In November 2018, Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui defied international scientific consensus and used CRISPR to edit the genes of two twin infants. The controversy He sparked felt plucked from the pages of science fiction—a genre arguably founded on anxieties about bioengineering. Like Victor Frankenstein, He was a maverick, a mad scientist intruding into nature’s divine domain. His transgression reinvigorated age-old questions about what it means to be human, how we distribute medical privilege, and how we decide the ethical limits of scientific inquiry. Even more, the event underscored the myriad ways medicine and technology already alter our biology. Culturally, we have accepted organ transplants, artificial limbs, pacemakers, and plastic surgery. One could argue that our smart devices are functionally digital prosthetics. Are we all, in fact, cyborgs now?
These questions form the ground from which Lincoln Michel’s debut novel, The Body Scout, erupts. And it is an eruption: its pages, stuffed with satire and sassy cynicism, track the molten flow of science as we see it evolving under neoliberalism—moving us toward what the novel predicts to be a deeply unsavory future. That is to say that the world of The Body Scout is a plausible one, in which humanity’s best inventions, no matter how noble in vision, inevitably serve corporate interests. In Michel’s words, The Body Scout is “a science fiction noir set in a climate-ravaged future where body modification, cybernetics, and genetic editing have turned the human body itself into the latest booming ‘market.’” Rather than enhancing human life, as they might, these developments only fortify existing power while destroying the world and diminishing its many human and nonhuman inhabitants. When we look around us, we can already see it. The Body Scout just makes it plain.
The book takes place in a futuristic New York City, where power resides at the nexus of biotech, capital, and, unexpectedly, baseball. Its protagonist is Kobo, a washed-up pitcher with a mechanical arm who was once a star of the now defunct Cyber League (CLB). In his retirement from professional baseball, Kobo works as a scout for the Future League (FLB), where his brother is the star player of the sardonically named Monsanto Mets. Unlike CLB players (dismissively labeled “oilers”), FLB players use pills and serums that give them unique talents. As a “body scout,” Kobo’s job is not just to recruit athletes willing to submit their bodies to experimental treatments, but also to conscript or kidnap promising genetic engineers who might help give their teams a (potentially literal) leg up.
In this oligarchical vision of the future, baseball is the symbolic battleground of America’s economic warlords. Players are superheroes of the diamond, deploying their abilities only to entertain the public and make money for their employers. The arrangement offers players the benefits one might expect from the future of neoliberal capital. Women, men, and nonbinary people, for instance, are finally equals on the playing field, but it’s a dubious privilege. Rather than liberating people from the strictures of the old world, this brand of egalitarianism merely offers broader pools of bodies for commodification. In truth, The Body Scout’s baseball players are functionally slaves. They live sequestered in secure compounds, subjected to constant medical experimentation, policed for their own protection against abduction by rivals, and digitally surveilled to ensure they maintain their value as assets to the teams that own them.
If this sounds outlandish, think about the ways in which today’s athletes and celebrities are routinely imprisoned by their talent and fame. When, for example, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles—two of the most celebrated athletes in the world—withdrew from competition to prioritize their mental health, it revealed the rising emotional and mental costs of contemporary sports culture. As Barney Ronay wrote for The Guardian: “Until very recently athletes could shrink a little, suffer in private,” he explains. “Not now. Every part of your existence is public property.” To these difficulties, he adds, athletes “emerge from an industrialised version of their sport, a system that isn’t play or enjoyment, but a machine designed for winning.”
Contemporary sports technology and medicine make Michel’s dark forecast look all the more likely. Today, athletes train with heart monitors. Drones hover over playing fields to capture every possible view of the athlete’s body in high resolution and feed it to fans in slow motion. Attachable sensors help players analyze and improve their swings. And so on. Then there are the pharmaceutical interventions: although performance-enhancing drugs are still banned, supplements, nutritional counselors, and physical trainers help athletes continue to perform record-breaking feats. Is this the maximization of biological potential or simply biohacking?
The lens of science fiction often works by making reality look unbelievable. At its best, it shows us truths we can already perceive without necessarily understanding. Michel wields his genre like a weapon, which he aims at America. In his world, billboards float through the sky, hawking products like “Growth Cola,” and flashing slogans like “The Climate Has Changed, Your Body Should Too.” NGOs like the “No Body Left Behind” fund work with “international philanthropists to provide physical and cerebral upgrades to low-income NYC school children.” The buildings of New York City’s boroughs “have all been repurposed for the rich, rebranded as meditation caves and upscale nostalgia hotels.” The news offers human interest stories like the one about a child “whose drone had been lost on vacation in Florida and somehow made the long journey all the way to Boston to reunite.” On the screen, the boy hugs his drone, naming him “my bestest friend in the world.”
Each of these examples from The Body Scout’s dystopian future offers a sneering indictment of the American politics and culture of our dystopian present. Nor does his indictment suggest alternatives. Despite the infinite array of products and services that masquerade as choices, his characters are all but powerless to change their lives. If the climate makes your body more vulnerable, then why wouldn’t you pay for products to protect yourself from environmental hazards? The economy has produced needs that can only be solved through consumption, widening the gap between haves and have-nots, rendering nearly everyone radically susceptible to the whims of maniacal oligarchs.
Michel embodies the monstrosity of such a system in the grotesque form of the CEO of Monsanto Agriculture, Biotechnology, and Baseball Concerns, Derek T. Mouth the Second, aka “the Mouth.” The Mouth—a brazen satire of a specific political-figure-cum-billionaire we all know—has an insatiable appetite for appetite itself. He has golden skin and a wall decorated with hundreds of gold-plated robotic mouths. He owns a “human telephone”—a man upon whom he has, in an updated version of the original Haitian zombie slave mythology, installed a neural mesh that allows remote control of his brain (“beta testing on this beta nobody”). In case we miss it, the Mouth also bloviates in all-too-familiar cadences, saying things like “You’ve never tasted a burger until you’ve tasted mammoth. You’ll feel like a caveman chomping on one of these. Give me a spear right now, I’d stab a dinosaur right through the lizard’s skull! Ha ha.” Oh yes, this book wears its politics on its sleeve.
The timeliness of Michel’s book and the apt freneticism of it storyworld have earned The Body Scout praise from outlets like The New York Times and writers as established as Jonathan Lethem. In a way, I can see it: Michel’s future echoes the gritty dystopias of Blade Runner (1982), Fifth Element (1997), or Altered Carbon (2018-20). As do those popular examples, Michel performs the male-centered, neo-noir, sci-fi version of a hot take. Michel’s rough-hewn protagonist—played, in my mind, by an Asian-American version of a young Harrison Ford—reluctantly fumbles his way through noble acts of heroism. The irreverent voice of his first-person narration scoffs at the neoliberal mechanisms of power against which he feels powerless. He slips from the grasp of his monstrous debt collectors, a pair of previously conjoined cyborg sisters; he allies with a former lover and a wayward child; he, for reasons unknown to him and which he does not question, is handpicked to solve the mystery of the public death of a celebrated baseball player.
While the twists of this hard-boiled plot sustained my attention through the novel’s 368 pages, I couldn’t help but wish the language itself were as creatively rendered as the concept. Take, for example, the following:
We’re all born with one body, and there’s no possibility of a refund. No way to test-drive a different form. So how could anyone not be willing to pay an arm and a leg for a better arm and a better leg? Sure, we’re each greater than the sum of our parts. But surely greater parts couldn’t hurt.
In those five sentences, I count six clichés. Don’t get me wrong: I get the irony, and I can see how the tone reaches toward the electric prose of authors like Junot Díaz or Thomas Pynchon. There is also a thematic reason to imagine the script of Kobo’s brain as some kind of remix of the endless slogans of his hypermediated world. The book plays on the clichés of industry by literalizing their tired metaphors and occasionally reversing them, but, in the end, the metaphors are still tired. The universe Michel has created, in my opinion, deserves better than that. But this is only one of the ways the novel enacts the issues it denounces. Like using clichés to critique clichés, The Body Scout finds itself in a bind as it tries to leverage the conventions of its genres against themselves.
Like so, so many of its forebears, this book is constitutionally cis, hetero, and masculine. Unlike its forebears, it overtly recognizes itself as such. It tempers the femme-fatale neo-noir ableist cis-hetero-misogyny of its predecessors by making one love interest blind, and another (former) lover nonbinary. It flips gendered expectations by making all its muscle (the debt collectors, an eloquent neanderthal bodyguard) women. These are perhaps noble gestures, but they nonetheless preserve the structures of its dominant genre, which I like to call “just-a-guy sci-fi.” Noticing and interrogating problems is a step toward liberation, but I for one am hungry for new stories. Give me instead Octavia Butler’s weird-bodied gene-traders. Or Liu Cixin’s intergalactic math-nerd VR programmers. Or Kim Stanley Robinson’s voluminous cli-fi histories of the future. Or Jeff VanderMeer’s hallucinogenic Area X. Just as including more genders in professional sports can indeed be an empty gesture, populating old genres with newer casts of more diverse characters does not necessarily signify progress.
That said, there is much to recommend Michel’s debut. It is inarguably perceptive, forecasting a world that feels not only possible, but increasingly probable. For centuries, science fiction has fretted over the implications of technological progress and genetic engineering, but so many have overlooked the ways in which these experiments might interact with geopolitics and global economics. What Michel shows us is that of course the future will see every new discovery co-opted and commodified. Of course monied interests will partially drive scientific development, creating just enough problems to keep us buying solutions, while reserving the only truly revolutionary benefits for the ruling classes. The Body Scout is chilling, imaginative, and engrossing. In the end, I read every word and enjoyed every detail. I just had to look past the prose and the bros.