Love Minus Eighty

Review: Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh

If prostitution is, to paraphrase the popular aphorism, the world’s oldest profession, would it be fair to suggest that pimping might be the second oldest?

Will McIntosh is an author I’ve had tabs on for some time, having first been impressed by ‘Soft Apocalypse’ (Interzone #200, 2005), a short story published relatively early in his career. Although the ensuing eight years have left my memory of the story’s details weatherworn and occluded, what I do remember is the story’s powerful sense of inevitability: the smallness and powerlessness of individuals in the face of greater things: forces of nature and forces of governance, both bearing the potential for great violence. I recall a story of individuals doing what they could to get by in the face of rapid, unpredictable and often terrifying change.

Love Minus Eighty exhibits some of those same thematic beats: small people rendered powerless yet making connections with one another, all the while finding ways to if not thrive then at least survive or subvert the realities forced upon them.

The setting is Earth, many years from now. Technologically humanity has taken strides forwards; death itself has been partially defeated thanks to rejuvenation treatments and advanced communications technology is cheap and ubiquitous… at least among the rich of New York’s High Town. The urban poor of Low Town are not so well off, although they may at least count themselves above those outside the city who — from what little we see of them — are almost wholly dispossessed, cut off from even the common urbanite currency.

Although this stark division between the haves and the have-nots is no focus of Love Minus Eighty, for the reader its observation is inescapable. For the people of New York, sense-filtering technology allows them to overlay a cleaner, more palatable presentation over the grungy environs that surround them. McIntosh presents his setting neutrally, without authorial comment or judgement, which makes each revelatory moment all the more appalling. Chief among such revelations can be counted the Cryomed dating centre where the ‘bridesicles’ are kept.

The women locked into the bridesicle program are perhaps the best example of the way in which individuals or vulnerable groups are rendered powerless by cold, cruel economics: unable to afford their own rejuvenation, these women are literally frozen in time. They escape only for brief moments when a ‘suitor’ inspects them, judging their suitability for what is, in essence, marital indentured servitude. It is a chilling representation of the way in which late capitalism will commodify anything and everything, all to serve a perceived market need. Little matter that these are people stocking the shelves and placed under consumer scrutiny. Their deaths have been translated into debt, and that debt has forced them into a submissive role: a tale as old as money itself, as old as slavery.

My initial minutes with Love Minus Eight were not favourable. The Cryomed dating centre and those who frequent it are inherently repugnant, and I confess I was uncertain where McIntosh planned to take his novel. Surely most readers of Vector will have at least a vague recollection of the early response to Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, slammed as “the prettiest little whorehouse in Los Angeles”? I chewed my lip as I was introduced to Mira, the oldest resident of the facility, and a sour-hearted old bastard who switches her off after a three minute conversation.

Things don’t get much better as we’re introduced to Rob, a somewhat directionless musician living beyond his means, and Lorelei, Rob’s wealthy girlfriend who ceremoniously parts ways with him early on in a manner that seems to shriek irrationality, envy and cruelty. Her career involves constant surveillance by a small platoon of fans who drop in and out of her televised life, and Lorelei opts to first root through Rob’s possessions, then dump him, and finally dump his possessions out of a high window — all on-screen. The portrayal, and Rob’s bewildered and infuriated perspective, screamed straw-woman; a stereotypical harpy, capricious and unpredictable; a character set up for the reader to loathe.

Happily for me, and unhappily for Rob, events take an unexpected turn as he and other characters are brought crashing together. By this time we’ve also been introduced to Veronika, a professional relationship coach who struggles to take her own advice, instead pouring her energies into fictional romance and an unrequited crush on her colleague Nathan; a friendly, charismatic and ambitious man who dreams of success, wealth and a beautiful woman on his arm.

Lorelei, Nathan and Veronika — alongside a few other latecomers — find their lives and loves inextricably drawn into orbit around Rob and his brutally doomed relationship with one of the hundreds of bridesicles frozen alongside Mira. It’s said that love will always find a way, but when the line of separation spans life and death, poverty and debt, what can possibly result?

Love Minus Eighty ultimately succeeds. It deftly constructs a world of great complexity whilst maintaining careful focus on presenting only those elements relevant to the novel’s story. Its world is much, much larger than the bridesicle program, which is for most people only a tiny component; something they only rarely pay heed to.

This novel tells a story of individuals who come together and, through that coming together, grow and learn and err and, ultimately, discover their own routes toward happiness,  if they will but commit to following them. It is a powerful love story told through the lenses of sf and the human condition, simultaneously serving as a reminder of how humanity’s best often comes about in spite of, not because of, our technological prowess and complex socio-cultural constructs. Despite a hard sell and a tough beginning, McIntosh has won me over again.

[This review was published in issue 275 of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. This version of the review should be identical to the print version.]

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