The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe

This 1974 novel by D.G. Compton is set in a near-future time period, when death by disease has been pretty much eradicated, leaving people to die of accident or old age. When a person does develop a terminal disease, they become figures of great public and media interest because, apparently, the world has become so starved of suffering that they feel a need to vicariously experience others’ suffering through the media.

As the novel begins, Katherine Mortenhoe learns that she has a rare disease of the brain, a sort of information overload, combined with what her doctor calls “outrage.” Over the next weeks, the overload will cause her body to gradually cease functioning. Of course, her case is of intense interest to the media, and Roddie, a television reporter who recently was given implants that turned him into a living camera, is assigned by the network NTV to follow Katherine and, once she’s signed the appropriate forms, record her story for television.

Also, Katherine works for a company called ComputaBook, which “writes” novels by different authors having its employees select and arrange various tropes associated with the author, which the computer will then assemble into a book. Creating books in this way, we later learn, is a special talent of its own, and Katherine has been on the verge of a breakthrough in putting together something original in her own name. (I would have loved more about this, but it’s merely a side plot in the book.)

As Katherine goes through her final days, she realizes that she doesn’t want to live out her time in the way that seems laid out before her. Her marriage was on the verge of its five-year renewal, and she had every intention of staying with her husband, if he would have her, but the calculus has changed. So she sets a plan in motion, and, unbeknownst to her, Roddie is following close behind.

Compton has built a pretty convincing world, especially given that this book was written well over 40 years ago. It all still feels plausible (with some tweaks to account for changes in technology) and some of it feels remarkably prescient. Even Roddie’s built-in cyborg camera, probably the most preposterous element, doesn’t feel too far away from our constant phones with cameras.

But the story isn’t really about all these technological, medical, and media advancements, nor is it (as I thought it might be) about constant media-induced rage. It’s more about lack of human connection and the transformative power of such connections when they occur. The relationships in the book are contractual and impermanent, not so much about affection or love. Yet people continue to long for love and connection, without knowing that’s what they long for. This being the case, I sort of wish Katherine and Roddie had been more interesting characters so that I would want to spend time with them as people. But, as it is, they are just vehicles for the story, which I often enjoyed but didn’t love.

There is a revelation toward the end that changes the shape of the entire story, but that thread is never really pursued. It feels like it’s just there to ramp up the tragedy, as well as the venality of the television executives, willing to do whatever they want for ratings. That drive for ratings (or clicks), without the human connection, is part and parcel of the problem the book is exploring, and I would have liked to see the issue teased out a little more. Still, by just leaving it as it is, the book avoids heavy didacticism, and I appreciated that about it, so perhaps Compton knew what he was doing.

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