On the afternoon of Saturday 25th March, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Waist Factory in New York, just a block from Washington Square. The seamstresses working there, mostly teenagers and young women, found the exits blocked and faced either the flames or a leap from windows higher than any fire engine ladders could reach. Nearly 150 were killed. It was a defining moment in America’s social history, as traumatic in its way as 9/11. Walt Whitman, the poet who would have felt so much compassion for the poor women of the Triangle Factory, who proclaimed that the vast strangeness of his country was contained in every individual American, had died twenty years before. Michael Cunningham juggles history, making the Triangle fire earlier and extending Whitman’s life (or perhaps bringing his ghost forward in time, it doesn’t really matter), so that the two come together at the climax of the first of the three stories which comprise this novel.
In his previous novel, The Hours, Cunningham considered three women in three different periods, one of whom was Virginia Woolf and the other two of whom were significantly affected by Woolf’s work. Specimen Days follows the same basic plan, but the timescale is larger, ranging from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 22nd. This time the abiding literary genius is Walt Whitman; though he takes only a walk-on part in the story, his poetry is quoted endlessly and plays a defining part in shaping the psyches of the main characters. If that sounds like another metaphor for the abiding power of art, forget it. Whitman is there because his vast, all-encompassing humanism acts against the dehumanising mechanisation of our urban lives, and this is a novel not about art but about the machine. Interestingly, taking the subject, Cunningham has chosen to explore it through forms of the literary fantastic in two of the three stories (and the third is not straightforwardly naturalistic), a mode in which he proves to be careful and skilled if not always naturally fluent. In some ways this can be read as a smaller scale, less daring variation on what David Mitchell was doing in Cloud Atlas, and like Mitchell’s novel it is a work you don’t necessarily read for the science fiction, but for what can be done with science fiction in a mainstream context.
We begin with a different triangle: the young woman Catherine, the young man Simon, and the disfigured boy Lucas. These three, along with the poetry of Whitman and a simple talismanic bowl, will feature in each of the three stories. In the beginning, Simon is dead. Lucas, hydrocephalic and given to spouting Whitman’s verse uncontrollably, is too young, too damaged, to understand the perilous world he finds himself in. But his father survives only with the help of a breathing machine, his mother has been deranged by Simon’s death, so Lucas must take brother Simon’s place in the factory, tending an incomprehensible machine that punches holes in metal plates; the machine that killed Simon. It is tending this machine that Lucas begins to hear Simon’s voice, a ghostly voice that also comes from his father’s breathing machine, his mother’s music box. The ghost sends him obsessively back to Catherine, Simon’s betrothed, though Lucas is too innocent to recognise that this symbol of purity makes ends meet through prostitution. The tragedy takes us inevitably to the Triangle fire, where Catherine is saved through the actions of Lucas, but at a cost no one had anticipated.
The machine that Simon inhabits in the second story, set in the present day, is the world of business. His sometime lover, Cat, is a psychologist with a full-time job fielding crank calls for the New York police. One such call brings her into contact with Luke, one of a group of orphans raised in isolation on a diet of Walt Whitman and now unleashed as walking bombs to blow up complete strangers in the street. This time around it is Cat’s job to rescue Luke from the big city machine and the wave of terrorism that will come to be known as the Children’s Crusade. But again the rescue is ambiguous, the costs impossible to reckon.
In the final story Simon doesn’t just inhabit a machine, he is a machine, a type of cyborg to be precise, earning a precarious living playing a mugger in a future New York reduced to the status of theme park. Catareen is a Nadian, a lizard-like alien refugee living as an underclass in this run-down future. The pair rescue each other from the city and set out on a journey across a Balkanised America where they meet up with Luke, a child with a messianic hold over an outlaw Christian sect. Luke joins with them and they travel on to Denver, where Simon’s creator is planning to take a spaceship to another world. The only way to escape the machine is to leave the planet, and for once it seems that Luke really can be saved. But it is already too late for Simon and Catareen. In strictly science fictional terms, Cunningham’s portrayal of the alien Nadians is vivid and original, though he is less sure when it comes to cyborgs and spaceships. Taken together, though, and set to the music of Walt Whitman, these three stories add up to an intelligent, beautifully told engagement with the soul and the machine.
Paul Kincaid is the Administrator of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. His fiction has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award, and his criticism appears regularly in SF Studies,The New York Review of SF, Foundation, Vector and elsewhere. He has contributed to numerous reference books on science fiction.