Nicolai Fyodorov (Fedorov, in English) was an obscure (in the sense not very well known in the West in the twenty-first century) nineteenth century Russian philosopher, who pontificated about the perfection of the human race and, by extension, extension of human life. An idea Fyodorov wrote extensively on was resurrection and immortality. Death and after-death experiences, Fyodorov argued, must be examined scientifically. The mankind’s ‘common task’, Fyodorov declared, was struggle against death. Continuation of human consciousness, Fyodorov helpfully explained, need not happen in the same body—the outer carapace, as we know, is imperfect, in any case—but the human existence can be replicated by transplantation of consciousness into another form that controls mind, and can be renewed infinitely. Sounds crazy? It probably is, in light of what we know of the human biology today; but, I guess, in the nineteenth century Russia, Fyodorov’s ideas were not dismissed out of hand. He even had celebrity admirers, one of them Tolstoy.
Nicolai Fydorov’s transhumanistic (for the want of better phrase) philosophy is the inspiration behind the literary thriller, Strange Bodies, by the British novelist Marcel Theroux –the son of American novelist, Paul Theroux.
The protagonist of Strange Bodies is Nicolas Slopen, an academician and expert on Samuel Johnson. A man admitted to the secure unit of the Maudsley mental hospital, referred to in the psychiatrists’ notes as ‘Q’, claims that he is Nicolas Slopen. Indeed ‘Q’ was apprehended by the police for stalking Slopen’s ex-wife and their children. It is, however, impossible that ‘Q’ can be Slopen, as Slopen had died in a road traffic accident several months earlier. Yet, to the puzzlement of the psychiatrist, ‘Q’ seems to know many details of Slopen’s life that are personal and unlikely to have been in the public domain. The novel then tells the story of the real Slopen or the dead Slopen. Slopen’s story begins a couple of years earlier, when he is hired by an eccentric American music producer, Hunter Gould, to authenticate hitherto unpublished letters of Dr Samuel Johnson, offered to him by a rich and dodgy (is there any other type?) man (named Sinan Malevin), from Dagestan, which, the novel informs, is a Russian Republic in the Caucasus. Slopen reads the Johnson letters and comes to the not unsurprising conclusion that while the letters are written in the unmistakable style of Samuel Johnson, they are forgeries. When Slopen informs Gould of his conclusions Gould advises him to meet Malevin and see for himself. So Slopen turns up at Malevin’s palatial residence in the central London, where he meets the mysterious Vera, who is Russian and claims to be Malevin’s house-help. In Malevin’s house further surprises await Slopen. In the basement of the house he is shown a man who looks like the first cousin of Jaba the Hut, but who speaks and behaves as if he were Samuel Johnson. Some more time in the company of this man who is introduced as Vera’s brother—an idiot savant—leaves no doubt in Slopen’s mind that the man genuinely thinks that he is Samuel Johnson. This ‘discovery’ draws Slopen—who is going through a turmoil in his personal life, namely his wife has informed him that she was shagging his rich friend behind his back and has now decided to leave Slopen: the adulteress wants a divorce—further into a web of intrigues, and into Russia, with the help of the mysterious Vera, who is into it up to her nipples, but now wants out because she has made a discovery of her own: she has conscience. In Russia Slopen discovers the sinister plan (is there any other type?) some rogue Russian scientists have conjured up in order to bring into reality the vision of Federov. The only way to expose the skulduggery of the dastardly Russians is to create a doppelganger of Slopen himself, using the Procedure (which is never explained). (Why not use ‘Samuel Johnson’ to expose the Russians? I hear you asking. It can’t be done for several reasons. Let me explain. Firstly, that would have made the plot straightforward and deprived Theroux the opportunity to introduce further twists in the plot, as also more philosophical pontifications on the concept of self (very readable, I hasten to add); secondly, even if ‘Samuel Johnson’ were available, it would have been difficult to convince the sceptical media that he carried the consciousness of the original Samuel Johnson, the original Samuel Johnson having been dead for more than two hundred years and unavailable for close scrutiny; thirdly (and lastly), ‘Samuel Johnson’—the fake Samuel Johnson, that is, although he is not strictly a fake, as he does carry the consciousness of the original Samuel Johnson—is also dead (how convenient is that?). By the way, he is no relation of Vera; he was just a convict picked out of a Russian prisoner by the evil scientists involved in this sinister project.) With the help of Vera, Slopen manages to have his consciousness transplanted (if that is the word) into another Russian toerag. So there are now two Slopens: the original Slopen, and the Russian toerag who also carries Slopen’s consciousness and sensibilities. So far so good. All that remains now is for the two Slopens to slip out of Russia, into the UK, and reveal themselves as each other’s doppelgangers. Quite how this would have proven to the sceptical public and media into believing that the two guys were not just freaks who shared a delusion (or, worse, con-artists), but were a proof, if proof be needed that the Russians, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, were up to no good, is not easy to fathom. Perhaps Theroux wrestled with the same problem, and decided to introduce another twist to the plot. Slopen—the original Slopen, that is—dies (or is he bumped off?) and the doppelganger ends up in the looney bin because of his extreme reluctance to part with the notion that he is Nicholas Slopen.
Strange Bodies is written in different forms, including a psychiatrist’s notes on ‘Q’—Slopen’s doppelganger (a psychiatrist who is losing her own grip on reality judged by the evidence), ‘Q’s memoir, and Slopen’s own account. All the sections of the novel are well written, almost erudite at times, although they all sound the same. (The memoir of the Russian toe-rag is a tad unconvincing: in the opening sections of the ‘memoir’ the Russian toe-rag and Nicholas Slopen travel together, and the ‘memoir’ leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that the toe-rag retains his original identity plus Nicholas Slopen’s identity in his mind: in other words the doppelganger is fully and painfully aware that he is different from Nicholas Slopen, and, in that sense, is not Nicholas Slopen. Is that what Federov envisioned? On the other hand, it would be a fair guess that Federov did not know what the hell he was talking about, and neither does Theroux.) Marcel Theroux does have a way of telling a story that is nothing short of entrancing. As you whizz through the chapters, you are engrossed by the story notwithstanding the outlandishness of the plot. The novel, I must admit, is hard to put down once you begin.
Is Strange Bodies a genre novel, a science fiction thriller, or is it literary fiction? It doesn’t really matter; however, for what it is worth, I think that Strange Bodies, while it has the outer trappings of genre (science) fiction (like Kazuo Ishiguro’s superb Never Let Me Go), at its heart it is literary fiction. Theroux muses in the novel on what forms the core of humans, what makes us the unique (in a narrow sense of the word) individuals that we all are. Theroux comes up with the interesting and entertaining (if not wholly convincing) notion that it’s language that makes us what we are: we are all made of words. The novel brims with literary allusions, which Theroux liberally makes use of to illustrate his point, from Milton to Nabokov to Assia Wevill, in a manner that is not show-offy.
Strange Bodies, despites the silly plot, is an absorbing—at times thought proving—a read. Give it a go.