Review – Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh

Compared to its inspiration and Will McIntosh’s first two novels, Love Minus Eighty feels shallow. The author’s previous books presented believable alternate worlds grounded by protagonists struggling to maintain a web of personal relationships in the midst of fantastic tragedy. In Love Minus Eighty, McIntosh deviates from that approach, depicting a single personal tragedy through the eyes of several connected acquaintances. In expanding the scope to include multiple protagonists, he dilutes the characters of depth and drains the setting of its verisimilitude.

A novel-length adaptation of his Hugo-winning short story “Bridesicle”, Love Minus Eighty also takes place a hundred years after McIntosh’s first novel, Soft Apocalypse. For readers familiar with Soft Apocalypse, this is the first sign that something might be off. Conclusive endings aren’t McIntosh’s style. While his premises are gripping, his stories tend to halt at predictable end points yet still leave a lot to the imagination. Soft Apocalypse is unusual in that it ends with pretty much no hope left. The surviving characters are given a choice between death and embracing a new societal order. There’s no ambiguity about it.

But in Love Minus Eighty, the soft apocalypse is a thing of the past. The main character barely remembers learning about it in grade school. And while suburban America is an overgrown wasteland filled with feral traders living off the grid, technology has advanced enough to allow major metropolitan areas to rebuild. Similar to the improbable settings of recent sci-fi movies, they’re constructed so the rich live in shiny neighborhoods in the sky while the poor suffer in the undercities below. That’s a large leap to make without any description of the technology or infrastructure involved, especially when almost everyone we meet in Love Minus Eighty is either a struggling artist or works in reality television[1].

In “Bridesicle,” McIntosh depicts a future where people can take out insurance policies that put them in suspended animation shortly after their death. ¬†Those who can’t afford their own resurrection (and rate a certain level of attractiveness) are made available for wealthy prospects to rent out on dates. If they hit it off, a benefactor might agree to pay for the victim’s complete restoration in return for an ironclad marriage contract. Hence the term “bridesicle”. It’s a dark fable about how women and beauty are commoditized, an indictment of modern healthcare systems, and a love story with a somewhat bittersweet ending. Given the brevity of the story, the concept is developed just enough to be believable.

While Love Minus Eighty includes most of the events from “Bridesicle”, it’s primarily about how disconnected we’ve become as technology makes us all more accessible. The plight of the bridesicles is the plot that brings the characters together, but the book itself is a dystopia of self-obsession. In this future, it’s all about what portable system you own, how many people are watching your every movement, and which experts you’re hiring to coach your behavior. The civilized cities in America are comprised almost entirely of people starring in their own reality TV shows. It might be the most terrifying, insufferable future ever imagined.

As an extrapolation of digital trends, this will all be familiar to anyone who’s disenchanted with social media and the majority of television. It also makes for a setting where the characters are all introverted, superficial, and prone to more talk than action. What first seems to be an ever-expanding web of interconnectivity closes fast, and the glimpses we’re offered of other people’s lives are painted with the same one-dimensionality as the protagonists. Everyone’s so depressed and hung up on their own relationships, it’s no wonder someone needs to create a technology that transfers emotions to other people before they can finally relate to one another[2].

In Hitchers and Soft Apocalypse, McIntosh straddled a line between genre fiction and magical realism. Love Minus Eighty is firmly in the latter camp, and it’s a disappointment as a result. Stretching the concept of “Bridesicle” out to 400 pages and populating it with interchangeable characters, it reads more like an outline than a novel, and allows the reader more time to consider the inherent improbability of the world depicted. Rather than constructing a believable setting where the human condition is explored, McIntosh presents an unlikely fantasy world where things exist the way they are in order to prove a few obvious points. Perhaps even more importantly, it lacks the strong character voices that gave his first two novels such impact.

Friendships are rare in genre fiction, and they were the core of his earlier books. But the friendships portrayed in Love Minus Eighty aren’t worth any upkeep. I’ll grant that maybe that’s part of the point, but even if they’re meant to be depthless, that doesn’t make them any easier to care about.

(A Note About “Bridesicle” and Hitchers: If you’ve read “Bridesicle”, you may recall that some characters had the personalities of dead relatives installed in their heads. And if you’ve read Hitchers, you’ll know that book was about people who were slowly being possessed by ghosts after a terrorist attack. Both entities were referred to as “hitchers”. As of Love Minus Eighty, these stories appear to be unrelated. The technology to capture and implant someone’s memory into another human being does not exist in Love Minus Eighty, and there’s no reference to the novel Hitchers in the book that I could find. So at the moment, McIntosh appears to be writing in two timelines. I would not be surprised if this changes somewhere down the line.)

[1] There is one scientist. He is very lonely and sad.

[2] This was one of the more intriguing aspects of the book, considering how the same process is used for recreational drug use in McIntosh’s stories “Perfect Violet” and “Perfect Black”. There are other promising hooks like that throughout the book, too, like the nanopocalypse of Bangkok. If that isn’t a short story he’s written yet, I expect it will be soon.


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