If everything is perfect and we all get along, what are we here for? This is the question that utopian narratives want us to consider: what do we mean when we talk about the perfect society? Asking the question invites us to consider more closely the material reality of our own present, our own legal and judicial systems, our own systems of values. In this way, the utopia is itself satirical, always carving with an edge, and while its imaginary adherents and occupants might enjoy a conflict-free existence, we the reader begin to recognize the critique of our own norms, the push-back that the author wants us to identify. In this way, a piece of utopian fiction should challenge us to articulate, or at least begin to conceive of, our own models of what a “perfect” society looks like. The genre is a philosopher’s playground and, perhaps more than other modes of science fiction, it is deeply invested in the dialectic, where the ideal becomes pitted against the real and various logics become entangled.
Chana Porter’s The Seep stakes out firm ground in this utopian mode, managing to craft not only a compelling series of dialogues and theoretical arguments, but also tethering those discursive moments to lived-in, breathed-through characters. Utopian fiction is always at risk of flailing away into abstraction, but by anchoring The Seep so exclusively to the material and affective experience of her protagonist, Trina FastHorse Goldberg-Oneka, Porter foregrounds character dynamics over heady pontificating, and gives us a utopian narrative where the human—with all of its forms and variations and contradictions—is decidedly centered. If Sir Thomas More’s Utopia gave us the magisterial bird’s-eye dimension of one utopian possibility, Porter provides the emotional, idiosyncratic, and interrogative perspective that More’s fantasy island lacked; where More painted broadly and with whimsy, Porter moves in close, tracing her characters’ contours with exacting, exhilarating precision. And she adds some aliens.
The Seep dramatizes an alien invasion that prioritizes subtlety over bombast, existential identity crisis over total obliteration. The aliens’ moniker—the Seep—signals the slow-burn, all-pervasive nature of the invasion. They’re a type of symbiotic microorganism (although it’s not entirely clear what the Seep actually is, materially speaking) that infiltrates every level of matter and unites it into an ecological awareness. “Trina’s inner and outer worlds expanded and merged,” Porter writes, noting how “her city became a tangled nest of permaculture, no separation between living, growing, making—a forest, a garden, a farm next to a coffee shop, a museum, a hospital, a school” (p. 13). But the Seep is more than connective; it’s also transformative and affective: armed with its own form of conscience, the Seep actively ingratiates itself with all of human and nonhuman life in a mission of love and peace and tolerance. Scarcity? War? Conflict? Struggle? All eliminated, problems of a neoliberal capitalist culture gone forever, replaced instead with everlasting life and a boundless future. But what does that leave humanity with? What is existence without struggle? What is left to respond to? These are questions that Trina struggles with, often chided by her social circle (and her wife) for her rose-tinted, nostalgic perception of revolutions past. What is a revolutionary spirit to do when there are no more systems to dismantle, no more oppression to overthrow? As is customary with utopian fiction, this is all too good to be true; nothing is perfect, not even unconditional alien love. “The Seep did love us, and it wanted to help us to create a perfect world,” Trina reflects, “and this destroyed life as we knew it” (p. 12).
From the outset, then, Porter establishes an intriguing postcapitalist world and populates it with characters who exist along a spectrum of alien integration. There are those who live in the Compound, people who completely reject the Seep and live a kind of alien-ascetic lifestyle, and then there’s Horizon Line, one of Trina’s former friends who embraces the Seep so completely that he begins advocating for entirely new conceptions of humanity. The rest of the cast fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but it’s these extremes that eventually propel Trina into a course of action. I say “eventually” pointedly, because for almost half of the novel there is little in the way of narrative momentum. Instead, Porter lets her characters play in this world and butt their heads against each other, introducing the reader to the new ontological and emotional paradigms that the Seep creates. But onto the existential threat.
The crux of the novel’s tension is introduced during a conversation between Horizon and Trina. The Seep allows humanity to radically alter themselves genetically, an opportunity which many take advantage of, grafting themselves with various animal-like attributes, with some animals even taking on human qualities in turn. Horizon has taken this a step further, altering his skin color from white to brown. But he has not simply darkened his skin tone. The face he wears now is an exact replica of his deceased boyfriend’s. For Horizon, he made the decision as a tribute, as well as an ideological gesture toward a new humanity. Trina, a trans woman, is disgusted: “you can’t take other people’s faces, their races, and wear them like—like a suit!” (p. 35) Horizon disagrees, noting that race is a construct, that “we’re all of the same essences, all layers of identity are just that, layers, and you can play with them just as we play with our appearances … our bodies are just containers for our immortal essences. And that’s my exact point. We’ve become too narrow in our thinking” (p. 35). Trina remains unconvinced, arguing that “our bodies may be containers, but they still carry specific histories,” which is something the Seep cannot understand (p. 35). And that’s the question: if our DNA can be manipulated with such efficiency and to such a degree, what becomes of identities that are signaled specifically through embodiment? If we’re all just random combinations of elements, not so much different from a rock or a tree or a bird, then what are we?
These themes have been treated before, perhaps most notably in Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen (1986-7), in which this very conundrum drives the post-human Dr. Manhattan away from humanity to take refuge on Mars. But a more sympathetic companion text to The Seep is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (1971), a short novel which poses the age-old question: in the pursuit of utopia, what is lost? Le Guin even comments on Porter’s specific question of race, when her burgeoning mad scientist manipulates the world into erasing any kind of racial identifier and makes everybody’s skin tone grey. For Trina, what is lost in Horizon’s (and the Seep’s) pursuit of some nirvana-like synthesis of all matter is an embodied history: our memories and personal experiences.
Without getting too into the weeds, Porter’s novel stages a conflict between two theoretical paradigms: Marxism and New Materialism/Posthumanism. Trina argues for an identity that is anchored in a specific, material context; her identity as a trans woman is explicitly linked to years of struggle that is both emotional/affective and biological/material. To erase that history would be to erase who she is, fundamentally. In this way, Trina’s struggle proceeds along vectors of trans and/or queer theory, critical discourses that exist to deal with the tensions between identity, performance, and material embodiment. Later in her quest, at a bar and exasperated, she thinks on how she “had labored for this body! She’d fought and kicked and clawed to have her insides match her outsides, and now people changed their faces as easily as getting a haircut” (p. 145). Horizon sees this as “narrow” thinking, that if we’re as deeply entangled with every form of matter, if we now have access to the worldview of every rock and cloud through the Seep, then constructions of identity are missing the point. The point, he might argue, is that the human is vastly and infinitely more complicated than any identity label could truly encompass, and we should attend more closely to how we holistically engage and interact within this new ecology of matter rather than our individual existences. At the risk of being reductive, Marxism (Trina’s argument) is deeply rooted in historicism, specifically material historicism and revolutionary struggle, and her identity as a trans woman tethers this sometimes exclusionary class revolution to individual identity; New Materialism (or Horizon’s argument) attempts, on the other hand, to reframe this emphasis on materiality at a more conceptual, abstract level in an effort to arrive at a holistic, networked understanding of multiple agential interactions. Where Marxism centers the human—read, the working class—New Materialism de-centers the human and redistributes agency onto every instance of matter. (If any of this sounds interesting to you, a good primer on New Materialism is Jane Bennet’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things ).
Both of these theories are rife with nuances and subtleties, and scholars of either school might totally disagree with how I’ve framed them—and at this point you might be thinking it all sounds a bit too heady and/or pretentious. I’m a victim of academia, and this is really just my own reading of Porter’s novel. But her real achievement here is in crafting a compelling, character-centered drama that engages with these theoretical concepts in an accessible way. Neither Trina nor Horizon begin palavering on historical materialism or posthumanism, but you’ll come away from the novel having engaged with these concepts anyway. This is really what speculative fiction is all about: putting these esoteric, discursive arguments into an environment where their consequences actually begin to play out.
I don’t want to spoil the other inciting incident that sends Trina off on her quest, but once the argumentative groundwork is laid, The Seep’s plot sees Trina tracking down Horizon in an effort to confront him (and possibly kill him?); he becomes the focal point for everything that she sees wrong with the Seep and how it has changed humanity. I found their final confrontation and its ensuing ideological fallout a mixed bag, personally. Porter’s task here is a big one, essentially trying to thread a needle between two differing theories of materiality. While I disagree with where Trina ends up, I think her attempt to try to straddle these two poles is earnest and genuine, and it likely reflects where a lot of us would end up anyway, given similar circumstances.
The Seep is a slim novel packed with grand ideas. Porter’s work here is a testament to the utility and continued relevance of the utopian form. When executed in earnest, with an investment in complexity over simple solutions and straw-man arguments, utopian literature casts contemporary concerns in new lights, revealing weaknesses, shoring up existing opinions, or opening up entirely new vectors of thought. The Seep is such a text. While reading Porter’s novel, you will confront questions of identity, history, and embodiment that will force you to consider your own positions, to determine how you ground and account for yourself. And, like the titular aliens, The Seep works behind the scenes, filtering its way into your brain until the questions and positions it raises become unavoidable, transformative, and urgent.