Published by Self-Published on October 6, 2014
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 482 pages
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads
The future world is at peace. Ella Shepherd has dedicated her life to using her unique gift--the ability to enter people's dreams and memories using technology developed by her mother--to help others relive their happy memories. But not all is at it seems. Ella starts seeing impossible things--images of her dead father, warnings of who she cannot trust. Her government recruits her to spy on a rebel group, using her ability to experience--and influence--the memories of traitors. But the leader of the rebels claims they used to be in love--even though Ella's never met him before in her life. Which can only mean one thing... Someone's altered her memory. Ella's gift is enough to overthrow a corrupt government or crush a growing rebel group. She is the key to stopping a war she didn't even know was happening. But if someone else has been inside Ella's head, she cannot trust her own memories, thoughts, or feelings. So who can she trust?
Raise your hands if you enjoy any of the following:
- Conspiracy theories!
- Fighting the man!
- Technology in the future!
- What it means to be a human!
- …or embodied!
- …or an individual subject!
- Playing “catch that allusion” re: sci-fi as a genre!
Because The Body Electric thinks about all of these things, and if these are things you are also interested in thinking about, you’re in for a good time, I promise. While I wasn’t totally in love with everything in this book (and I’ll get to that), the book does a lot of things right: it entertains many interesting questions, features solid world-building, and is written beautifully. And those aspects were enough to make my readerly experience a positive one.
Here’s the premise: our heroine, Ella Shepherd, lives in postwar Malta in the new city of New Venice, the site of a new global government. Shortly after Ella discovers that she can enter and explore other people’s memories while they are having a reverie (technology her mother invented), government representatives approach Ella and ask her to use her abilities to search out a terrorist threat in the city.
What emerges is predictable – who can Ella trust? will she be betrayed by those she holds most dear? – but no less exciting and suspenseful for all that. I’m going to refrain from being super spoilery, but although I could see most of the narrative twists coming, the novel was still exciting and interesting to me. I think it’s because the heart of the novel isn’t really about plot (though I want to stress that I think it’s a good plot) – it’s about questioning what makes us human.
Through Ella, the book interrogates what it means to be human. One aspect of this has to do with memory. The importance of memories in the book is huge; the book suggests that one of the things (if not, in some ways, the thing) that defines us both as humans and as individuals are our memories. Ella works in Reverie Mental Spa, which features her mom’s technology: reveries are a “state of controlled lucid memory recall” – a sort of reparative therapy for the brain where patients experience their best days again and in so doing, boost their mental and physical health. What this focus on memory means for Ella as a character is interesting, too. Are our memories what make us who we are? Ella is forced to question fairly early on whether her own memories are perfectly intact or not, and what – if anything – that implies about her personhood. My feels about this under the cut! View Spoiler »
I think the book wants to argue that it’s our memories that define us rather than our bodies, but I’m not sure where the novel itself actually comes down. On the one hand, we have creepy people who are shells of their former selves walking around, and one of the things that makes them subtly wrong is that their memories are off or nonexistent. On the other hand, Ella is told, however, that she’s still the same person regardless of her memory loss, and she also seems to respond in the same way to situations as she did before her memory loss – which implies that maybe memories aren’t equivalent with the soul, as the novel argues at one point. Like, for example, she finds out that someone betrayed her and spits in their face. Betrayer is all like, “Oh ho, my dear, we’ve been through this before, and you responded in precisely this same way last time!” Which is interesting because it implies that maybe her personhood is located somewhere else. Or somewhere else in addition to. I don’t think this is necessarily a flaw, btw, but an interesting question that the book poses. « Hide Spoiler
The book also considers the importance of embodiment in thinking about what makes a person; androids, cyborgs, and artificial life play a huge role in this debate in the novel. New Venice is peopled with robots who perform different social functions (but mostly seem to be servants); however, all human life is artificially enhanced through the use of nanobots that – variously – give its host good vision, allow them to see holographic images, track their physical location, and deliver vaccines. Citizens also wear cuffs that are linked to their identities and their nanobots (it’s not precisely clear whether people who occupy a lower socioeconomic status are also forced to do this; there seems to at least be a suggestion that they’re free from technology and the government oversight this entails). Anyway. While our narrator Ella draws a distinction between androids and human beings at the beginning of the novel – “it’s really only when you see an android’s face that you know something’s … off” – the novel immediately challenges this dichotomy by depicting a world in which much of human life has been artificially enhanced with technology. Humans are *already* weird hybrids of machine and human in the book from the beginning, and what really interests me about The Body Electric is how much the book continues to push at the boundary between the two. (How many nanobots are too many nanobots? Can robots feel pain? How does embodiment shape our experience of consciousness? Do androids dream of electric sheep?) If you’re interested in tracing questions like these through the book, you’ll really like it. View Spoiler »
I admittedly wanted more on the question of how much or whether embodiment matters at all, though. Spoilery: Ella is a cyborg-clone of herself, and she’s had other bodies, and one of the things her father tells her is that “you – your thoughts, your being, your self – are right here, correct?” He leads her to conclude, “A body isn’t a person. A person is …”. So her dad aligns personhood with “your thoughts” – and the memories that she’s experiencing as she communicates with him during a reverie – and explicitly says that a body is not a person. This seems to indicate that her real self just shifts from cyborg-shell to cyborg-shell and remains somehow separate. In what ways, though, is a person a body?
On the other hand, it’s Ella’s capacity for feeling and responding that let her and her love interest, Jack, know she’s human – despite being a cyborg-clone. She “can smell the apple he just ate … I imagine tasting that apple” and responds to his touch by thinking, “A robot can live, it can even maybe think, but it can’t feel. Not like this.” I wasn’t particularly interested in the relationship in the novel, but it serves an important function – Ella’s physical desire for and responses to Jack are one of the things that mark her as human in the book.
Buuuuuuuuut then there’s also this other aspect of the book where Ella basically saves the day by being the best computer ever and she hacks all the cy-clones’ minds and she sets them all free; but when she does, she declares “we are not robots. We have a human soul,” and this wasn’t super satisfactory to me. There are still androids floating around, and they somehow fall on the wrong side of this machine / human binary. I wanted more around this in the book. « Hide Spoiler
I had a few problems with the book (the romance, the ending, the bee motif), but its engagement with these larger questions really made me care less about them than I might have otherwise done. I think first and foremost – I didn’t really care about Ella’s romance with Jack, although I should have done, but I understand why it’s an important part of the narrative (see the previous spoiler if you want to know why and accept being spoiled). A stronger romance would have made this novel even better to me; however, the world-building and the questions it raises and good God, the prose! were more than enough to occupy my interest.
There’s so much more here to talk about, I promise, so if any of this has interested you, please go out and read the book immediately, if you haven’t already done. Has anyone read it yet? What did you think if so? Also, how different is this from Beth Revis’s Across the Universe series (which I still haven’t read)? Last – but not least – if you do read this, don’t forget to read the short story at the end. It’s about a Turing Test, and it’s pretty cool, too.
An advance copy was provided by the author for this review.