Despite the contemporary destabilization of the various genres of speculative fiction and the increasingly indistinct boundaries between and among science fiction, fantasy, horror, mainstream literary fiction, and others, it's remarkably easy to classify Will McIntosh's Love Minus Eighty according to its genre: the novel is indisputably a science fiction romantic comedy. Readers already familiar with McIntosh's work should not find this classification too surprising, since the bulk of his well-received first novel Soft Apocalypse (2011) chronicles its narrator's misadventures in love and longing rather than focusing exclusively on the leisurely collapse of the entire world happening all around him.
Love Minus Eighty, if far more straightforward as a romantic comedy, is itself set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland—although you'd hardly notice it if you spent most of your time flitting about New York City's "High Town," the insulated bastion of the city's cadre of techno-plutocrats. And this is one of the major points that McIntosh emphasizes throughout the novel, such that the denizens of High Town even possess technologies for filtering out undesirable sense data: when slumming down below, their wearable personal computers or "systems" can make decrepitude and urban decay appear presentable. But the central novum here involves the cryogenic preservation of the dead and, more specifically, the so-called dating centers that preserve attractive young women lacking the full insurance coverage that would allow them to be fully revived after accidental death. Instead, these (un)dead women—sometimes referred to derogatorily as "bridesicles"—must endure the ignominy of being courted by wealthy suitors who may choose to make them the SF equivalent of mail-order brides.
As a piece of social science fiction that critiques contemporary corporate and Internet cultures as well as extrapolating present forms of social media and cyberdating into a plausible future, Love Minus Eighty shows great potential, but the richness of McIntosh's extrapolations finally remain married to a formulaic and predictable set of interconnected romantic plots. Ultimately, the novel has all the strengths and limitations attendant on a well-orchestrated romantic comedy plot, whether we're talking about one of Shakespeare's marriage comedies or that archetypical rom-com Love, Actually. On the surface McIntosh's novel is pleasant reading with likeable characters, clever if suspiciously serendipitous plot twists, as well as snappy dialogue, but the course of the narrative also raises problematic issues that McIntosh cannot fully resolve by means of a happy ending that must urge us to trust in love and pair bonding. The extent to which Love Minus Eighty succeeds or fails must, I think, depend on our answer to the question of whether the light romantic comedy was really the most suitable vehicle for this exercise in quite serious social science fiction. The novel repeatedly hints at the compound horrors of the bridesicles' situation, but retreats from exploring the true depths of those horrors, just as it routinely sacrifices introspection and social critique for an engaging, smoothly moving plot.
As an expansion of the very different Hugo-winning short story, "Bridesicle" (Asimov's, 2009), Love Minus Eighty did not necessarily have to take the form that it has, and the buried-alive claustrophobia of the original story here becomes tempered by the mundane affairs of a considerably expanded cast of living characters. (The short story's additional concept of the "hitcher," a psychic ghost riding around in another's mind, has been completely scrapped for Love Minus Eighty, although McIntosh spun off that particular idea into his otherwise unrelated second novel, Hitchers ). The new title, Love Minus Eighty, may seem suggestive of an extreme May-December romance—perhaps one with an age difference of a full eight decades—and the true meaning of the title turns out not to be so very different: on the third page we learn that "the minus eighty" is a nickname for the cold storage where the bridesicles languish in living death, kept at a snug negative eighty degrees, and indeed sometimes for as long as eighty years or more.
There is no need to rehearse the plot at great length here, chiefly a familiar guessing game of who will end up with whom, and how, and when, but with the additional questions of who will end up resurrected by whom, and how, and when. But the novel's main action begins when the Low Town musician Rob, during a moment of split attention in his vehicle brought on by a bad breakup, accidentally kills Winter, a woman who ends up in the minus eighty. When Rob visits her there to apologize, she insists that he keep coming back, because bridesicles are only permitted to spend time alive when they have visitors. Predictably, the two become the ultimate in star-crossed lovers, and due to the expense of visiting—to say nothing of actually resuscitating—a woman in the minus eighty, Rob must undergo a kind of fairytale labor for love with the help of a small group of friends. Some futuristic Cyrano de Bergerac side-plots round out the novel, and its second half revolves around a campaign not only to prolong Winter's (un)life past her expiration date, but also a larger social movement to "save the bridesicles."
The concept of the bridesicle was sufficiently intriguing to bag McIntosh a Hugo, and the (often implicit) examinations of this technology and its relationship to biopower remain some of the most interesting aspects of the story in novel form. Although the minus eighty is highly reminiscent of the state of "half-life" in Philip K. Dick's Ubik (1969), the sexual dynamics of reviving the dead in Love Minus Eighty carry the novel in entirely different directions from Dick's reality-bending narrative. For one, visitors to the "dating center" can try to force the women into providing a kind of necrophilic phone sex, with no intention of paying the bigger bucks to resurrect anyone. Even a five-minute encounter costs thousands of dollars, so doing so would seem an odd alternative to phone sex—especially since the women have uniformly harsh voices, being dead and unable to breathe on their own—but it no longer seems so odd when we consider that the entire basis for the bridesicle program is the thrill of absolute sexual coercion, as other points in the novel make clear: it is only "power and dominance that keeps the bridesicle program going" (p. 143).
McIntosh uses the character of Mira, a lesbian accidentally "recruited" into the program, to underscore this point, as she is forced to play straight in addition to playing completely subservient to her suitors. In the minus eighty, female consciousness, even existence, becomes entirely dependent on the male gaze and global capital, forcing women to extremes of emotional labor and playacting to persuade a man to grant them life—which is after all only a life of sexual slavery in a marriage that they cannot dissolve. Scenes with characters in the minus eighty are invariably haunting: "Mira didn't know what to say. She didn't want these minutes to talk about her plight, she just wanted to be for a few more minutes" (p. 351). Unfortunately, the more effective scenes with Mira constitute a very small fraction of the book, and the swift pacing of the plot doesn't allow us to linger on their most disturbing implications. For instance, when an 80-year-old man awakens her only to grumble "You're not my type" (p. 38) and shut off her brain, we are reminded that not even consciousness is voluntary for these women—but then the next section returns us to Veronika the dating coach participating in a high-tech interactive romance novel, and Mira is forgotten.
The concept of the bridesicle is far from the only extrapolation about love and dating included in Love Minus Eighty, and McIntosh has built an impressively detailed world around the original idea. Of course, the basic setting of the novel is merely an overfamiliar post-cyberpunk city, where the ultra-rich live the (literal) high life and everybody else makes do down below. But this is also a world that could only have been imagined within the last few years, a world saturated with new forms of information technology and, perhaps more importantly, social uses to which that information technology is put. For example, the concept of privacy has been forever altered by the ability of any individual to create an instant telepresence just about anywhere through the use of a floating "screen," and some characters, like Rob's ex Lorelei, spend their lives streaming their daily routine to attract thousands of viewers' screens. McIntosh also spends a great deal of time exploring how Internet dating might evolve alongside these new technologies, and alongside our increasingly technologically divided attention spans. (After reading the book, I learned that McIntosh is in fact a social psychologist who has done scholarly work on online dating, and it shows.) Late in his novel McIntosh explicitly draws together the two major but apparently unrelated forms of technology that he has imagined, when Rob makes a connection between this ubiquitous remote conversation via "screen" and the unfortunate women in the minus eighty divided from the world of the living: both the screen and the revival crèche are simultaneous facilitators of and barriers to meaningful human communication. When I reached this point in the novel, I began to appreciate the book's cover, which had initially turned me off with its apparent glamorization of what should be an unsexed corpse in the deep freeze. But the cover in fact depicts a woman ambiguously brushing either a pane of frosted glass or a touchscreen, reminding us that this novel is not only full of half-alive humans, but also a panoply of virtual ghosts.
If one of the novel's major strengths lies in its imaginative extrapolations about future society, it nevertheless shows some weakness in the area of introspection: there's simply not much room devoted to deeper philosophizing about the minus eighty. While the inner lives of the living characters aren't simplistic, as such, they are constructed almost entirely around romantic relationships and their pursuit. We often see inside the heads of our various main characters, but introspection tends to be limited to romantic banalities like the following: "Winter was dead, and if through some miracle she ever stopped being dead, she'd be married. What he was feeling was absurd, and pointless" (p. 247); "[Veronika] would help Lycan learn to love life, or at least not despise it, and in doing so, teach herself as well" (p. 132). Even Rob's guilt over having killed Winter, ostensibly the driving emotional burden of the entire novel, remains primarily externalized, in that scene after scene shows us Rob working himself to the bone in manual labor, but we rarely get deeper reflections on why he's doing it and what he thinks and feels about it all.
For the most part, Love Minus Eighty is a very smart novel, but also one full of missed opportunities to reflect, to probe more deeply the complexities it depicts. McIntosh repeatedly invokes weighty subjects like guilt, depression, crippling anxiety, death, and suicidal impulses, but the novel's tone somehow remains effortlessly light throughout, and the greater part of the plot is filled out with unadulterated rom-com wackiness, like the episode in which Veronika's much more attractive co-worker—and secret crush—offers to pretend to be her boyfriend at a family gathering, or when Veronika is hired as a dating coach to woo her object of affection for another woman. Likewise, the members of McIntosh's ensemble cast aren't quite stock characters, but the foundations of their identities usually depend on the kind of irony that flourishes in light comedy: a dating coach who remains hopelessly single; a suicidally socially awkward researcher of human empathy, emotion, and communication; a spoiled aspirant to celebrity who turns out to be a decent person in the end once she finds a righteous cause; and so on.
When I try to pass final judgment on Love Minus Eighty, I think immediately of the novel's back cover, which pithily bills it as "A novel of love and death in no particular order": this is a clever line, and Love Minus Eighty tells a clever story. But both the one-liner and the novel indulge in clever humor when describing situations that perhaps require more gravitas to unpack fully. Perhaps McIntosh, by using the light romantic comedy as the lens through which to tell a story of brutal sexual exploitation in a grim and gritty future, is finally just a little guilty of the same sort of rose-colored filtration he himself portrays so well in the novel: the citizens of High Town use their computerized systems to ignore the less pleasant parts of their world, and the sheer good fun of the rom-com prevents us from dwelling too long on them ourselves.
T. S. Miller is currently completing his Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Notre Dame. Of course, an interest in science fiction and fantasy has been the "secret vice" of many a medievalist before him, and his articles have appeared or are forthcoming in genre journals like Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.
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