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Review – Zero K by Don DeLillo

By / September 29, 2016 / no comments

One of the most persistent themes that has run right through the history of science fiction is the avoidance of death. For a long time it was religion, with its various promises of rebirth or transmigration of the soul or the eternal life of heaven, that told humankind there was more beyond our brief mortal span. But when religion began to lose its authority, people looked elsewhere for this reassurance. Even if science couldn’t provide it, the fiction of science could, and did. So we have stories of immortality, of cloning, of the body being remade, of the personality being uploaded into computers. Look around, count up just how many ways of avoiding death you find in science fiction.

One way that is surprisingly little explored in science fiction, perhaps because there are people out there in the real world who are offering precisely this process the rich and gullible, is cryogenics. But that is what is at the heart of Don DeLillo’s latest science fiction novel.

Ratner's StarIt seems strange talking about DeLillo’s science fiction, he is, after all, one of the leading lights of the American mainstream. But his novels have often flirted with the further reaches of realism, and he has already written one overtly science fiction novel, Ratner’s Star, so this isn’t such a change of pace. At the same time, Zero K is a novel that displays all the virtues of his mainstream fiction at its best: an oblique style, psychological depth, a sense that we are glimpsing a part of something that is far more real for the participants than it is for us. He sees no need for explanations, because the participants in this story don’t need to be told what they already know, so however much the fiction may stray from our own familiar world we should expect no science fictional devices like an infodump.

We begin in one of the tenuous new republics that appeared in Central Asia following the breakup of the Soviet Union. A young and disaffected American, Jeffrey Lockhart, has just arrived after a succession of mysterious flights. His estranged father, Ross, is a self-made billionaire who is an investor in a secretive establishment located here, far from no town or city. It turns out that Ross’s second wife, Artis, has a terminal illness, and so they are taking advantage of the cryogenic facilities offered at the centre; Jeffrey has been brought here to say his goodbyes.

Zero KFor the next several days, Jeffrey wanders the featureless corridors of this vast windowless compound, past colour-coded doors that will not open for him, encountering strange human-like statues, witnessing scenes of mayhem and murder shown on screens dotted about the place. The few people he meets, nameless for the most part, are closed and unrevealing, telling him nothing about the establishment or its function. He overhears presentations by the people who run the compound which suggest that they follow a bizarre philosophy with weird plans for how they are going to shape the future. Jeffrey doesn’t believe in cryogenics, but is unable to talk Ross or Artis out of their plans.

After a brief, bravura passage in which DeLillo recounts the drifting, unanchored thoughts of Artis frozen in her near-death capsule, a passage which, if nothing else, triumphantly reclaims this as a remarkable work of science fiction, the scene shifts. It is two years later in New York. Jeffrey has never had much to do with his father since Ross deserted Jeffrey’s mother, but he now finds himself more alienated than ever. When Ross tries to help him with offers of a job, Jeffrey turns the offer down, then drifts from job interview to job interview as if the failure to find any job was itself a form of revenge on his father. We realise that Jeffrey is somewhere on the autism spectrum, we discover that Ross Lockhart is not his father’s real name, Jeffrey’s relationship with a teacher starts to break apart; identity, relationships, everything that ties  to the real world, has been disintegrating ever since he came back from Central Asia. Then Ross announces that he has decided to follow Artis, and Jeffrey finds himself accompanying him back to the compound, helping him on his last journey.

Okay, unlike most science fiction Zero K has no interest in processes, in technology, in the how and why, the mechanics of what is happening here. It is all about the psychological effects of cryogenics on those left behind, and also, perhaps more pertinently, about the way that death shapes our ideas of who and what we are. It is still an extraordinary and revealing work that builds upon a fascinating science fictional idea.

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