Jane Rogers takes on an evergreen science fiction trope in her latest book Body Tourists. Not far in the future a precocious scientist who happens to have a wealthy ageing benefactor, discovers a way to implant the stored consciousness of the dead into young bodies. Rogers plot then follows a number of people caught up in this project to explore the social and moral ramifications of such a procedure.
Body Tourists is told from a number of points of view. It starts with Paula and Ryan, a couple living in poverty who are tempted by the ten thousand pounds on offer for being asleep for two weeks (not knowing that it means someone else will use their body for that time). They are the first test subjects although right from the start it is clear that head researcher Luke is not all that good at following his own rules. He reanimates Octavia, a scientific inspiration of his, into Ryan’s body and immediately gives her her freedom with tragic results. But this does not slow him, or his patron down, they pay off Paula and move on to other test subjects, knowing that there are always people willing to take the money.
The rest of the book explores the ethics and morality of the process. It is a strange set up. The dead can only be brought back for two weeks. They remember their past but there is no guarantee that they will then remember if they are reanimated at another time or that they will ever get this chance again. Rogers does find some examples of how this might work for good and ill. A wealthy ageing rockstar brings his father back to life to show him what he has achieved and give him the life he could not have. A woman whose partner was accused of child abuse and then killed before she could clear her name uses the process to gain some closure. But for the others, it is unclear why they are reanimated except that they are old friends of Luke’s wealth benefactor (and grandmother) Gudrun.
Of more interest, perhaps, is the other side of the coin – the young people whose time is being “bought” by the wealthy. In Rogers, vaguely dystopian near future, the gap between rich and poor has grown and rather than using their wealth to improve the lives of the poor, the system is designed to take even their bodies from them (or “buy their time” as it is described at one point).
There have been plenty of science fiction books and films that have explored the idea of body swapping, or some form of immortality gained by moving between bodies. Rogers take is more of a philosophical investigation. The multiple points of view, most unconnected from each other, are used to investigate different aspects of the issue, but the stakes never feel particularly high and the so the sum of these parts does not result in a particularly engaging narrative.
Body Tourists feels like the type of science fiction written for readers who tend to avoid the genre (as in: “I don’t usually read science fiction but…”). The world building is slight and mainly in the background (including robots taking over jobs, poor people “addicted” to virtual reality and self driving cars) and it plays a well-worn science fiction trope completely straight. While this creates some interesting moral conundrums, the whole feels more like a thought experiment than a lived in world. Rogers does finally answer the niggling question of what was may all really have been for by the end but it is an explanation that was fairly obvious from the first few pages.