If the genetically modified pig heart transplanted into a Maryland man in January—an instance of “xenotransplantation,” or the transplanting of organs across different species—had been a mechanical one (such as a hip or knee replacement), we’d be squarely in the realm of The Body Scout, an impressive debut novel published in September by Western Albemarle High School (WAHS) graduate Lincoln Michel and named one of the 10 Best Science Fiction and Fantasy novels of 2021 by the New York Times. Set about 100 years in the future, the novel’s underlying premise is that technology is slowly replacing humanity—a possibility endorsed by the philosophy of transhumanism. In the future dystopian world Michel creates, weak or diseased organs and limbs are routinely replaced, or “upgraded,” with improved organ implants, grafts, bionic replacements, and other “enhancements”—at a hefty price, of course.
Protagonist Kobo, a former player for the Cyborg League and current scout for the Future League Baseball (FLB), is known as an “oiler” due to his bionic arm and eye. His sometime girlfriend, “Deadeye” Dolores Zamora, wears cybernetic goggles to compensate for her deafness—goggles that lip read for her, provide access to her workplace, and record everything she sees for later playback or zooming. “I still liked to think baseball was a game of technique and talent, not chemistry and cash… for biopharm teams (a typically sly pun conflating ‘farm team’ with ‘pharmaceutical’), players were the blocks of marble. The drugs sculpted them into stars,” he reflects. But these drugs and upgrades can also kill you. After witnessing the gruesome death of his adoptive brother during a Monsanto Mets baseball game on live TV, he sets out to find the murderer, sending him on a series of madcap adventures involving flooded New York subway hideouts, a Janus club where his scuba suit allows him to occupy another’s body, and illegal, underground cloning labs. Along the way he becomes involved with the rebel Edenists, who “simply believe men are supposed to live in the vessel they are born into.” He finds more deep-seated corruption than he ever imagined, surviving violent attempts to stop him. Familial love and devotion win out as Kobo risks everything to solve the mystery of what or who killed his brother.
Michel’s wildly imaginative dystopia carries current trends to the utmost extreme, with flying cars, ubiquitous screens, genetically modified—or even drone models of—wildlife, and cyborgs (humans with bionic parts) as common as robots. Survivors of the Apex Zika pandemic live in “cloud condos” above the dense smog of half-underwater Manhattan, where seagull drones deliver to your table the lab-created restaurant food you ordered from a holographic image on your plate, and “zootech” mosquitoes are used as weapons. Everything from parks to sports teams is owned and named for a corporate sponsor, Neanderthals have been cloned to once again walk among us, and “the first test-tube president” Newman controls the Department of Human Limits. This is a world that none of us would want to live in, but which is so believable it makes your skin crawl.
What sets this book apart is its brilliant writing—“her look slid into me like a splinter”—and delightfully irreverent satire. “The league had banned drone surrogates a couple seasons ago with the No Heartbeat No Seat policy,” we are told. A Growth Cola ad advises, “The climate has changed. Your body should too.” Anti-Maxxer (a parody of both anti-vaxxer and anti-masker) cults stage protests against the mortal sin of upgrading, and SoCal separatists are suspected of terrorism. With shades of Huxley’s Brave New World (1932)—Kobo chain smokes “eraser” cigarettes to numb his emotions—and the Terry Gilliam’s black comedy film Brazil (1985), The Body Scout is a masterful amalgam of mystery, sports, sci-fi, and horror—or as the Brooklyn Rail put it, “a mashup of cyberpunk, noir detective novel, and literary fiction centered on the premise of what it means to be human”—all wrapped up in a wickedly satiric package reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut. Michel’s inventive writing, biting satire, and clever neologisms—like “skystabber,” “creepeasy,” and “dewdropper”—make the book fun to read in spite of its abundance of violence. Bomb magazine dubbed it “sci-fi noir”; I admit that neither scifi nor noir are genres I typically enjoy, but if you do, you are sure to love this brilliant romp through both.
“I had some fantastic teachers at WAHS,” says Michel, who graduated in 2001. “All of my English teachers, but especially my philosophy teacher, Mrs. Marshall, introduced me to authors and thinkers who have been important to me. Italo Calvino and Franz Kafka really opened my mind to the possibilities of fiction and made me want to be a writer.” Kobo’s name is inspired by Kobo Abe (1924-1993), a Japanese author and playwright whose absurdist, surrealist fiction included The Woman in the Dunes, published in 1962 and adapted to film in 1964.
After earning a BA at George Washington University and an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia University, he now lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Columbia as well as Sarah Lawrence College. “I teach speculative fiction courses that look at the different modes and methods of horror fiction, science fiction, fabulism, etc.” He began work on The Body Scout in 2017. “It was finished and sent to editors a month before COVID hit in early 2020, so the fact that it takes place in a world ravaged by pandemics is just one of those strange science fiction coincidences.”
When asked what genre his work falls into, Michel replied, “Before I even had a title for the novel, I wrote ‘science fiction noir baseball thriller novel’ at the top of my notebook. So, I guess I always conceived of it as a mashup of genres. I think it’s a really exciting time to be writing work that crosses the border between so-called ‘literary fiction’ and ‘genre fiction.’ When I was younger, there was a sense these were separate worlds with nothing to say to each other. Thankfully, a lot of writers before me spent time kicking out bricks in the wall between genre fiction and literary fiction, and I think most younger students don’t worry about these distinctions. These days, writers like Kelly Link and Carmen Maria Machado compete for the Pulitzer and National Book Award.”
On the subject of transhumanism, he pointed out that when it comes to new technologies, “the question always comes down to who the technology is implemented by, who controls it, and what power structures are shaping it. In the novel, I wanted to present a range of ideological and personal reactions to new technologies, and to emphasize that technology can be liberating and oppressive simultaneously, depending on the power structures in place.”
Michel’s debut story collection, Upright Beasts, was published by Coffee House Press in 2015. His fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, Tin House, NOON, Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. His essays and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, and Vice, among others. Michel will present at this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book as part of a panel on speculative fiction on Saturday, March 19, at noon on Zoom, joining Ryka Aoki (Light from Uncommon Stars) and Micaiah Johnson (The Space Between Worlds). He is currently working on a second novel. To learn more visit lincolnmichel.com.