is increasingly horrible to read. “If you love someone,” Jane says, feeling truly nauseous now, “you don’t change them” (p. 324). She looks in the direction of the hidden Icho android, but can’t see her watching.

Two of Caddick’s lackeys take Jane away. When she comes to, Caddick is there, telling her he found the fake Jane. He knows everything (or so he says). He brings in the boy who was supposed to kill Jane in the ghetto, gives him a gun, lets him point it at her and fire (the chamber is empty!) before having him shot. He forces her to watch the execution of the Seraphs live on television. One of them is Icho. He found her. She’s an android; he can’t kill her. It’s all for show—it’s all aimed at Jane. Another of the Seraphs is James. The real James. Jane’s only real friend.

There is, though, a plan in place. (Very briefly I find myself thinking, hoping: have they been able to trick the readers through the Inexes? Has all of this narrative been edited so nobody, including the readers, would know or even suspect what was going on behind the scenes? Was all of this android drama, all the pain, the hatred, the torture ... was it just this, actual theatre? For our benefit, so we wouldn’t know what the characters—including James—were planning? Oh, please let Icho be alive, let this be true! It’s all wishful thinking.) By thinking in emphasised HS, Jane provokes an HSA attack in her cell (while still internally watching Caddick give his speech). While the guards get the HSA treatment, Caddick collapses at the podium. “I smiled, relieved, my hard work was paying off” (p. 330). Has Jane actually employed the kill command through Caddick’s Inex? YES! His whole party falls over and dies. Then the two guards in Jane’s cell fall over and die. Jane had said she had a gift for Icho, the new android Icho, and it was the secret execution of Caddick and his party members (p. 330). [6]

The final two lines of this novel’s acknowledgements reveal this as a sort of roman à clef:

Spit, bile, and vomit to the Tories.

A salute to all Queer Crips for their tenacity and for existing. Stay deviant, creatures. (p. 333)

There is a lot of vomit in this book. But there is no reason to apologise for that (as Dundas does on the same page). In fact, systems designed as broken—systems that deliberately don’t provide healthcare and medication for the chronically ill and immunocompromised—make me sick, and should make anyone sick. Vomit is only an appropriate response. Out of love, get angry.

Yes, this is about the Tories. Their class would benefit if certain groups died from COVID: the old and weak, the homeless, the poor, the chronically ill. These groups don’t support the system (much); the system has to carry them, so just let them die off, we’re better off without them. Ever Dundas isn’t off the mark when she compares the Tories to nazis via Prime Minister Caddick’s party slogan, which is literally a nazi slogan and the horrifically famous inscription above the gates of the concentration camps. If somebody specifies lists of people who are to be killed off (by direct or indirect means), they’re a nazi. [7]

This is not some hyperbolic technological dystopia, I find myself thinking while drinking a glass of water with an ice cube and a squirt of lemon juice (almost vitwater), my face freshly slathered with aloe vera gel (almost ambrosia). This is here, right now. Governments a mere blink from where I’m semi-comfortably (if anxiously) sitting while shielding myself from COVID-deniers, anti-vaxxers, and TERF trolls, are pulling back pandemic safety measures while actively denying essential medication to the immunocompromised. Our chains, the only thing we’ve got to lose according to Marx’s tombstone, these days include our gadgets. Disguised as conveniences, our phones—our smart watches, our cars, our vacuum robots—are constantly transmitting our locations, vital statistics, shopping and eating habits, waking and sleep cycles, and more to big companies who are equally constantly cashing in on all our data. The rich keep getting richer, while the poor keep getting reinfected, cut off from the health services they need in order to have any semblance of quality of life.

HellSans is dedicated to

all queer crips
and people with M.E. who have endured
decades of cruelty and neglect
with love and rage.

Endnotes

[1] Indeed, throughout history, prisoners have often been used in medical research and vaccine development, and there is ongoing ethical debate about this practise, especially in the context of human rights and consent, e.g. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/should-prisoners-be-used-in-medical-experiments/. [return]

[2] The first impression I got of Jane, even through Icho’s starstruck eyes, was very different. Here she is, having talked Icho into trying an appetiser topped with farmed (as opposed to lab-grown) meat:

“Icho has only just tried real meat. Can you believe that?” [Jane said.]

“Don’t listen to her,” [James, introduced as a friend of Jane’s] said. “Lab meat is just as ‘real’, and it doesn’t taste any different. It’s all affectation; rich people and their luxuries. It’s morbid, if you ask me.”

“You just don’t know quality.” (p. 14)

Jane’s behaviour caused me to think of her as a bit of a privileged bitch. There was also the concomitant impression (especially following the animal rights topics in Goblin) that members of the upper classes confuse the concepts of “quality” and murder. Ever Dundas also very easily, very casually inserts little sentences like, “The waiter was about to disappear into the crowd, but Jane raised a finger and they stopped, hovering” (p. 15, italics mine), which both normalises genderqueer/nonbinary characters (yay!) and serves to subtly strengthen the established power relationships. [return]

[3] Icho repeatedly escapes the pain of torture by mentally retreating not into a fantasy world, nor into a fugue state, but along her connection with her Inex, sharing its headspace, its perspective (p. 34). This is a great way to introduce the readership to the intertwined mind/body effects these connections might have. [return]

[4] The violence is full-spectrum: it’s never explicitly stated, but the “raiders” are obviously wearing garments with HellSans prints, because HSAs react to their presence with “allergy” symptoms like shaking, convulsions, vomiting. (p. 98) [return]

[5] Inside the Fictional Contract specified by Umberto Eco, according to which the reader implicitly agrees to suspend their disbelief when entering a work of fiction, we should treat what happens in the story-world as “real”—and deviations from it as false. (Umberto Eco, “Possible Woods,” in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods [Norton Lectures 1992-93], 1994.) [return]

[6] There is still a final twist; just like HellSans to an HSA, this book just won’t give us any bliss. Jane is out of formula; the last vial broke. The TV news begins calling the assassination a Seraph attack, but then: “BREAKING NEWS: Seraphs across the country are eradicating HellSans.” Jane breathes her last: “Not just Seraphs” (p. 331). It turns out that she made many synthetic Ichos and Janes. They are doing the work: a glorious, joyful unblissing of the city. But at what price? We can only guess. [return]

[7] This is an incomplete list of reasons why a system under a party like Caddick’s would consider people nonhuman, deny them their human rights, and leave them to die. I have friends and family on this list. The reviewer is a member of one of the groups on this list, as is the author. 

  • congenital muscular dystrophy
  • cystic fibrosis
  • atopic dermatitis
  • fibromyalgia
  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • severe nerve damage caused by a herniated disc
  • long COVID
  • rosacea
  • chronic complex migraines
  • stress-induced hearing loss
  • diabetes / food allergies
  • immunocompromised
  • transgender
  • nonbinary
  • queer [return]

Credits:

Editors: Reviews Department

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department



Phoenix Scholz is based in Vienna, Austria. They have published articles on science fiction, weird fiction, and superhero comics in Alluvium and On Infinite Earths as well as short stories in The Big Click, Visionarium, Wyrd Daze, and Open Polyversity. Their first published novelettino is Dun da de Sewolawen: The Heart of Silence. They blog at phoenixdreaming.wordpress.com.
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