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The Downside to Upgrading in “The Body Scout”

The Downside to Upgrading in “The Body Scout”

Reading Lincoln Michel’s debut novel, The Body Scout, is fun in the same way frog dissection day in middle school biology is fun. It’s largely unpleasant (beyond the stomach-churning gore, there’s a vague sense of wrongness that underpins both) yet offers a kind of perverse permission to witness what Cornel West might call the “funk of life”—the fluids, the guts, the stringy, slimy matter that make up our bodies and our lives—and has the power to fascinate, captivate, and perhaps even illuminate.

Set in a technologically advanced future where upgrades to the physical body can be injected into a vein and appendages swapped out like contact lenses (“I left my penis on the coffee table,” is an actual sentence from the book), The Body Scout is chock-full of uncanny hybrids. There is a legless doctor who affixes his torso to various animal-inspired prosthetics, like some perverse Egyptian deity, or Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man. Walking alongside upgraded flesh and cyborgs are the most rudimentary humans, neanderthals who have been resurrected to work on Siberian mushroom farms. Then there are all of the run-of-the-mill humans who cannot afford upgrades—or who refuse them on moral grounds—whose bodies deteriorate from disease, poisonous knock-off upgrades, and rampant pollution.

When the book begins, the narrator, Kobo, is buried in medical debt, working as a scout for a baseball team, making barely enough money to keep hostile collectors at bay. Once a professional player himself, Kobo was given free upgrades until a change in league rules disqualified him for his prosthetic arm, leaving him with a taste for expensive upgrades and no way to finance them. Meanwhile, Kobo watches from afar as J.J. Zunz, his adoptive brother (Kobo’s parents died in the same apartment building collapse that took his arm), enjoys wealth and stardom as the much-beloved slugger for the Monsanto Mets.

The novel is largely satirical in tone. Michel takes your average conflicts of late-stage capitalism—housing crises, insurmountable debt, employers with no sense of obligation or empathy for their employees—and exaggerates them into their most monstrous forms. New York City builds unsafe, underground buildings, effectively burying its surplus population alive. The debt collectors who plague Kobo are a pair of sociopathic cyborgs who stalk and harass him and threaten to repossess his bionic arm. Even baseball itself—the most wholesome of American pastimes—is perverted, polluted, and hybridized. The Monsanto Mets Zunz plays for refers to the same Monsanto we all know and hate; biopharmaceutical companies, made into heroes by the various pandemics their vaccines helped quell, create a professional league that becomes more of an advertisement for the latest bio-tech than an actual sport. Of course, like all good science fiction (and satire), Michel tempts us to consider the ways in which this is already true: to what extent are professional sports leagues already corporate-run marketing schemes engineered to distract the public from an increasingly dire reality?

The world Michel describes is complex, gnarled, full of unfamiliar lingo (Edenists, trogstoys, zootech), but he interweaves world building with plot so seamlessly that the rapid-fire pace he sets never feels bogged down by exposition. The action begins almost immediately, when Kobo witnesses the gruesome, highly public death of his brother, who collapses mid-game and—in Cronenbergian fashion—oozes “[c]hunks of liquifying matter” out of every orifice. Zunz’s sudden, mysterious death launches the story into a noir-style murder mystery, a whiplash-inducing ride through illegal cloning operations, an abandoned New York City subway system, and one of the most surreal and unsettling orgy scenes I’ve ever read.

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The novel’s bent toward surrealism and its thematic concerns—many of which circle the elusive question of what constitutes the self—call to mind the work of Philip K. Dick in particular, but the sci-fi traditions Michel draws from are as varied and outlandishly collaged as the piecemeal humans of his imagined future. It’s a classic Frankenstein story, where beings, systems, and technologies are created and then cannot be controlled. More than once, a damaged bionic limb leaks a viscous fluid, summoning images of Masanori Ota’s Ghost in the Shell, whose nightmarish rendering of the relationship between human and machine, and gritty, bleak tone famously inspired the Wachowskis to develop the Matrix films. (And, one suspects, created a wave of influence that made its way into this outrageous and deranged novel.) However bleak the story gets—and believe you me, it gets bleak—one is never without the sense that Michel is having an enormous amount of fun in his sandbox, creating worlds with an equal measure of hard-won skill and a sense of spirited, mischievous play.

The Body Scout
By Lincoln Michel
Published September 21, 2021

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