Technology isn't rational; with luck, it's a runaway horse, foaming at the mouth, ready to throw itself off a cliff in desperation. Our problem is that culture's tied to that horse.
One of (if not the biggest) differences between first wave cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk literature is how writers typically handle embodiment. You can generally tell where the work falls on the spectrum just from that issue. What is different and exciting about Bodies of Summer then, is that the lens in which we look at this topic is through Martin Felipe Castagnet, an Argentinian author.
It's good to have a body again, even if it's the body of a fat woman that no one else wanted.
The difference is noticeable and immediate and exciting. With an opening like that, I was interested to see what a text with a cultural divide would yield out of a relatively new (Written in 2012, translated and published in English just one year ago) work of fiction. Thankfully, this is a story that is unlike something I've read and left me some questions I'm still thinking about.
Death still exists; what has disappeared is the certainty that everything will eventually end sooner or later. There's time to shave your head, time to let the gray hairs grow, time to get pregnant, to torture, to be the world champion, and to rewrite the encyclopedia. With patience, a single person could build the pyramids; with perseverance, another single person could knock them down. I guess destruction is another form of love.
Typically, stories in the genre tend to focus on a mind-body Cartesian dualism. In this book though, there is not really much importance placed upon any given individual's desire to be in a body or not; either way, it's culturally considered acceptable. There's a large expansive network of dead people in something called "flotation". Some choose to be reincarnated and come back, sure, but never to their same bodies. To do that would be considered something akin to heresy, and folks who die and return to their same bodies are shirked by most everyone. They aren't zombies... but their bodies don't work great because of this choice apparently, making the choice to return to your own dead flesh something akin to the discrimination against those who suffer from mental health issues today. You apparently need a new body made for you especially, if you want it to work "right". It is a natural thing to change bodies for many reasons, including people born into the wrong body. But...it is also expensive.
Of course, given that the approval process is costly, the debate is linked to the middle and upper classes. As a general rule, the greater the annual income, the less respect for a body. Millionaires setting fire to themselves bonzo style just to keep anyone from reusing their bodies seem to have created a tradition as esteemed as caviar.
Rama is one such person who decides to come into life again, and since his family is not so well off, they can only afford an overweight woman in relatively poor health. The interesting thing about Rama's story is that eventually he actually gets put into multiple bodies. Each one alters the narrative a little bit too; smells, tastes, sounds. etc., are all described differently and are perceptible changes noticeable to Rama as we read the narrative via a first-person lens. It was a welcome and subtle way to show Rama's changes in regards to embodiment issues the book talks about frequently. From disliking the body to caring for it. Showing a kind of detachment in which he ingratiates himself to the woman who died and allowed him access to her flesh in his own mind after moving on from that body. There is a nice cyclical nature to it I enjoyed.
I take his hand, but it's not the hand I held when he was the size of guinea pig recently issued from his mother's womb. This body isn't right. Only my original body, faulty heart and all, would allow me to properly say goodbye with the right face and the right voice and the right look in my eyes.
The story has a buried mystery that is hinted at multiple times but then goes on to a kind of slice-of-life look at daily activities. Very much depicted and described as an everyman, the world is brushed with an altruistic stroke despite life's setbacks, which then swings heavy into distressing thoughts and actions Rama wants to take. A dichotomy that the genre often calls for so much then actually is posed through the depiction of what life is like because of the boons immortality has granted, as well as how this has clearly altered Rama as a person.
Once I read that African slaves used to commit collective suicide because they thought they would be reborn in Africa. So the owners mutilated the bodies to scare the others. This is how we lived: the fear for the future body halts our illusions.
What begins as a man adjusting to and learning to treasure his new, borrowed flesh, eventually becomes about Rama never truly being able to let things go from his past. It's clear while in flotation he didn't abandon these goals, but he also had no body to effectively be able to really do anything about it, either. This mystery over why he needs to find out something so badly is at the crux of the story and artfully toyed with. Placed in the peripheral to create more tension as it unfurls.
The Internet is now totally personalized, but never private. Each search leaves an indelible digital mark that's as easy to trace as a footprint in the snow; visible to the living as well as the dead. When I first entered flotation the dead were encapsulated in modulates that you had to pay to access. Now, they all float freely along the web.
We have touching moments where the reader can understand a person being able to bite into the flesh of a raw fruit and savor it as though it was one of those moments that is what makes life worth living; contrasted with the harsh reality that Rama cannot let go despite having a large amount to live for now. This interestingly becomes even more dramatic because we also learn the implications of a society without death. Repercussions of reprehensible acts are downplayed, even. Killing people does not mean much more than the moment in which harm is inflicted; beyond that...it's a meaningless thing to inflict upon someone and even may benefit them in the long term as they're compensated with a better one when killed.
It's named for the Japanese paintings of the floating world. A place where you live in the moment, the moon, the snow, songs and fireworks, where everyone refuses to give into desperation or responsibilities. We float like gourds on the current of the stream.
On a long enough timeline then, what becomes of a humanity where you are allowed to linger in any moment you wish? You don't have to let it go; you are eternal. What becomes of Moby Dick and the whale when death is removed from the equation?
As the stations pass only the ugliest passengers remain. When we get to the last station we all get off: a blind couple holding hands, a woman with her face eaten up by disease, a man with the arm of a three-year-old-boy, Cuzco, another panchama that walks without raising his eyes from the ground, and this sweaty fat lady.
Rama, in taking many forms through these vessels, embodies the worst and the best of humanity from moment to moment. Both relatable and foreign. Terrible and lovely. It is perturbing then, that both the terrible and the good are so mundane in this future! While this book ticks high tech; low life to a tee. It is interesting that it also reframes the punk in cyberpunk as something elusive, not truly found in Rama perhaps; instead hinted at on the peripheral. Rama may be the punk for returning to a body or pursuing closure to things he can't get rid of... but that anger and drive are not framed in a good or bad way; it is simply life. Just as cyberpunk also has become our daily lives now. I came away feeling as though it was an indictment of the complacency the system grinds into its populace on a daily basis. Those who have the will and drive to return to a life such as this may well be punks, but at what cost?
You would think that living more than a hundred years would strengthen your character, but no. We are still the same primitive animals from the time we're born to the moment we die, and then after we die, too.