Marcel Theroux’s first overtly science fiction novel Far North received a bit of attention in 2009 when it was released. Post-apocalyptic fiction missing that special something to make the whole a tight, cohesive package, it nevertheless gave hope of greater things to come given the human focus. The follow up, 2013’s Strange Bodies, embodies the hope—and more.
Nicholas Slopen is an uptight British academic whose life and work is focused on the poet Samuel Johnson. Salary and family spurned for time in dusty libraries and conservatories poring over old letters and manuscripts, when he receives an offer from a rich celebrity to verify the authenticity of a collection of Johnson letters, he jumps at the chance. Saliva forming in his mouth hearing that some of the letters may never before have been published, Slopen becomes hopeful, that is, until the actual examination. Though appearing to be written in Johnson’s hand, the details of the letters don’t seem to stack up—including the backstory of the shady Soviet man seeking to sell the papers. Slopen’s life—lives, in fact—going down an entirely unintended road thereafter, academia may have to wait.
Strange Bodies is one of those novels so perfectly crafted that it is able to reveal its central conceit in the prologue and yet still build an absolutely intriguing mystery in the subsequent pages. The narrative split into oscillating parts, one recounts Slopen’s earlier life as an academic, and the second his life in a new body in an insane asylum. The journey from A to B the mystery Theroux creates so effortlessly, at purely the level of enjoyment, Strange Bodies eminently succeeds.
And there is firm, rootable substance beneath. From the historical details of Johnson’s life to Slopen’s life as an academic, the technological/philological manner in which humans acquire life in new bodies to the existential quandaries and problems this produces, all is filtered through Slopen’s very human, very relatable viewpoint. His questions are the reader’s questions, just as much as his fears are theirs, also. Transforming Slopen, the changes he experiences are re-threaded throughout his ongoing situations and decisions, grounding the novel in elements that transcends his character.
Fascinating about this is that Nicholas Slopen is not ostensibly a likeable character. Waspish in thought and dry in interaction, he does not readily warm to the reader, not to mention his bookish, academic ways lead to nasty “surprises” in his life we but not he see coming. And yet the reader is compelled to continue reading his story. The circumstances Slopen finds himself in stretching reality the tiniest degrees at a time, his innate curiosity to learn the truth behind it is likewise the reader’s, and thus, as uncomfortable bedfellows as you may be, there is a journey of discovery together. Capping this is that Theroux gently increases the heat on the burner with the turn of pages, meaning readers are unknowingly boiled like frogs upon the conclusion of the novel. The opinion of Slopen at the outset is not the same as the end, such is the subtly of transition in perspective. (I would argue this too feeds into the novel’s overarching ideas regarding autonomy and technology).
And something must be said of Theroux’s prose. An immense difference to Far North, it’s as if two different writers wrote the novels, such is the degree of focus and accuracy appearing in Strange Bodies. The story premise may be reminiscent of something by Tim Powers, but the prose is certainly more like Christopher Priest’s—the exactitude amazing. Each word seeming to click perfectly into place like a puzzle piece, part of the joy of the novel is experiencing the steady appearance of salient, precise text.
Strange Bodies garnered a bit of recognition upon its release in 2013, but I think it’s fair to say has received little since. It’s a shame. A sharp, able, human piece of fiction that incorporates speculative elements in a fashion that does not embarrass the adult reader given the broader erudition deployed regarding literature and philology, not to mention indirect discussion regarding existentialism and human autonomy, Theroux proves that he can delve into the world of science fiction with the best. For fans of Christopher Priest and intelligent, well-written science fiction in general, this is a novel well worth seeking out.