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Rachel Heng and Shaun Prescott: Zeitgeisty novels on belonging (Rachel Heng photo ©  Rachel Alice. Shaun Prescott photo courtesy the publisher)


When the Wall fell in 1989 and the Cold War ended, the consensus went that the spy novel was as dead as communism and in its wake a new world order would flourish. Almost three decades later, a reality exists in a way most of us could never have imagined — Trump as president, Brexit on the cards, fake news, as surreal a turn as in any dystopian novel.

Perhaps the recent raft of this genre of novel helps us to deal with our not-so-brave new world, although none of them seem remotely cathartic. A funtastic future rather than a Handmaid’s Tale reality seems more inducing in these fraught times. Let’s fill the future with Jetsons-style flying cars and weekend trips to Mars. After all, the future did bring us the worldwide web; the eradication of smallpox; hand sanitiser and AI. But the Orwellian Big Brother society haunts us, and Tom Wolfe’s “social X-rays” from The Bonfire of the Vanities are still the aspiration.

While very different novels, neither Rachel Heng’s Suicide Club nor Shaun Prescott’s The Town maps out worlds that seem in any way inviting, although the better book of the two by a country mile is Heng’s debut novel. Both, however, catch the zeitgeist of our troubling times.

Heng’s cautionary tale explores New York society in the not too distant future. In this world people aspire to live to 300. Longevity and immortality are the central themes. The subtext is: if you could live forever, would you want to? What price immortality?

The main character is Lea Kirino, a human organs trader, who has a perfect set of genes that could grant her the chance to live forever when the imminent Third Wave of new technology arrives. At 100, she has the body of a 50-year-old.

“Lifers” like Lea reap the rewards provided they play by the rules. In their hermetically sealed universe of sanitised fabulousness, Lea is a happy and unquestioning participant. She has a relationship with Todd, her mannequin-like fiancé with Stasi tendencies, and both he and Lea follow the “healthy mind, healthy body” tenets of the omnipresent and powerful “Ministry”.

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